Prototyping 101: Asking the right questions

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TL;DR — Prototyping is a tool that can help you answer questions. But not all questions are worth answering. Some have already been answered and you just haven’t done your research. Others aren’t worth your time — so consider what questions you ask through prototypes.

Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash

Prototyping is good, right? Well — not inherently. The process of prototyping something serves a purpose: to learn, and to answer a question. It’s not in and of itself “good” or “bad”. It’s a tool, intended to be used for a specific purpose. Now let me spin you a yarn.

I once had a colleague who was going to implement a search engine for an enterprise system. He spent some months creating a working, blazing fast technical prototype of an elastic search database — a total success. But when time came to implement elastic search with the actual enterprise system, things weren’t looking as well. Why?

The prototype of the search system confirmed that it was possible to implement a blazingly fast elastic search engine. That’s great, right?


No, because everybody already knew that it was possible. There was even a step-by-step guide for how to do it! That’s what made elastic search attractive in the first place — so why prototype it at all?

The real question in this story was whether it would be possible to integrate elastic search in a meaningful way in the company’s context. In other words: would elastic search actually be fast when hooked up to the company’s existing server and codebase? That aspect was not prototyped and the answer to the question was only discovered in production .. a late, and costly failure both in terms of working hours spent, and in terms of time wasted.

It is not my intention to hit anybody over the head — but I want to reiterate that prototyping is not inherently good or bad. Prototyping is a tool you can use for finding answers to questions. To do that in a meaningful way, you need to consider a few things:

  • is this a question that is unanswered? If you can find a guide that explains step by step how you should do something .. then most of the unknowns in that problem have already been resolved.
  • is it a question worth answering? Will it give you value? Do you know what this value is, more specifically? I mean, obviously you can’t know the answer beforehand, but do you know how you will be smarter once you have done the prototype and tested it out? Where will you be at that point in time? And more importantly: where will you be able to go next, after prototyping? Will you be able to reach your end goal?
  • are there working examples of what you are trying to make? (are there existing products or solutions out there you could look at, that have actually implemented what you wanted to prototype? Then take a look at this instead, and learn what you can from it — there’s no need to recreate something if you can literally just download an app and check a functionality / feature / way of doing something out in real life. You shouldn’t reinvent every wheel out there. Innovate, yes. But don’t mindlessly recreate.

Thanks for reading!

Design is hardlike, really hard. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade, and it’s still hard. It is inherently what the process of creating something new is like.. difficult, wicked. That’s why I still find these kinds of reflections worth while. I hope you found something useful to you as well — and please feel free to chip in with comments or counterpoints, I’d love to hear about your own experiences with succesful or failed prototypes.

Prototyping 101: Asking the right questions was originally published in Prototypr on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.