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Prototyping 101: minimum viable effort

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TL;DR — for a prototype designer it’s a valuable trait to not polish work beyond the threshold of “good enough”. Prototyping is a series of steps towards a larger destination, and wasted time on an individual “step” makes it less likely that you will ever reach your destination.

Photo by Brian Mann on Unsplash

I’m a prototype designer / artist. For the last few years, I have worked exclusively on prototypes.

It can leave a bad taste in my mouth … whenever we build prototypes, I try to get shit done with the least effort possible. The reason it doesn’t “taste good” is that — like everyone else, I think — I want my work to be polished, and to shine. I want people to admire my work, pat me on the head and tell me I’m great. Settling for “good enough” does make me feel bad — and this is the wrong attitude when building prototypes. It’s a constant struggle with myself, where on the one hand I wish to have something nice to show for my efforts — and on the other hand, it’s a waste of time because it just isn’t necessary.

As Diego Rodriguez of IDEO put it: “A prototype is a question, embodied.”

I really like that quote. It concisely sums up why we build prototypes: to find answers. Whatever provides you with those answers is “good enough”, and whatever time you spend polishing your work beyond simply good enough, is arguably a waste of time.

Another aspect of this is that prototypes usually don’t stand alone. Take as an example: a design sprint, where you build a prototype and test it out. You will get answers, yes. But really you are only getting a small piece of a larger tapestry. You need more than that. You need many answers to (for example) determine how to create a new product or service, and to reveal what the whole tapestry should look like. You need many prototypes, and many tests!

So I think of it like that. The process of prototyping is basically about revealing more of the tapestry. Another metaphor could be; it is a series of steps you take. You try something out, find a new answer, and get another little stepping stone for the path ahead. You take another step forward, ask one more question, build one more prototype, and find another answer — another stepping stone.

Given that the point isn’t the individual step but the whole journey, it makes sense to expend only the minimum effort necessary to find the next answer that will enable you to take the next step forwards.


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