Reducing risk through prototyping

Making evidence informed decisions is critical to effective innovation and place based change. However, there is never evidence about what will work in your context tomorrow, and that is exactly what you want to know. Evidence is always from the past, and almost certainly from a different context. What works in the UK or USA isn’t guaranteed to work in Australia, what works in Bendigo won’t necessarily work in Ballarat. What works for teenagers won’t necessarily work for adults. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow. But it might. You won’t know till you prototype.

Prototyping can help you bridge the evidence gap by creating context specific evidence through experimentation. You can think of it as ‘rigorous trial and error’. Prototyping is the ‘design’ part of co-design. It involves making a rough version of what you think will work, testing it out, learning from that and improving your version over time.

Prototypes and pilots

When we pilot a new program we typically start with a model that has been designed, deliver that for 6-12 months and evaluate it at the end. In pilots there is typically one loop of learning. When we prototype something we undertake many loops of learning, and much more quickly. In prototypes things might change things on a monthly, weekly, daily or hourly basis. Prototypes help identify what works and what doesn’t quickly. Prototyping is all about efficient learning. Whilst the aim of pilots is to create outcomes, the aim of prototyping is to find what can create outcomes. Prototyping is often a pre-pilot activity.

The prototyping loop

You can think of prototyping as a big loop of activity. You start with a hunch, or a hypothesis (if you want to sound fancy) or guess (if you’re honest). Then you build something, test it and learn from that test. If what you tested worked to some extent you might decide to iterateand do another loop of prototyping informed by what you learnt. If what you tested didn’t work you may decide to rejectthe idea and try something else. If it worked, but differently to how you expected you might decide to pivotand take things in a new direction.

Prototyping in practice

In the early stages of a design process prototyping can help you explore ideas. If you’ve identified ideas that are promising prototyping can help you refine them. When you really think you’ve got something that is nearly ready prototyping to validate that idea by running small scale experiments – a kind of mini pilot.

There are many different materials you can use for prototyping, each is suited to prototyping particular things. You can use paper, build things out on a tabletop, act them out, visualise scenarios or use frameworks for prototyping. You can explore more in the links below.


You can deepen your understanding of prototyping through these resources: