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Moving With Prototypes

Jason on why moving in business is hard:

[Moving is] hard because talk is easy. Theorizing is easy. Imagining is easy. Waiting is easy. Second guessing yourself is easy. Third and fourth opinions are easy.

Business is filled with not moving, because not moving often looks like moving. Meeting about it. Considering it. Conceptualizing it.

Maybe it’s because Dave’s been blogging about prototyping lately, but when I read this I think: prototypes!

Prototyping is moving. It’s the meeting, the considering, and the conceptualizing, but with iterative progress in a concrete artifact. When you’re done, you’re left with something tangible — as well as experiential knowledge — rather than just a bunch of meeting notes and perceived agreement.

Words, in the form of speaking or notes, are nice but they’re founded in language which can be fuzzy, subjective to each individual. “I thought we meant A when we said/wrote that, not B.”

In contrast, a prototype is a tangible artifact that leaves much less room for meaning, purpose, and intent to be subject to individual interpretation. Words are fuzzy. Prototypes are crisp and clear — however “wrong” you may discover them to be along the way, which is kind of the point!

Prototypes are powerful tools to remove ambiguity and individual interpretation from any perceivedly-shared understanding. Ken Kocienda illustrates this perfect in his “Which puppy is cuter?” example:

Think of a cute puppy. Picture one in your mind. Close your eyes if you need to. Make the image as detailed as you can. Take a moment. A cute puppy. Got one? I do too, and I did well. In fact, I think my puppy is cuter than yours. Consider the scenario. Two people have imagined two cute puppies. I assert mine is cuter. What do we do now? Do we have a cuteness argument? How can we? We have nothing to go on. Do I try to describe the puppy in my mind and attempt to sway you that my vision of a golden retriever puppy is superlatively cute—because everyone knows that golden retrievers are the cutest of all dog breeds—and therefore, my conjured mental picture is unbeatably cute. Do you try to make a sketch on a whiteboard of the puppy you’re thinking of but then apologize because you’re a lousy artist, so I’ll just have to take your word for how cute your puppy really is in your mind? Let’s say you’re my manager. What do you do now...pull rank?

Prototyping is a collaborative conversation that takes place around a material artficat impervious to subjective interpretation. Contrast that with a meeting, for example, which takes place around a perceivably shared understanding that is subject to misunderstanding at any moment. Looking at “red” in a prototype is concrete, whereas the word “red” in a conversation or notes will result a very different mental image for each person.

Additionally, much of design can be accidentally stumbling into something you experience and saying, “Oh yeah, that’s actually really nice.” The tricky part, which requires talent and experience, is recognizing the value of what you’ve stumbled on. Prototypes facilitate these kinds of “eureka” moments because they require working tangibly in a representation of your idea, rather than purely hypothesizing with it in language.

As an industry, we love to talk about “shipping” because it’s moving. “Just ship it and learn.” I submit to you that prototyping is shipping, just earlier and to a smaller group than the conventional understanding of “shipping” suggests. Ship early and often? I say prototype early and often. Somewhere along the spectrum of fidelity (unique to you and your context) prototyping naturally turns into “shipping”.