How to communicate ambitious design ideas through prototypes

Our best ideas often start out by looking like really bad ideas. Prototyping can be an effective way to spread new ideas and help others see an idea the same way we see it.

In this talk, Zach Johnston, Product Designer at Dropbox walked us through how to communicate ambitious design ideas through prototypes and shared how he and the team at Dropbox have used prototyping to shake up traditional thinking.

Zach turned our focus to two modes of prototyping:

  1. Prototyping to understand
  2. Prototyping to be understood

Prototyping to understand

This is the explorative prototyping when you create dozens of prototypes all trying to solve the same problem. The goal of this prototyping method is to try to figure something out and understand an idea for yourself. Ultimately, we want to figure out the answer for ourselves, how does this feel in our hands.

Prototyping to be understood

This type of prototyping is focused on selling an idea, conveying an idea, getting buy-in from your stakeholders on a project that may have a major impact or simply getting people to understand that idea in the same way that you do. This type of prototyping is extremely powerful since it keeps explaining that idea over and over again without you being in the room.

How do you know when it’s time to switch mode from one type to another?

Zach would argue the importance of prototyping to be understood as being effective in three key moments:

  • To simplify a complex solution - When you’re trying to explain your idea to someone, but people don’t quite get it, use prototyping to simplify something that seems super complex to others down into something that is really simple and just makes sense.
  • To provoke a discussion - If people are ignoring your idea, help them engage and get real critical feedback
  • To spread an idea - Use prototyping to convey the message across the entire company. Get people excited to engage with the idea, talk about, build on.

Zach, summed up his talk by talking about four practical tips that are useful when switching modes.

1. Invest in a foundation

As soon as you realize that you’re going from lots of small prototypes into one epic big prototype it’s time to take a step back and invest in a foundation. Often prototypes take weeks or months to be built. A solid foundation helps designers and engineers understand your space, how things work, and have them build on that idea.

2. Cut corners

This helps you to save time for yourself and for your users. Start with a kit. Think from your user's point of view about what is necessary to convey the idea.

3. Test that the prototype is usable

Ensure people don’t struggle to see what is clickable what is not. If necessary, add some guidance to the prototypes. Make it feel more like a walk through than a click adventure.

4. Share with context

Give people insight into what ’s the point of this prototype. Create a document which includes a short introduction, the general purpose of the prototype, a walk through the prototype.

Most importantly, Zach leaves us with a question: What ideas are you working on today that you can use prototyping to help people understand? What idea is ready to be understood?

Zach Johnston
Product Designer, Framer