Prototyping is the process

MVC-049X

If you google "design thinking process", you'll be presented with a series of diagrams or lists or steps which, in a linear fashion, purport to represent the way a good designer works.  They'll often look something like this:

  1. Understand
  2. Observe
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test
  6. … and cycle back to Step 1

We're all familiar with cooking manuals, and this one feels not unlike a good recipe for chocolate chip cookies… first this, then that, and then do this.  Easy, safe, predictable, comfortable. 

Except, that's not the way designing really happens.  There is no six-step process to design nirvana.  It doesn't exist.  Over the years I've tolerated and communicated this linear portrayal of the design process because it's an easy way to explain the gist of things to folks not familiar with the art and science of bringing new stuff to life.  The secret is that, when you're designing, it feels like all of these at once.  So I used to draw this linear process up on a wall, and then wave my hands in the air and say something like "But really, it's a big furball… when you're really doing it, you're bouncing all over the place and the steps don't matter." 

I think we can do better than that.  And now I know how.

A wise colleague recently corrected me on all of this.  "Prototyping isn't a step in the process," he said.  "It is the process." 

Exactly.  Designers are always prototyping, whether it's moving things around in their imagination, building a reverse income statement in Excel, or hacking something out of wood using a sidewalk as sandpaper.  The notion that a designer waits until it's "prototyping time" to start messing around with stuff is just wrong.  Prototyping starts when the design process begins, and it never stops.  We build to understand.  We observe for generative insight but we also observe to gather data regarding the hack we just whipped up ten minutes ago.  We ideate with our gut and our hands as much as with our brains.

We prototype all the time.  We must prototype all the time.  Prototyping is the process.