Design prototyping

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Design prototyping in its broader definition comprises the actions to make, test and analyse a prototype, a model or a mockup according to one or various purposes in different stages [1] of the design process.[2][3] Other definitions consider prototyping as the methods or techniques for making a prototype (e.g., rapid prototyping techniques),[4] or a stage in the design process (prototype development, prototype or prototyping).[5][6][3][7] The concept of prototyping in design disciplines' literature is also related to the concepts of experimentation (i.e., an iterative problem-solving process of trying, failing and improving),[4] and Research through Design (RtD) (i.e., designers make a prototype with the purpose of conducting research and generating knowledge while trying it, rather than aiming to improving it to become a final product).[8][9]


Initial references to the concept of prototyping in design could be traced to the proceedings of the Conference on Design Methods [10] in 1962:

"As you come down in scale, it is much more likely that you will be able to mass produce the object, and therefore be able to make a prototype, test it and try it out and explore it."

— J.K. Page [11]

In 1968, Bruce Archer, a relevant figure in the "Design Methods Movement" describes the design process. One of the stages of the process is called "Prototype development" and it indicates activities to build and test a prototype.[12] Thus, it would be possible to say that from a design methods' perspective, prototyping recalls a process in which a prototype is built, tried out and tested. In the same line, additional references to prototyping can be found in later editions of the Design Research Society's Conferences.[13] For example, referring to build models and use them to consult people out of the design team, review the model and make decisions on how to modify the design proposal;[14] or describing modelling (creating a model) and model simulation.[15]

However, one of the first documented uses of the term prototyping linked to a design process appears in 1983 in A systematic look at prototyping [2] in the field of information systems and software development. The work of Floyd was inspired by the discussions among the scholars who were preparing the Working Conference on Prototyping. It focuses on prototype as a process, rather than the artefact and how prototyping could be applied to the full solution (or product) or parts of it seeking to improve the final output. Although this work was not developed within the design discipline, it provides a comprehensive characterisation of prototyping by defining its steps, purposes and strategies. Moreover, it serves as a referent to further studies of design prototyping.

Example of a rapid prototyping technique: 3D printing of prototypes

Later, around the year of 1990, the availability of methods for rapidly manufacturing models and prototypes stimulated the publication of a great body of literature dedicated to rapid prototyping techniques and technologies (e.g., 3D printing). Technologies for additive manufacturing (i.e., adding material) or substractive manufacturing (i.e., removing material) together with the use of software for computer-aided design (CAD), leveraged prototype building but also the fabrication of products in limited numbers.

Along the years, further efforts have been dedicated to characterising prototyping in design disciplines in the fields of interaction design, experience design,[16] product design[17] and service design,[1][18][3] as well as in product-design-related fields such as engineering/mechanical design.[19][20] In 2000, designers from IDEO described experience prototyping, introducing types of design representations and methods that allow to simulate aspects of an interaction that people experience by themselves.[16] Experience prototyping can combine various types of prototypes such as spaces, products and interfaces to resemble what the real experience could be like. Around the year of 2010, studies were developed to examine the prototyping of services theorising from the growing practice of service design,[18] which later in 2018 were also used as a reference for service design practitioners.[3]

Prototyping cycle[edit]

Prototyping is developed in an iterative cycle of making, testing and analysing which allows to examine dimensions of a solution before its future implementation, anticipating to possible issues and improving them earlier in the process. This cycle can be portrayed the following steps:[2][21][3]

Paper prototype of a website user interface
  1. Preparation: to decide the aims of prototyping, define questions and assumptions that are going to be examined, identify the participants of the prototyping sessions and the dimensions of the prototype that are going to be tested.
  2. Making: some or various dimensions will be represented in a prototype (e.g., material, form or function) [22] employing an appropriate[clarification needed] depending on the purpose. The relevance on making on design has been increasing in the last years and transforming while new design disciplines emerge. For instance, whilst sketches were previously another category of visual design representations,[23] today they could also be considered prototypes in service design.[3]
  3. Testing: the prototyping session develops in a defined setup with certain characteristics of space and environment and will follow a method to gather feedback.
  4. Analysing: the results of the testing will be integrated into the solution and updated in the following prototype versions.
    User experience (UX) prototyping: testing of a mobile application

One example of this cycle could be the design of a digital interface in the early stages of the process applying paper prototyping.[24] In this case, prototyping may seek to explore and evaluate multiple alternatives of ideas with the users as fast and cheap as possible, before investing time to program it. Thus, the prototypes will represent the structure of the interface by using simple forms and text to indicate the elements (1). A common technique for creating prototypes of digital interfaces would be to sketch wireframes in paper (2). The team will meet with a potential user and the wireframes will be presented by the design researcher. The user will simulate to click the elements and explain the actions that intends to do while moving to other sheets that represent other screens in the navigation flow (3). The feedback gathered will be used to make decisions on the aspects that need to be modified and the layout of the interface will be updated (4).

Characteristics of prototyping[edit]

To prepare for prototyping, some aspects need to be decided. For this purpose, it is useful to individualise and consider various characteristics that will allow identifying how prototyping should be developed according to the design needs.[3] In this regard, the prototyping framework proposed by Blomkvist and Holmid could provide some guidelines.[1] As a result of a literature review, they identify a set of characteristics which are:

  • Position in the process
  • Purpose
  • Stakeholer
  • Activity
  • Prototype

Position in the process[edit]

Double Diamond inspired in the Design Council's model of the design process.

Whilst for some scholars prototyping was happening in a particular stage of the design process, the importance of prototyping has been gaining relevance as a continuous activity since the early stages of the process.[1][25] Considering in which moment of the process prototyping is going to be developed will guide decisions on its purpose and further characteristics of prototyping.


Prototyping can be developed according to different aims of the design process that influence decisions such as what variables of the prototype are going to be examined and who is going to be involved in the testing session. For example, in the early stages of the process, the need could be to explore various ideas within the design team and prototypes may be created fast and with little resources, while at the end of the process the functionality of the solution may be evaluated with future users so the prototype would largely resemble its final version.

Some of the purposes of prototyping identified by different authors are:

  • Communication: prototyping seeks to support communication and clarification of aspects about the solution with different stakeholders. For instance, it can be used within the design team or by the team to share information, present aspects of a design proposal or persuade stakeholders about the pertinence of a solution. A prototype could be presented internally to other colleagues, managers, or externally to partners, investors, or future users.[21][16][19][1][20][3]
  • Exploration: prototyping serves to explore different alternatives of solutions or aspects of it, try a variety of ideas, or gather additional insights that feed the ideation process and the generation of new solutions.[2][16][1][20][3]
  • Evaluation: prototyping can be developed to evaluate qualitatively potential solutions or part of them. For instance, it can aid to examine the functionality or the experience of testing it with the future user. The feedback gathered from the evaluation can validate (or not) previous assumptions, help to narrow down alternatives and make decisions about the solution.[16][1][3]
  • Experimentation: prototyping leads to run an experiment on a prototype to examine in a more technical and quantitative manner the feasibility, efficiency, and specifications of a solution.[2]
  • Learning: prototyping is used to gather knowledge about the performance of a prototype and learn about how the solution could work in relation to the user needs.[21][19][3]
  • Evolution: prototyping could be developed to incrementally improve a prototype until it is refined to get the final solution [2][20]


A prototyping session can involve a variety of people related to the solution. Internal to the organisation, the participants could range from the members of the design team to colleagues from other departments and managers. External to the organisation, prototyping could involve future users and clients, and representatives from other organisations. The selection of the participants would depend on the purposes of prototyping.[1] For instance, a prototyping session for exploration could be developed internally with colleagues in order to get quick feedback about initial design proposals. Another example would be to involve users in co-design prototyping sessions in order to explore proposals directly with future users.


The activity refers to the method that would be used for testing a prototype, the context in which it is going to occur, and the strategies for testing in relation to what would be the real conditions of use of the solution.[2][1]


Prototype of a service made with paper illustrations and other simple elements

Prototypes can represent one component of a future solution such as "(Inter)actions, service processes, experiences, physical objects, environments, spaces, architecture, digital artifacts and software, ecosystems, [or] (business) value" [3] or comprise various of these components.[1]

Moreover, a prototype can reflect one or multiple dimensions of the future solution and a variety of aspects could be considered. A simple approach would be to think on the fidelity, meaning how close the prototype resembles to the final solution (blom)(stick). More comprehensive approaches can be considered through multiple dimensions. For instance, Houde and Hill describe the “role” (i.e., functionality for the user), “look and feel” (i.e., sensory, and experiential aspects), “implementation” (i.e., performance of the solution).[26] Lim, Stolterman and Tenenberg propose a classification of prototypes according to “filtering dimensions: functionality, interactivity, and spatial structure"; and “manifestation dimensions:materials, resolution, and scope".[22] They suggest these dimensions can be pondered in order to decide how the prototype should be.

"The best prototype is one that, in the simplest and the most efficient way, makes the possibilities and limitations of a design idea visible and measurable”

— Lim, Stolterman and Tenenberg, 2008 [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Blomkvist, Johan; Holmlid, Stefan (2011). "Existing prototyping perspectives: Considerations for service design". Nordes 4.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Floyd, Christiane (1984). A systematic look at prototyping. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer. pp. 1–18. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Stickdorn, Marc; Hormess, Markus Edgar; Lawrence, Adam; Schneider, Jakob (2018). This is service design doing : applying service design thinking in the real world : a practitioner's handbook. Markus Hormess, Adam Lawrence, Jakob Schneider (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc. ISBN 978-1-4919-2718-2. OCLC 922913141.
  4. ^ a b Thomke, Stefan H. (1998). "Managing Experimentation in the Design of New Products". Management Science. 44 (6): 743–762. doi:10.1287/mnsc.44.6.743. ISSN 0025-1909.
  5. ^ Archer, L. Bruce (1969). The structure of the design process. Lund Humphries, Bradford and London. pp. 76–102. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  6. ^ Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (2010). An introduction to design thinking: process guide (PDF).
  7. ^ Friis Dam, Rikke; Yu Siang, Teo (2019). "Stage 4 in the Design Thinking Process: Prototype". Interaction Design Foundation.
  8. ^ Frayling, Christopher (1993). Research in art and design. Vol. 1. London: Royal College of Art. pp. 1–5.
  9. ^ Stappers, Pieter Jan; Giaccardi, Elisa (2017). Research through design. The Interaction Design Foundation. pp. 1–94. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  10. ^ Jones, John Christopher; Thornley, Denis G (1963). Conference on design methods. Pergamon Press.
  11. ^ Page, J.K. (1963). A Review of the Papers Presented at the Conference. p. 212. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  12. ^ Archer, L Bruce (1968). The Structure of Design Processes. Royal College of Art. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  13. ^ DRS, Design Research Society. "DRS Conference volumes". DRS Digital Library. DRS. Retrieved 17 June 2021.
  14. ^ Design Research Society, ed. (1973). "The Design Activity International Conference, 1973". DRS Conference Volumes. Design Research Society: 192.
  15. ^ Jacques, R; Powell, J., eds. (1981). "Proceedings of the Design Research Society International Conference, 1980: Design: Science: Method". DRS Conference Volumes. Guildford, IPC Business Press Limited: 224–229.
  16. ^ a b c d e Buchenau, Marion; Suri, Jane Fulton (2000). "Experience prototyping". Proceedings of the 3rd conference on Designing interactive systems: Processes, practices, methods, and techniques. Dis '00. pp. 424–433. doi:10.1145/347642.347802. hdl:10654/43854. ISBN 1581132190. S2CID 6481095.
  17. ^ Hallgrimssom, Bjarki (2012). Prototyping and modelmaking for product design. Laurence King Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78067-446-9. OCLC 1145028866.
  18. ^ a b Blomkvist, Johan (2014). Representing future situations of service: prototyping in service design. Linköping University Electronic Press. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  19. ^ a b c Stowe, David (2008). Investigating the Role of Prototyping in Mechanical Design Using Case Study Validation. Clemson University. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  20. ^ a b c d Camburn, Bradley; Viswanathan, Vimal; Linsey, Julie; Anderson, David; Jensen, Daniel; Crawford, Richard; Otto, Kevin; Wood, Kristin (2017). "Design prototyping methods: state of the art in strategies, techniques, and guidelines". Design Science. 3: e13. doi:10.1017/dsj.2017.10. ISSN 2053-4701. S2CID 116507313.
  21. ^ a b c Ulrich, Karl T.; Eppinger, Steven D. (2012). Product design and development (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-340477-6. OCLC 706677610.
  22. ^ a b c Lim, Youn-Kyung; Stolterman, Erik; Tenenberg, Josh (2008). "The anatomy of prototypes: Prototypes as filters, prototypes as manifestations of design ideas". ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction. 15 (2): 1–27. doi:10.1145/1375761.1375762. ISSN 1073-0516. S2CID 9985664.
  23. ^ Pei, Eujin; Campbell, Ian; Evans, Mark (2011). "A taxonomic classification of visual design representations used by industrial designers and engineering designers". The Design Journal. 14 (1): 64–91. doi:10.2752/175630610X12877385838803. S2CID 108653894.
  24. ^ Stickdorn, Lawrence, Hormeß, Schneider. "This is Service Design Doing - Methods - Paper prototyping". This is Service Design Doing. Retrieved June 17, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N.; Stappers, Pieter Jan (2014-01-02). "Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning". CoDesign. 10 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1080/15710882.2014.888183. ISSN 1571-0882. S2CID 108955372.
  26. ^ Houde, Stephanie; Hill, Charles (1997). "What do prototypes prototype?" (PDF). Handbook of Human-computer Interaction. North-Holland: 367–381. doi:10.1016/B978-044481862-1.50082-0. ISBN 9780444818621. S2CID 18520479.