Recap: "Effective Prototyping" workshop

17 Sep 2008 5:00 PM | Deleted user


TriUPA “Effective Prototyping” workshop from Abe Crystal on Vimeo.


Todd Warfel (see his site,, for updates on prototyping, includes slides from previous presentations, and surveys on prototyping practices) presented "Effective Prototyping" on Monday, September 15th. This was TriUPA's first full-day workshop. Nearly 60 TriUPAians from around the Triangle attended. Special thanks to TriUPA's generous sponsors, who made this workshop (and all of TriUPA's events!) possible:

  • Lulu
  • GSK
  • BlueCross BlueShield
  • Insight
  • Lenovo
  • Capstrat
  • User-View
  • SAS

Abe's take

Here are some of my notes from the workshop. Please add your own comments, notes, and pictures on the TriUX blog!

Todd emphasized the value of prototyping as a "generative process" that supports collaboration. Prototyping (as opposed to documentation/specification) supports "being on the same page" and creating new design ideas.

He described MessageFirst's design process, known as DRIVE (discovery and research, interaction and visualization, engineering). In this process, "every system we build starts with sketches." MessageFirst emphasizes paper sketching and creates dozens or hundreds of paper skethches to explore ideas before moving into digital prototyping. Paper is "the least intimidating toolkit out there" and has the unique property that clients or stakeholders "can destroy it" (modify, annotate, etc.). This mutabiilty encourages the co-creation of design ideas.

Sketches are best shared in a "design studio" process, in which designers present sketches, accept critique ("don't get attached to your designs"), and annotate/revise. In the workshop, we practiced this process by creating simple sketches and paper prototypes, then presenting them to the group for discussion and critique. Todd noted that this design studio process is underused in software design.

Overall, MessageFirst focuses on creating ideas and discussion quickly through generative sketching. As the team works through a 6-8 week design cycle, weekly update/review meetings keep clients in the loop. Ultimately, "production-ready" HTML/CSS/Javascript are provided to clients, and the designers then work with the clients IT team to help make sure the design is implemented as they had envisioned.

Todd presented six major types of prototypes...
1. communication
2. gauge flexibility
3. sell ideas internally
4. market to customers
5. work through a design
6. testing

... and eight guiding principles for prototyping:
1. "know your audience" (e.g., design, engineering, sales, CEO) and intent (what focus? what level of fidelity?)

2. "plan a little, prototype the rest" (and keep options open through rapid, low-fidelity media)

3. "set expectations" (perhaps the most important principle... use kickoff meetings to explain the design process and educate clients about what type of work they will see and how it's used)

4. "you can sketch" (be bold in using sketching, don't be fearful of aesthetic, and help clients understand your process, and the time and effort it involves)

5. "it's a prototype, not the Mona Lisa" (find the right level of fidelity for your purposes)

6. "if you can't make it, fake it" (e.g., simulate--rather than engineer--ajax transitions)

7. "prototype only what you need" (match to scenarios/usability test script, and be open to leaving out certain features/functions)

8. "reduce risk--prototype early and often" (analogous to agile methods)

Todd also walked through some benefits of prototyping with analog/paper tools (including post-it notes, index cards, transparencies, etc.). Paper prototyping can be extremely fast, isn't constrained to pre-built UI widgets, and encourages modification/annotation of designs. Participants created paper prototypes of a social photo/video player, and presented them for discussion.

Key take-aways:
The workshop encouraged me to remember the importance of sketching and generative prototyping, and revitalize my design research process. I've heard Bill Buxton and others wax poetic about sketching, but looking back at my notebook shows weeks can pass with nary a paper sketch in sight. Todd's points reminded me I can sketch a lot more often, and generate more ideas by doing so.

Similarly, the value of a "design studio"-style review process was apparent, and I agree that it's underused in many cases. I also like the idea that design feedback should be framed to focus on "what's positive/effective about this design?" first, and then "what could be improved or extended?"

I believe the admonition to "set expectations" and explain to clients the time and effort involved in generative prototyping is right on target, applicable to almost any situation where clients/stakeholders aren't deeply familiar with UX methods.

Resources mentioned:

Upcoming workshop: Designing for Efficiency!

Dr. Deborah Mayhew, editor of "Cost-justifying usability" (among many other books) will be hosted by TriUPA on October 22nd! Register for her workshop ("Designing for Efficiency" now at:

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