Prototyping in a Lab Context

Prototyping is about making ideas visual and tangible. It’s also a low-cost version of an idea that can be tested, tweaked and made better with feedback.

Prototyping for Social Innovation

The conventional way to solve problems is to think about a problem and plan ahead to solve it in one specific way after considering and evaluating alternatives on paper. This might be easier and involve less risk when solving for a simple or complicated problem. This is only practical when we know a lot about the problem and have a lot of knowledge about the alternatives. But it also means there is only one chance to get it right – which is difficult, if not impossible. It means there is no room for failure, so the risks of failure must be managed.
When we are tackling complex problems, we cannot guess or know what the right solution is. Complex problems, by definition, have no precedents. In social innovation labs, prototyping is used across the entire journey of the lifecycle of the lab. We must create and test alternative solutions and learn along the way – that is, to prototype them. This allows us to observe and anticipate, rather than guess at behaviour. We can more reliably identify and test our assumptions about the problem we are solving for. It also helps to dispel uncertainty about how something (a product, service or process) will work when applied to real life situations. In this way, prototyping allows us to dispel any fear or uncertainty about something not working, because we have tested it out already.
Prototyping is useful for solving a challenge because it enables us to build out the features of a solution, and addresses unique circumstances as they arise. It also allows us to build engagement and evidence around the work that we are doing, so that we can bring key stakeholders on board through our prototyping process. For example, if a stakeholder or group of stakeholders is wary or uncertain about a particular proposed solution, involving them into the prototyping process may help to dispel any worries they may have.

Why Prototype?

Prototyping is useful when we have relatively little time and few resources to create and test alternatives, such as when we:
  • Have only one chance to get it right
  • Don’t have enough information/ confirmation for our proposed ideas
  • Try to maintain certain outcomes
  • Need to manage risks: either adopt proven alternatives, or run a one-off pilot to show what works
When combined with other tools like system mapping and user research, prototypes can help innovators answer questions like:
  • Am I on the right track about ___________?
  • What expectations do people have about the proposed solution?
  • For whom is this solution best suited?
  • What are the barriers to implementing or using the proposed solution?
  • Do people understand what the proposed solution does and how to use it?
  • Will this work for people who need it, in context?
Content above contributed from Roya Damabi, Alberta CoLab
Prototyping allows us to create alternative solutions (it’s easier if we learn along the way). This way, we can:
  • Anticipate, rather than guess behaviour
  • Identify any assumptions we’ve made
  • Dispel any fear, uncertainty, or doubt
  • Build engagement, conviction and evidence
  • Manage risks
  • Address unique features and circumstances


Here are some principles to keep in mind when prototyping:
  • Prototype with users (not for them)
  • Show, don’t tell, or better yet let users experience the ideas
  • Tackle the critical hard questions first - if you can't answer them, the challenge or the idea is not viable
  • Aim for maximal learning with each prototype
  • Run minimal, rapid iterations
  • Work towards full fidelity of the solution

Examples and Resources

Iteration in Prototyping
Things to Keep in Mind
Content below contributed from Roya Damabi, Alberta CoLab
This non-linear, back-and-forth aspect of innovation is an important characteristic of the prototyping process.
Prototyping is iterative – it is a repeating process of creating, testing, and generating insights.
Since it is unlikely that innovators will learn everything they need to learn from one round of feedback or one type of test, innovators must prototype multiple iterations, or versions, of their innovation.
Visualization of prototyping cycles. Source: MaRS Solutions Lab
Innovators should design each round of testing around particular learning goals, asking themselves: what do I need to learn right now in order to take the next step?
For more information on testing click below:

Steps in a Prototyping Cycle

1) Set Learning Goals Start by setting goals for what we want to learn about. This can include the things that are most difficult to explain or comprehend, big unknowns that we need to find out more about, unique features or circumstances, or about assumptions we are making. Setting these learning goals will help to reveal data that will validate or invalidate what we think we know about the problem, and to bring focus to where we should be working in the system.
2) Design Next, we want to set design parameters for what we want to create. What materials do we want to use, and how will people interact with it? For example, is it a clay model, a wireframe or an informative pamphlet? Who is it intended for, and how will this format test your learning goals?
3) Build Build your prototype in a minimally viable way. It does not have to be perfect.
4) Run Test the prototype out with users and capture their feedback.
5) Integrate Learning into Design Use user feedback to update your prototype.
6) Repeat Steps 2-5 with Next Prototype Version
For more information on prototyping cycles click on the link below:
The following information has been contributed from Ben Weinlick and Aleeya Velji as Think Jar Collective in the Social Innovation Field Guide found here:
  1. 1.
    Is the prototype coherent? Will it make sense to others who weren’t part of the process?
  2. 2.
    Is the prototype likely to be effective in addressing the challenges and needs that were identified through the sensemaking activities?
  3. 3.
    Is the prototype likely to be feasible?
  4. 4.
    Is the prototype likely to be viable? Could it be supported given policy, culture, resource considerations?
  5. 5.
    Is the prototype testable?
  6. 6.
    Is the prototype really addressing the core challenge still or did the team drift?
Another activity your team could try right before prototyping and which helps with coherence and feasibility, is for the prototype team to make lists of: Must Haves, Should Haves and Nice to Haves in your prototypes. This helps a team to prioritize the important elements of prototypes.
  • What are the Must Haves of the prototype?
  • What are the Should Haves of the prototype?
  • What are the Nice to Haves of the prototype?
Last modified 3yr ago