February 08, 2022

Prototyping Q&A b/w Scott Witthoft & Victor Saad

Last week, Victor spoke with our friend Scott Witthoft about prototyping - why he uses it, how it he uses, and how to tell if it's working.

A few notes about Scott

Scott is as an educator, designer, and author. Wielding knowledge from his past life in the practice of forensic structural engineering, he is sought out for his expertise in space design — teaching & speaking widely. As a former Stanford University d.school fellow, Scott is also a co-designer of the d.school’s space and a co-author of Make Space, a tool for creating collaborative environments. He pursues his life and work with a mix of whimsy and rigor, and brings people along for the ride with grace and care. It’s been a treat to be a tiny character in his journey through design and education, and this project, 27/7 is a glimpse into his adventures.

Questions 1 and 2: “Prototype” has a literal definition and has lots of implications — what do you think it communicates well? Where is it a total miss?
: Prototype communicates imperfect. Minimal time. Few resources. Little cost. It says, “I just need to show you something to help us both understand if there’s something worth continuing here.”

I think some people take it as half-assed or thoughtless. That’s a shame.

I also think it can sometimes lead to moving forward even though there’s NOT something worth continuing. As in, “we made this prototype, so let’s keep going.” But prototypes should help decide whether or not to continue… not just how to continue.

Q3: How does prototyping show up differently in your personal versus professional life? (… or your recreational life or experimental life?)
VS: Personally, it feels like lower pressure and more fun. I can prototype a new routine or apartment layout or wardrobe and it feels fun and useful. It’s for me or those around me.

It’s hard to feel that same levity with work prototypes. I feel greater pressure to have a prototype lead to something important. I’m on the clock and I’m working alongside smart people who are working hard. It’s harder to say, “I tried a prototype and it didn’t work out,” because we also need to get that proposal out, and write that talk, and plan that board meeting, and 1,000 other things.

No one places that pressure on me — I just feel it.
It can be hard to decide when a prototype is needed and when you should just do the thing.

Q4: Thinking of a recent project in which intentionally you used a prototype — whether a challenge or a breeze — what were ways you knew if the prototype was going well or poorly?
VS: When we were building our new deck of cards, we made several prototypes. Mostly hand written and with blank cards purchased from amazon. We hosted lunches, house parties, and office events. At the end, we always asked for feedback and people loved sharing their ideas. Typically, people were excited and wanted us to continue. That’s a good sign, but that’s also not super helpful in deciding what to change. So sometimes, we waited to ask questions — just an extra day or two — and asked what they remembered about the experience? Whatever they remembered became a helpful clue for what we should continue doing.

Q5: What’s a go-to prototyping tool you use most regularly? (Please feel easy interpreting “tool” loosely — object, state of mind, constraint, whatever…)
VS: No tech.
Usually paper and sharpie.
Sometimes tape on the floor to create mini “rooms” where people can enter to “experience” a module or state of mind.

Q6: What’s missing from the discussion of prototyping?
VS: Taking inventory.
I wonder if it would be helpful if people took inventory of what things they already have to begin prototyping. In class, we often provide cardboard, construction paper, etc etc. But that innately communicates that we need to give people the things to prototype. It would be interesting to not provide anything and let people look around and reach for whatever is in their midst. Or ask for what they might need.

I’m not always sure how long a prototype should last? How do you determine when a prototype is finished? How many iterations are enough before you say, “Let’s ship!” or “Let’s stop!”

Q7: What’s a change in how you think of prototyping *now* contrasted to how you may have thought/acted in the past?
VS: Shorter, faster, less resources.
Some of my biggest mistakes came from getting too far down the road without getting unbiased feedback.

Get it out of my hands.
Sometimes, I shouldn’t even be the one leading the prototyping. Someone who has less of a stake in the idea needs to lead it to come to unbiased next steps.

I’ve learned prototypes don’t have to be so serious. Help the people interacting see the levity in this. Let them tinker, add on, break it, etc. I’m much less interested in protecting my prototypes. I want people to play with them!


Thanks again to Scott for this project and interview. He's a gem and you should follow his work & musings.

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