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The Journal

The Secret Power of Prototyping

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5 minute read

Late last year, we sat on a Zoom call with executives at an organization redefining commercial aviation. They had some critical decisions to make about their first commercial aircraft. What should a passenger’s experience feel like? How much space should be allocated to each passenger? What were the tradeoffs? The folks in marketing had one idea, while the folks in engineering had another. Spreadsheets were involved, but we weren’t making much progress.

Our project team didn’t have all of the answers either, but we thought of one way that we could help. We took over a section of our San Francisco studio and spent a week building a full-scale shell of a plane out of wood, foam core, and cardboard. Our intention was to create a dynamic space for physical and digital experimentation. We then invited our clients to host their next meeting inside the “plane.”

Once inside, the trade-offs were clearer. The team could picture what different seat configurations might feel like; they could move things around as they visualized various options. Prototyping revealed a level of granularity and specificity the team simply couldn’t access over Zoom or through conversation. What started out as a series of abstract questions suddenly became tangible.

When you work in the mobility space, the projects you work on are big—literally. It’s not just the size of a car, but the size of a train, an airport, even a city. While creating low-fidelity prototypes of products and systems of this magnitude might seem impossible, prototypes are a tried-and-true tool for learning about your customers and refining your product design. They are also equally valuable for learning, aligning, and collaborating as an organization. When it comes to larger-than-life challenges in the mobility space, here are three ways prototyping can help.


Prototyping breaks down barriers

Many established mobility companies have spent decades developing processes that have allowed them to build safe, high-quality products at scale. But those methods don’t always work when adapting to a rapidly shifting market. When it came time for our team to work with a leading automaker to rethink the future of the commercial van, we all knew it would demand new ways of working. Together with their team, we built a new collaboration space in the heart of their engineering building to shake people out of their usual workflow. The walls were covered with pictures of vans in action, quotes from potential users, and in-progress work. In the middle of the space sat “the rig,” a purposefully unfinished prototype van made from modular aluminum and hand-cut cardboard parts. This was far from the polished models of car shows.

Instead of putting this space under lock and key, the team put up posters throughout the engineering building inviting folks to join them. When that effort didn’t get much traction, a member of the team proposed an idea. He simply wedged the door open and posted a sign that declared: “open door policy.” The message was simple. We wanted people to build with us. And the people, and the ideas, followed.

Unfamiliar faces started to pop into the space and populate the prototype van with new mirrors, door handles, and smart sensors while other groups debated strategy across the room. What started with a single project space grew, eventually morphing into a dedicated innovation lab that is collaborating across the organization to tackle the future of mobility.

Prototyping challenges assumptions

Several years ago, IDEO worked with Toronto Pearson International Airport to revitalize the airport’s operations from the passenger experience to the baggage handling process. Baggage handling operations are particularly important, as they’re a key metric for measuring airport efficiency, service quality, and performance. They’re also very complicated. Baggage handling involves multiple organizations, thousands of contract workers, and even more suitcases, moving between planes and carousels all around the world.

As contractors, baggage handlers aren’t often brought into the process to help redesign operations. But their perspective is invaluable. So together, IDEO and Toronto Pearson decided to hold a “baggage olympics” for operations employees, passengers, and baggage handlers to test, build, and improve prototypes of early baggage handling ideas. They landed on a simple but effective solution: color-coded signs, clear iconography, and guidance on where baggage should be placed. Not only did the exercise streamline airport operations, but it also changed everyone’s idea of how different groups of people could work together and how operations should work in the future.

As Darin Juby, Director of Baggage Services, told IDEO: “The work to reimagine baggage handling taught us how to prototype and collaborate—it reprogrammed us with a new mindset and way of working. When the pandemic hit two years later, because we had laid the groundwork, we were able to pivot quickly and cost-effectively in the midst of an unforeseen crisis."

Prototyping reveals unexpected needs

Bringing in potential customers to test out prototypes is a pretty common practice among design teams. But often in the automotive space, users do not have a chance to interact with prototypes until much later in the design process. Even then, they are often restricted to testing out highly refined models in tightly controlled sessions.

It’s far more rare to bring parents and children into your design space and invite a range of stakeholders with different perspectives, hypotheses, and critical questions to watch them play in an early prototype firsthand. But that’s exactly what we did with our partners at one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers.

While we had been talking about bringing people into the lab, it wasn’t until families were engaging with our designs that we realized just how eye-opening it was. In one session, we watched alongside marketing, design, strategy, and product development leaders as a family played a game in the front of the car. Halfway through the game, a child pulled her mom to the back for some one-on-one time, pretending they were looking out at stars.That seemingly simple interaction inspired our team.

The team renamed the prototype Stargazer, and it helped changed the conversation about these vehicles. Decision-makers for this vehicle portfolio were bringing an empathy for the lives of these users into meetings, and talking more about how to foster quality family time than vehicle features and functions. Seeing our prototype in action extended customer empathy and understanding beyond marketing execs, ensuring that teams across the multinational organization were considering user needs from the outset.

Prototyping unlocks possibilities

Throughout my work on mobility projects at IDEO, prototyping has been the best tool for shaking up entrenched thoughts about how teams should work together. It not only provides teams with an opportunity to test assumptions and generate radically new ideas, but it also helps spark alignment and build confidence across disparate stakeholders. In some projects, embracing prototyping has even led to the development of new ways of working and labs that live on far beyond the launch of a product.

For those tackling challenges within the mobility space, and are eager to experiment with prototyping, start small. Take over a conference room, invite different voices in, construct a cardboard model, and watch your organization transform.

  • Steve Schwall

    Partner and Executive Director, Mobility, IDEO Chicago
    I collaborate with clients and teams to design human-centered mobility products, services, and systems. I’m passionate about creating holistic solutions to gnarly challenges in a rapidly changing market—which often means helping companies work in unexpected and new ways.
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