How many times have you come up with a brilliant idea only to have it shot down over an aspect you never even thought of in the first place? Well, you’re not the only one to experience this problem. Businesses are notorious for coming up with and launching new products or services that probably should never have seen the light of day (think: Crystal Pepsi and Google Glass, just to name a few). That’s where design thinking comes into play. Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation. You start with the user in mind, understand what exactly they need, and THEN come up with a solution. It sounds simple enough, but many businesses mistakenly think they have a pulse on what their customer wants without actually asking them.

A great example of this is when Coors (yes, the beer company) decided in the early 90’s to branch out. The bottle water beverage segment was booming, and they wanted to get in on the action. Coors released Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water in 1990 and capitalized on the Coors logo and similar labeling. The result was a disaster. Consumers were confused and even disturbed with Coors’ new product offering. The new product made it only a few short years on store shelves, with Coors officially discontinued its water bottle trademark in 1997. Had Coors simply asked their customers what they thought of a Coors water product offering, they could have prevented such a blunder within the marketplace.

Getting Started

Let’s say you follow the design thinking steps and empathize with your customer, conduct one-on-one interviews, and really understand their needs and identify pain points. You bring a creative team together for an ideation session and come up with some brilliant ideas (check out Jennifer Spangler’s blog on Design Thinking Brainstorming 101 for great tips on ideating).

Now what? Instead of proceeding with said brilliant idea, it is wise to test your idea with your customer. You can spend a huge amount of time and money to make it perfect, or you can develop a low fidelity prototype that will save your company both time and money. Below are a few key principles when developing a prototype efficiently and effectively.


Before you build your prototype, it’s essential to improvise your solution. This applies not only to products, but also to services. Set the scene. Establishing the who, what, when, where, and why will help ground you and your team on what you are trying to achieve. Define the roles to determine who will improvise what. For example, your team has come up with a new service offering for a casual dine-in restaurant. The service is a kiosk that checks your group in and assigns a table without the need of a host/hostess. The kiosk also allows those with small children to order immediately and/or allow the guest to notify the server if they have any special requests. As you are assigning out improve roles, you’ll need to have two or three team members be the restaurant patrons, a team member as a server, and a team member or two as the actual kiosk. Once you have defined roles, start playing them. You will inevitably find some issues you will need to work out within your team before you can move on. Once you run through your scenario a few times and feel good about the results, you’re ready to move on to building your prototype.

Don’t be a Perfectionist

The key to building your prototype is to keep it simple. Utilize the resources you already have within your building. If you’re building a kiosk, use paper to illustrate the process including user prompts. If you are building a car, use boxes and construction paper. Give yourself a time constraint and execute the prototype as quickly and as inexpensive as possible. The likelihood of your prototype being perfect the first time around is incredibly low. Allow yourself and your team to iterate and improve the prototype as you talk to your target audience. Bring extra supplies when you are out in the field. Is your target audience struggling to move from the home screen to another prompt? Throw out your paper ‘home screen’ and redo it on the fly. Ask your target audience if it works better. Ask why.

Keep the User in Mind

Testing your prototype with your target user is vital to ensuring success. You should constantly be asking yourself if the prototype will solve your target customer’s pain points. Does the prototype achieve that you were trying to accomplish? When your team is out in the field testing your prototype, you will most likely receive one of three responses:

  • I don’t get it.
  • It’s interesting….
  • I love it, when will it be available?

If you receive the I don’t get it response; you should probably go back to the drawing board. Did you find true customer pain points? Is the need real? Is there another solution that your team came up with that might be better?

If you receive the It’s interesting… response; you’re probably on to something, but the prototype is not achieving your desired outcome. Regroup as a team and run through the prototype internally. What can be improved upon? Where are people getting confused? What actions are users not taking that you wish they were taking?

And finally, if you receive the I love it, when will it be available response; you and your team are on to something. Getting this type of positive feedback means you’re ready to move on to higher-end prototyping, cost and competitor analysis, and potentially even implementation.

Fail Early

Your mantra for this entire process should be iterate, iterate, and iterate some more. Embracing failure means you have learned something beneficial about your prototype and can improve it quickly. Failure should be celebrated and taken just as seriously as success. It is a vital piece to the design thinking process.


In closing, prototyping is an excellent tool and gut check to ensure you’re on the right path with your idea. It does not have to be an overly complicated process and can be done over the course of days and with limited resources.