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Build to Test

How can we build lo-fi prototypes as quickly as possible to start testing?


Building and making your ideas real is a critical component of the design process. This key step is about making a variety of tangible prototypes to communicate and test your ideas.

Essential ideas of Build:

Build to Test: Prototypes are not only physical embodiments of ideas but are an extension of research. They are used so your team gains more knowledge and answers targeted questions about your ideas for solutions.

Fail Early, Fail Often: It’s better to know if something doesn’t work now before it’s too late. Prototypes are not precious and are meant to be broke. Most solutions evolve so much throughout the building and testing process that final prototypes will look nothing like early prototypes. 

Low-Fidelity First: Because you’re learning and failing quickly, you don’t want to waste resources. Making quick early prototypes with cheap materials you have available to you is key.

Make multiple prototypes: There are always many unknown elements in one single idea so make more that one prototype per idea to allow you to quickly learn about each element. Knowing which elements work and don't work for a possible solution will help you combine the best elements for the ultimate solution. Think of it as a scientific experiment - you have to have controls and a variable in order to learn what’s working. A common way to do this is to make a ‘looks-like’ prototype that symbolizes how might your solution look. Then make a totally separate prototype simulating how it would function, or a ‘works-like.’ Then finally to understand how the experience would feel to your user, make another one that hits at the emotional experience and make a ‘feels-like.’

Parallel Prototyping:

Effective Ways to do this include:

  1. Download this build 1-pager to review key questions with your team for each prototype.
  2. Review the 2-3 ideas that your team would like to build.
  3. As a team ask the following questions:
    • What can each team member make tangible?
    • What do we need to learn with each idea, or what questions do we have that we need to get the answers to while testing?
    • How we can we break up each idea into works-like, feels-like and looks-like prototypes?
    • What is the quickest and cheapest way to build these prototypes?
  4. Building and Testing should always go hand in hand
    • Review "Prepare for Testing" to think about how your prototype will be used in a testing session as you start buiding.
  5. Define next steps for who will build what and by when.

Network Best Practices

Use paper models to quickly explain your ideas like DFA Yale

DFA Yale worked with Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry and Clothing Closet to increase the efficiency of clothing distribution. The team ultimately decided to redesign the space to create a shopping experience, and made a quick, low-fidelity model of the space before honing in on the details.

Make temporary mockups that you can put in real locations like DFA Virginia Tech

DFA Virginia Tech’s project team SEE[K] encourages alternative forms of transportation, like walking or biking. By designing signs and placing these prototypes around campus they’re able to see how people interact with them and continue to iterate on their design.

Make iterations rapidly and bring each iteration to your partners and users like DFA Rice

DFA Rice’s project team Way Home made a quick resource guide of the different services available for those in Houston experiencing homelessness. The team was able to ‘fail early and fail often’ by quickly make map prototypes that they shared with their partner and users to get for their next iterations. Through testing they learned things like black-and-white maps are needed to be able to produce more copies because they are cheaper to print, what areas of the city were important to cover, and more! Below are 3 of the teams iterations.