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What growing up under communism taught me about the value of prototyping.

One of the greatest things I’ve ever learned is the value of being wrong. This can be terribly difficult especially if you don’t like being wrong.

I was born in communist Czechoslovakia. Although I was very small, I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. In 1989, our country began transitioning from the communist system towards democracy, in a process which ended up taking decades and perhaps hasn’t even ended yet. I remember my childhood back then as having scarce options and being punished for making mistakes.

Let me take 25 years back in time to what was then Czechoslovakia: imagine needing a new pair of pumps for school and going to a shoe store to find some. There are two pairs to choose from. And you’re lucky — one of them is available in your size. Other children wear the same clothes as you, not because they are school uniforms or because they feature a popular cartoon character that everyone likes, but because that’s all that your local shops sell.

You go to visit your neighbours, they have the same furniture as your family. It’s perfectly normal for everyone to use one kind of toothpaste and drink one kind of milk. Oh, and because you live in a landlocked country, you never taste seafood or tropical fruits. You get the idea.

Despite this picture, which is almost unimaginable compared to how I live today, the absence of multiple options wasn’t the worst thing I recall. The worst thing was the necessity of being right (or of never being wrong) which was always hanging over me, like the Dementors pursuing Harry Potter on his quests. In my experience, failing typically led to punishment. The sentence could be bad grades followed by verbal abuse, ridicule or even physical sanctions, leading to a loss of reputation and respect. All that would definitely make you avoid trying anything that could potentially lead to being wrong.
Even though I only experienced this at school, my feeling was that the entire social system was saturated with such an attitude. Living in fear, being afraid to stand out or to express ideas that didn’t fit the mould. I saw it everywhere around me.

I hadn’t realised just how bad my cultural baggage was until I got to experience the sheer opposite of it. I now live in London, where I moved at the age of 19 to study and to take advantage of the “endless” options I dreamed of until then. It really began to make sense when I started practising prototyping in my job. It was like a magic wand that liberated me from the fear of failing and the need to hold the opinions everyone expected.

Communism, the Western world and uncertainty

Prototyping is an outright contrast to the idea of Big Design upfront (a bit like central planning); this approach to making is about mapping onto an uncertain, changing reality. It’s an open, friendly invitation to the unknown, and it offers a way to think the opposite of what we thought all the way until now.

In our London-based studio Made by Many, where I work as a product manager, our mission is to help big companies innovate. Our clients are respected and well-established businesses who need to protect their reputation. For this reason, they too don’t like being wrong. Unfortunately, that can often prevent them from experimenting and innovating altogether — and as someone who until recently didn’t like making mistakes, I totally get that, and it’s why I find helping companies to get over that fear of being wrong particularly exciting.
At a first sight, experimentation looks risky and planning looks safe. But, as intuitive as this might sound, I don’t think it’s really true. Here’s why.

We all know what happened to the Soviet system: it kind of didn’t work out. Interestingly though, much of the Western academic mentality of planning, modelling and risk management isn’t too far away from the same central planning model that ultimately doomed the Soviet system. In his book “Antifragile” the author and risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the interesting point about the Western model suffering from the same delusion as the Soviet one, albeit from the other side of the political spectrum: he calls it Soviet-Harvard Delusion. In short, it means that overvaluing theoretical projections while failing to embrace factors such as uncertainty, emergence and serendipity exposes companies to failure at a greater scale than they would with deliberate experimentation. Because with experimentation you’re open to the possibility of getting things wrong and you make progress through continuous trial and error on a smaller scale. Taleb thinks, the best way to achieve real knowledge is through the process of “random tinkering”, or “bricolage.”

Why and what to prototype?

I think I’m with Taleb on this one — and this is where, for me, prototyping comes into play. Here at Made by Many, we call that process “MAKE — TEST — LEARN”.

When building new ventures, we’d typically employ prototyping on occasions when we’re searching for a unique value and validation of ideas. As designers working with clients, we’re all supposed to be the experts, we’re supposed to “know”. But since we’re rarely the target market for all of our products, how can we? I like to think that we’re there to find out what we and our clients don’t know. What allows us to achieve this is discovery and iterative experimentation.

Meanwhile, it’s also perfectly possible that a company has been selling a product for decades without ever talking to its users. Now, their younger and smaller competitors are getting ahead of the game because they found out what people really need. So prototyping can certainly save months, perhaps even years of upfront design and development. It can help avoid the ultimate discovery that while you were working on your Awesome Big Thing, the market has changed. We advise even the most risk averse individuals to embark on this adventure with us because it not only saves time and money but at the end there’s a tangible evidence you can engage with and build on.
Here are my three favourite types of prototyping, all of which are extremely useful depending on respective needs. Brace yourself — you’re going to get things wrong.

Experience prototyping

What it’s about: moulding the user experience, understanding what it feels/sounds/tastes like to be in other people’s shoes; often includes props and role-playing

Purpose: Feeling the ins and outs of the user experience on your own skin, understand the new landscape, specific context and user needs better.

Use: Great as a first dip into the user’s world. Working on a product for children? Go get into a classroom or a gymnasium with them — get a sense of their environment and their reality of going to school. That’s exactly what Hackaball developer Melissa Coleman did. Experience prototyping is where many companies realise that they’re not their customer, as they’re exposed to new habits, types of behaviour and are prompted to react in a new, previously unknown way.

Design prototyping

What it’s about: creating the user experience and user interface that corresponds with a particular user group — its preferences, habits and needs, involves sketching or using digital design tools to present different ideas or outline consecutive steps of the experience

Purpose: Construct and visualise user journey to understand if it makes sense, get the feel of the product right-colours, sizes, sounds, interaction elements.

Use: We often use early design prototypes in the form of sketches or interactive InVision prototypes as “sacrificial concepts” and test them with users. It helps gather feedback and rapidly understand where we’re hitting the nail on the head and where we’re missing out before spending any more time building the thing. In addition, design prototypes are a great way of communicating the idea to your audience. What used to be tons of pages of documentation is today replaced by a handful images. Saves time and ensures better clarity. Show, don’t tell.

Technology prototyping

What it’s about: developing a program to understand technology possibilities and constraints; even though this is in some ways the highest level of prototyping as it results in a functioning software, it shouldn’t be mistaken for an MVP.

Purpose: validate feasibility of the idea from technology point of view — is it possible to build this? It’s useful to bring the design in at this stage and test its viability ‘in the real world’.

Use: tech prototyping is particularly useful when we’re testing a new solution that doesn’t exist yet. If you want to understand how far you can stretch in terms of two systems talking to each other, for example, then it’s a great idea to build a quick and dirty prototype of this connection.

Designing without ego

The practice of prototyping teaches everyone involved a special, invaluable lesson — letting go of the ego. When exploring uncharted territory you’re always better off leaving your prejudices and opinions behind. Instead, try opening your mind and being prepared to empathise with who and what you encounter — what emerges. That’s the fastest way to achieve learning.

I also like the idea, again from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, of the “Via Negativa” approach — focus on what something is not instead of what it is, and find out the nature of a thing by the process of subtraction and reduction. Doing so prevents you from slipping into the usual patterns of judging, which usually ends up as jumping to conclusions too quickly and seeking affirmation rather than refutation.

Personally, I love travelling because I can engage with local, often isolated communities, or taste food I didn’t even know existed. If I was to immediately misjudge everything new I encountered by prioritising my expectations and my existing knowledge, I would shut the doors of true discovery for myself. That’s why I choose to apply curiosity and empathy and I accept the fact that I might be wrong in my assumptions. I’m not precious about my opinions. Egolessness lets you discover multiple worlds like they were your own. It puts you in other people’s shoes and makes you a better designer. No matter what you’re creating. It uses design as a facilitative tool rather than an authoritarian one.

Being wrong in the right way is one key to success. In this uncertain, rapidly changing world — and particularly in the world of disruptive technologies — Too much planning can be a fallacy, no matter if you plan in five-year cycles as the Soviets did or annually as we do in the Western world (as they say, sh*t happens). Instead of building grand strategies and solving problems that don’t exist yet, focus on the now — use trial and error, open yourself to the possibility of failing, sacrifice things, and let go of your ‘expert’ ego. You’ll be surprised by how far it gets you.

Prototyping isn’t only a process that can help you to learn rapidly — it’s also is a brilliant way to communicate ideas. I dare to think that making is actually the new method of communication. Telling doesn’t work, but showing does.

Having been schooled in one system and now operating in another has put things into an amazing new perspective for me. When some of the companies I work with don’t realise that they’re stuck in the same system as I was brought up in, I feel it’s my personal obligation to show them a better way.

Big thanks to Kevin for helping me write this post.

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