Sign: "All Is Fair In Trial And Erro ."

On Prototyping

When we face complex challenges, it is difficult, if not impossible to predict how they will respond to any form of intervention. We are seeing increasing complexity of challenges, with the growth of a hyperconnected world – whether it’s by communications, economics or global environmental patterns.

Intervene today in youth mental health and, despite ‘evidence’ of how an intervention performed 5 years ago, it will likely respond in a different way this time. Predictive planning approaches to complex challenges are decreasingly effective in today’s world, which is where social labs come in.

Social labs operate within the paradigm of Prototyping, not Planning. So that begs the question, ‘what is prototyping?’, and ‘how do we do it?’

What are the top 5 things I should read about prototyping?

It’s a familiar question which we’re often asked, so we decided to share some of the key texts and resources we tend to send people.

This list isn’t exhaustive, in fact it’s a prototype of it’s own making. So please do jump in on the comments and share other articles and resources which you’ve found useful yourselves.

Prototyping Mindset

To get started with prototyping, it’s important to recognise that it’s not simply about the act of creating the model of a service or a system. Prototyping can actually be a lens through which you see your work – much like for many years people thought the world was flat, this formed their actions, beliefs and ideas.

To go deeper into the ideas of a Prototyping Mindset, here’s some must-reads:

Prototyping Methods

To actually embark on prototyping is easy.

Think of it through a child’s eye – they ‘make believe’ that something is real all the time. Two blocks become a castle. A box becomes a fort.

Prototyping is about making an idea or concept tangible – whether that’s through writing, drawing, storytelling, sculpting, digital mockups, or some other approach. Prototyping is also not just about the act of making something real, but also about learning something from this process – most commonly in social labs, this is about either testing feasibility, or putting it into people’s hands to get feedback on the idea, or test demand.

Here’s some must-reads about Prototyping Methods:

Also a special mention to “Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning” by Liz Sanders & Pieter Jan Stappers, which is behind an academic journal paywall.


Managing Prototyping

In the previous section, we mentioned that Prototyping is about more than creating, it’s about learning.

This throws up the question ‘how do we capture all this learning?’. Well this is an ongoing area of interest for many people in nearly every sector – Public, Private, Foundations, and indeed in social labs too. Taking into account the increasing complexity, solutions need to be found which quickly capture the learnings of the ‘small bets’ of prototyping, whilst also ensuring the ‘big wins’ (and losses) don’t get lost in the fogginess of time.

One social lab in New Zealand shared this account of their efforts to manage prototyping & experiments:


Further Reading

There are also some important longer form resources for you to gain further insight from. Why not check out:


There’s much more to be said about Prototyping, so why not jump into our Facebook Group to start a conversation, share resources we should know about in the comments, or write us a note if you’d like to share a guest post on the subject.