Prototyping is a superpower

If you are reading this document you have probably attended (or are attending) one of my workshops. If not, I hope the content is helpful for you – I have tried to make it useful without needing any additional context. If you have any questions, or would like me to deliver this workshop for you or your organisation, please feel free to contact me.

Read more about me, the author.

One of my friends recently moved to a fancy new flat and they invited me over. They had provided me with the address and flat number. On arrival at the address I saw a simple keypad that I assumed (correctly) was the buzzer.

The instructions for the keypad entry system were clearly displayed as follows:

  • Use the arrows, then Bell

  • or enter Flat No.

I decided to enter the flat number on the keypad. So, I pressed 7 and then the bell button. Nothing happened – no sounds or visual feedback. No nothing. So, I entered the number again 7 and pressed the bell button. Still nothing.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. - Albert Einstein

I did the same thing a number of times applying more force with my fingers and accompanying the action with an increasing number of groans and obscenities. This did not help. The buzzer did not work.

After a suitable number of attempts I finally decided to use the arrows to navigate to flat number 7. On pressing the right arrow the display immediately changed to display flat number 1, correctly, but not in the format I was expecting:

The display showed the number 1 in the format 001. Now, I knew what the keypad had been expecting so I entered flat 7 in the format 007 and the buzzer rang the flat immediately.

This new build apartment block was in an area filled with new builds so I went to check out the buzzers on a number of the nearby buildings. They were all the same – they expected the flat numbers to be entered in the unusual 3-digit format and provided no instructions to indicate this.

How could the designers and engineers behind the keypad buzzer system have missed that, for users, their design does not work as expected? How could this problem, that can be so easily fixed, have been replicated in all of their keypads?

What could have been done differently?

If the designers had observed even one person, not within their team, use a keypad they could have understood the average user's contextual model of the system (how users view the keypad to work). In fact, they could have taken just 30 minutes to test the design without building anything. Here's how:

  1. Fetch a calculator

  2. Stick a bell icon over the enter button

  3. Stick the simple keypad instructions to the top of the calculator

  4. Stick the calculator to the wall

  5. Ask 5 people to buzz flat number 7 on the keypad

  6. Observe the buttons the user presses and have them say out loud what they are thinking as they do this

  7. Take a note of how they interact with the system

There are many other ways they could have prototyped the system but the important point is that they should have observed people using the keypad. In fact they could still go out and observe people using their keypad in order to improve future systems or to update their current system.

Prototyping is a superpower

Imagine if you could travel into the future and access the mental abilities of hindsight – pre-empting a disaster – learning and fixing your mistakes before they happen. Prototyping is Peter Parker's spider bite –it gives you the power of hindsight.

In this workshop you'll learn how to harness your creativity in order to build effective prototypes and how to run the tests effectively in order to derive actionable insights. These skills will empower you to advance your learning by months or years and more closely meet the expectations of your users.

To get the most out of this workshop, complete all of the exercises. The exercises and activities are more valuable than the stories and text.

Last updated