Turning Interview Questions into Prototypes
IDEO.org Fellow Salvador Zepeda explains how creating prototypes as part of the human-centered design is easier than you might think and often leads to surprising results.
As part of our current IDEO.org project, we are designing financial services for people who earn between $360 and $900 per month in Mexico. These are not the poorest people in Mexico, but it’s a population that is still very vulnerable to emergencies. If a family member gets sick, the entire family might spend all of their savings or, worse, go into debt.
Our IDEO.org team spent two and a half weeks in Mexico conducting more than twenty interviews and testing concepts using “early prototypes”. This is the first of two stories sharing our experiences with this method.
A prototype, in my opinion, is a tangible hypothesis about how to address a need. Hence, it’s possible to build a prototype as soon as you have a hypothesis. It could be as early as the first day of a project. The form of the prototype can range from a sketch to a full-fledged experience. In the research phase sketches are the most common, as well as the most practical, since they are easy to create.
Making an idea tangible is important because it makes an abstract scenario feel more “real”. This provides two advantages. First, it becomes more accessible to people who have a hard time talking at an abstract level. And second, it brings an emotional reaction to a conversation that might otherwise have been limited to a “rational” level.
Before starting our field research in Mexico, one of our hypotheses was that people would be more likely to save if they had a physical connection to their money in the bank. Why? First, if they do not use technology (like on-line banking) or receive monthly statements, this physical connection would be the only window that people might have to their finances in the bank. Second, by establishing a physical connection to the money in the bank, the system would provide assurance that when you give your money to the bank, it’s really there.
In order to prototype this hypothesis, my teammate Adam Reineck sketched a store shelf displaying deposits in the form of “monopoly money”. This "monopoly money" was available for selection from the store shelves just like other products in the store such as a can of Coke. The customer would leave their real money behind as a deposit in the bank and take home “monopoly money” equivalent to the amount they deposited. We created this “monopoly money” with a nice design so that savers would be incentivized to keep it “under their mattress” at home as a window into their finances. We showed this prototype to our interviewees in Mexico and the interviewees liked it. After this testing, we started working on the next version of this product.
Beyond Clear Needs
Early prototypes can be more than just hypotheses about ways to address a need. They can also be a provocation to surface reactions that are often hard to reveal. Frequently these provocations seem totally unrelated to what the ultimate design might be. Yet, they can provide valuable learning by uncovering people’s opinions around a topic. Furthermore, every now and then, one of these provocations may eventually evolve into an actual product and service. To build this type of prototype, you don’t create a hypothesis about how the prototype will address the need, but how the prototype will generate interesting reactions.
Here’s an example of how we used a “provocation” prototype in Mexico, which we called the “brick” prototype. We sketched a prototype that showed four different hypothetical ways for people to save their money: inside a brick, sewn inside a pillow, inside a locked chest and inside an envelope. Each of the four concepts represented a different degree of difficulty for accessing the money saved inside the item. Although banks are not in the business of selling bricks or pillows, we wanted to generate reactions around different ways of creating distance from money. We found that this concept worked really well since it made people reveal their own ways to separate themselves from their money.
Inspired by the stories we heard, we were able to identify an opportunity to transform this concept into a potential banking product: a savings account where customers can separate their money by different degrees of difficulty in accessing it. The point here is that before trying the “brick prototype” we could not have foreseen where it was going to lead us.
Prototypes as your Interview Guide
Trust your intuition when selecting prototypes. You may think that some early concepts will not be able to open a path to address a particular need, but sometimes you’ll be surprised. My recommendation is to use your early prototypes to test possible solutions as well as to uncover needs and opinions. In other words, transform (partly) your interview guide into prototypes. Make sure that your prototypes represent hypotheses about the answers to the questions you want to ask. Then, build your prototypes and test them in the field. Once you do this, you cannot go wrong because everything that happens will be learning.