Step 4 of The Design Process: Develop Solutions (Prototyping)

prototyping design thinking

In the schools I’ve worked and have been given real agency to make decisions, only a few meetings are usually set aside for the work of choosing a course of action and always the conclusion of this set of meetings has resulted a final decision. The stakes are high as everyone in the room knows one final answer will come out of those meetings and the decisions made will have a long-term impact whether it is curricular, instructional, policy, budget and so on. High stakes coupled with no prototyping or any real rigor of process has meant that the primary decision makers and stakeholders revert to the beliefs we hold about whatever topic we are working on. Sometimes the student learning results are fantastic, but across the arc of my career, those moments feel more rare and lucky than expected. Prototyping you team’s best ideas and evaluating their ability to solve a problem after implementation is one giant way to take back control of the process and to know that you can expect success when facing a problem. The value of this step can’t be understated.

A quick reminder of the Design Process:

  1. Define the Problem (Verification vs. Validation)
  2. Collect Information (Nodes and Links)
  3. Brainstorm and Analyze (Modeling or Ideation)
  4. Develop Solutions (Prototyping)
  5. Solicit Feedback (Closed Loop)
  6. Improve Your Design (Iterations, Iterations, Iterations!)

Prototyping is design step where a few key design solutions are chosen to make completely and to be tested in as real of a setting as possible. That is multiple fully functioning solutions are written, fabricated or crafted and those design solutions are put into as real of a testing as is possible. Prototypes are not merely conceptual, are not models and are rarely made of cardboard. Prototypes are the real deal.

The key concept of Step Four is to prototype more than one idea with the intention of learning from a series of prototypes the one to carry forward, yet this may be the hardest part of the design process for school and school districts to carry out as time, money and resources are always so limited, so precious. Prototyping multiple solutions or designs is meant to evaluate your designs in practice to evaluate which one solution should go forward, if none actually solve your problem or if a tweak to one making it just right (Goldilocks). It is that tweak of one prototype that might exemplify what people mean by rapid iteration. A tighter loop of prototyping, evaluating and changing the design to head right back into prototyping rather than going through the entire process over. Engineers do this well, and going through many designs in a day during lab testing isn’t unheard of. This tighter loop of rapid iteration can work to keep the design ideas flowing when brainstorming isn’t enough.  

Back in a school for a moment. Imagine that you are a teacher leader who is tasked with implementing a new curriculum for elementary science. Your team has taken on a new STEM focus and it is time to consider assessments. Many of the talented teachers on your team have different ideas about how to design the assessment series. You now see a perfect chance to get it right and have the best assessments possible. Your team has worked though Step Three brainstorming and now has more than five viable options for how to design assessments to best collect data, that test the skills you are looking for students to achieve and you have considered units of study and time you wish to dedicate to assessing. Still, you have more than five ways to go. What do you do at this juncture?

I recommend that you pick three assessment styles with your team that you can prototype, or make rather completely, and actually teach the unit and give the three different styled assessments to three different groups. Say, you can do this with grade four classes in your school where a third of the students each get a different style. Then, once the unit is done and the assessments are administered you can evaluate the successes and limitations of each, pick one, make improvements, and continue forward with your whole elementary STEM assessment project. Now, you have an outstanding idea of what will and will not work for your school and the success and longevity of your work seems assured.

Let’s talk about those three you picked to prototype. It shouldn’t just be three of your favorite ideas, instead, you want to pick three concepts to prototype that appear to have different risk and reward.

  • Rational – Pick a group favorite, or what seems most like what your school would likely do.
  • Meaningful – Selecting a concept that reaches further then where you are as a school right now, but feels like a meaningful step forward for your school.
  • Wild/Unexpected – Seems most unlike your school’s current practice, is beyond what you might normally do.

When you are evaluating your prototype through your testing. Please remember you will learn the most about how teach prototype went if you keep your ego in check and if you listen, listen, listen. Firstly, you can help manage egos by dealing with idea ownership. Through the brainstorming phase, I hope that all ideas the folks bring up have been shaped, changed and developed by several team members. That allows no one in particular to have full ownership over any idea created and prevents them from feeling the burden of success for failure. Furthermore, to spread out the ownership, I usually encourage someone other than the first person to suggest the idea as the person to actually go and make the prototype.

Listening maybe the single most important part to prototyping besides having more than one prototype. Here, you should engage with all stakeholders and investigate how the prototype is working. In the elementary STEM example, you might follow up with the person tasked with making the prototype test; was it easy, efficient or clear to make? Next, you might observe the teacher giving instructions for the assessment and the students taking the assessment; was is easy to understand for the students, how did they feel during the assessment, how long did it take, and so on. Moreover, you will naturally look over the completed assessments and consider what input students included, the results of the assessment and how the process of grading the assessments was for teachers. Finally, you may look to see it from the parent’s perspective; did they understand the results, did they grasp the understandings their child made and so on. Taking the time to look over every step of the process will give you and your team the best chance of success in your program.


Prototyping may be the most exciting step in the process for you and your team. Your ideas are coming to life and testing those prototypes has the pop of something fresh and meaningful happening on your campus. It feels like real progress and provides the sense that you and your campus are moving forward together. There’s nothing like spending time on a campus that is testing prototypes. Nothing.

From your brainstorming phase, I wish you luck in having the time and energy to prototype long before settling on a solution for your next major initiative. Pick multiple prototypes in a meaningful way, check your ego and listen, listen listen. It’s an exciting time!

6 thoughts on “Step 4 of The Design Process: Develop Solutions (Prototyping)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s