Prototypes Build Bridges to New Ideas

Apr 1, 2014

When we make things, we often do so because we want X to exist in a world in which we can identify that the world wants X yet X does not yet exist.

We can illustrate that change with a diagram of this style:


Transformation: Template

(state before) >–(what you do or make)–> (state after)


Like so(splitting lines for readability):


Transformation: Build

(world doesn’t have X, but wants X)

>–(you make X)–>

(world now has X, the want is met)


That maybe seems a little too obvious to warrant a diagram. Bear with me. I’m a proponent of the idea that occasionally articulating the obvious can be a useful step toward advancing the non-obvious.

As another example Transformation diagram, as I often like to point out there can be real value in making something ourselves even when the world doesn’t need another made, simply because until we have made it there are concepts and practice that we personally have not experienced and benefitted from yet. Like so:


Transformation: Learn

(world already has X, doesn’t want another X, but you haven’t made X)

>–(you make X)–>

(you’re now someone that has made X)


What’s ignored in the end state is signifiant: it doesn’t matter at all that there is now a redundant X in the world. How it’s phrased is also important: the change we’re interested in with this case is the change of a creator’s personal identity and ability.

We can repeat that step by switching the initial condition of whether you’ve made X yet. Here you just want to be someone more experienced (faster, more comfortable, and/or more flexible) when it comes to making X:


Transformation: Practice

(world already has X, doesn’t want another X, and you’ve made X before)

>–(you make X)–>

(you’re now someone more proficient at making X)


Prototyping Transformations

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking about prototyping like it’s just a bunch of random potshots of the process illustrated in Transformation: Build – randomly creating things that don’t exist yet, hoping one of them may prove worthwhile, with each as its terminal endpoint.

Prototyping is also not like the transformation illustrated in Transformation: Learn, which implies that what you’re making already exists and you’re just remaking it to study and go through a personal transformation. Clearly this even further distances prototyping from being like Transformation: Practice, since had you already made it before then essentially what you’d be doing wouldn’t be prototyping at all.

We sometimes talk about prototypes as ways to illustrate ideas, or ways to clarify ideas. Those might be diagrammed like so:


Transformation: Illustrate

(world doesn’t have X, you envision X, someone else doesn’t)

>–(you make a prototype of X)–>

(someone else can now better envision X)




Transformation: Clarify

(world doesn’t have X, you vaguely envision X, aren’t sure what form it will take)

>–(you make a prototype of X)–>

(you can now better envision a form X can take)


There is however another slightly different purpose for prototyping that I would like to draw attention to for this entry: making something to extend the things that we can think about making next.

What We Can Envision Next

What the previous transformations skip over is considering where those ideas actually come from for a new X being envisioned. In the earliest examples, X already existed in the world. In these later examples we’re just taking for granted that we can envision things that don’t exist yet.

To a certain extent, it’s true that we can envision things that don’t exist yet. There’s an strange trick to this, though, seemingly obvious (or frustrating) once pointed out. Generally speaking, what we can envision that does not yet exist to us is mostly either a mixture of some things that we already know, or a variation of something that we already know. We’re prepared to innovate with ideas easily through hybrid or tweaking, but beyond that it’s surprisingly difficult to get our minds much further from the shores of what we know.

Stuart Kaufmann talks about an idea he refers to as the “adjacent possible” in his work on evolutionary biology. Steven Johnson simplifies and repurposes this general idea in his book Where Good Ideas Come From to refer instead to the way that our technological and conceptual advancements are necessarily only just one step beyond the way things were before. That is, we can think about and invent things that are a little different from what we have now, or that connect things we have now, but as we begin to stray even a little further from what already nearly exists or we already nearly understand we soon lose our grounding.

That’s where I want to introduce this version of the prototyping Transformation (for which X’ denotes X-prime, referring to a different idea that’s adjacent to X, and X” denotes X-double-prime, referring to a different idea that’s adjacent to X’, and so on):


Transformation: Explore

(world has X, you can envision X’, but you can’t yet envision or make X”)

>–(you make X’ just fully enough that…)–>

(you can now envision X”, but you can’t yet envision or make X”’)

>–(you make X” just fully enough that…)–>

(you can now envision X”’, but you can’t yet envision or make X””…)


Here, prototyping isn’t about producing the prototype for its own sake, nor to communicate or clarify it to someone else. Instead this is mostly about making a just-real-enough version of your current idea to enable you to advance just a little bit further from the way the chain started.

This can be repeated to arbitrary depth, with the starting point being something fairly recognizable that already exists and can be well understood (X), and the resulting product may be something seemingly alien (X”””””), in which the iterative cycles of prototyping created a bridge by one new spin on the latest idea at each step.

Naturally, this can just as easily branch into multiple directions, or form a web of intermingling hybrids, rather than a simple linear sequence, however for sake of illustration stacking primes seems sufficient.

Any given section of that bridge may or may not be of any interest to anyone, but the endpoints (being endpoints only in that they are where we choose to plant our flag and stop to share results, not due to any lack of ways to explore them further) can produce delightful surprises. Because you’ll be envisioning different changes each step of the way, this will tend to lead to very different results than what someone else would likely stumble into.

Perhaps more importantly: if no one else is paying much attention to following along your prototyping process, then while everyone else it competing at remaking a better X based on how they envision X’, you’ll be much safer in fighting where there’s less competition on your own personal ideas for what X”””” may look like.

I know I link to it pretty often – and did again just a few days ago – but it’s another approach to Blue Ocean Strategy.

Anyhow, if you’d like to see some example results of this approach to prototyping, it organically happened while building my InteractionArtist series from 2007-2008. The video I prepared for a HobbyGameDev entry last month offers a pretty good overview of some of the reasonably interesting endpoints:

Meanwhile, the above Transformation ideas hopefully help suggest why many of the other interaction prototypes are unclear or hardly make any sense. In many cases, I was building just enough of an envisioned idea to advance just a little further still the set of possible ideas that I could next envision concretely enough to make.

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