A prototype is an approximation of an artifact which comprises one or more dimensions of interest. For example, if we were designing a traffic light we could focus on how the lights should switch, neglecting the method that the artifact must employ to understand when they have to switch.
Prototypes are very important and used in each step of the design process. They have different objectives, but the most important ones are these:
- they allow us to answer questions such as “Will it work?” and “Will the user like it?”;
- they communicate an idea;
- they are points of reference throughout the process.
In particular, prototypes enable us to understand whether we are following the right path. We may have misunderstood the user’s needs or the user may have explained them uncorrectly (never happened, right? yeah, guessed so!), or we may have not created an artifact able to completely solve a problem. Prototypes are crucial to take us back to the right path to reach our goal.
As Izzy Swan (Think Woodworks) puts it when he talks about his experiments with an Impossible Folding Bench,
I would call this project a discovery build, not a finish product. Often time if I am not 100 percent on a build I will do a quick build just to work out some of the issues that might come up.
Check out his post to read the whole story: Impossible Folding Bench | Think Woodworks.
More on prototypes in Chapter 5 of the book, “From Idea to Project”.