An Overview of Our Progress and Achievements in Corporate Social Responsibility

A Business Designer’s View

Part II: Using Prototyping* to Eliminate Uncertainty

Dentsu Business Design Square was set up as a specialist unit at Dentsu’s head office in Japan. Its task is to help client companies develop a strategy that will allow them to attain a desired outcome through innovation.

In this series of articles, members of the specialist unit will explain what the term business design means at Dentsu. In the second installment of the series, business designer Tadahiko Sakamaki discusses prototyping.

* Prototyping is a product development method that involves creating a working model at an early stage in order to have functions and operability verified by users as well as to incorporate their requests.

Products, services: need to differentiate value experience

I previously worked for an electronic musical instruments manufacturer. There I headed a department that integrated product planning and product design; at Dentsu Business Design Square I am putting that experience to good use as a business designer.

Let me begin by focusing on how prototyping is useful for business today. I believe that it is essential to create prototypes at an early stage. This allows functions and operability to be verified by users, as well as their requests to be incorporated. Otherwise, one cannot differentiate the value of user experiences of products for which the differentiation of functions has been difficult, and of services for which entry barriers are low.

Know-how regarding prototyping is valuable for designing such value experience. Below I discuss the importance of prototyping based on my own professional background.

Avoiding uninteresting results

I am prone to worrying, even when I have used the left and right sides of my brain and hit on a wonderful idea. Doubting its merits, I immediately want to create a prototype. That is because, at times in the past, my best design ideas for electronic musical instruments had been a flop. I had not sufficiently recognized that electronic musical instruments are all about value experience.

When product functions and specifications are important, an item will gain a foothold in the market as long as its functional value meets user requirements. This is even when the item is only moderately user friendly. Since playability is of paramount importance in the case of a musical instrument, it is not commercially viable unless it offers that value experience.

To ensure the smooth product development of an electronic musical instrument, it is necessary to clearly set specifications at an early stage. To that end, discussion generally focuses on the value of logically and easily defined functions, often ignoring the value of user experience. Albeit the core value of a musical instrument, it tends to be unclear and difficult to put into words and, thus, is often lacking. So the instrument may not be much fun to play, despite the best ideas having gone into its development.

Therefore, to develop an electronic musical instrument with maximum value experience, several prototypes must be made, from the conceptual stage on. This allows the value experience to be assessed and improved. It is only by going through that experience over and over again that my ability to produce prototypes improved.

Three prototype categories

Making prototypes takes time and work. Ultimately, the goal is to make a prototype that is as close to a real product as possible. We thus must consider what needs to be verified and how that is to be done. When developing a product or service, I believe it is useful to divide prototypes into the categories I describe below.

1. Visual prototypes

A visual prototype is produced to verify how something looks, and is used for inspecting the final appearance of the intended product or service. For simple verification, a hand-drawn illustration may suffice. However, for a full-fledged inspection, a mockup should be made using the same materials and coating to be used for the intended product. In the case of a website or application, a number of screen shots or images should be produced.

2. Functional prototypes

A functional prototype is used to verify how functions operate. In the case of products, prototypes can be produced virtually with software. Prototypes can be made relatively easily using systems such as the integrated hardware and software development platform Arduino. It can verify prototype operations based on their electronic circuit designs.

When developing a website or application, paper prototypes* are used to check movements and transitions between screens, as well as the screen composition of apps and websites. There is also a full range of powerful tools available for enabling prototypes to simultaneously verify appearance and operations.

* A paper prototype is a simple method for checking the screen transitions and screen composition of apps and websites using sheets of paper.

3. Contextual prototypes

A contextual prototype allows the recreation of situations in which a product or service is to be used. Meanwhile, role play—pretending to be using a product—can create situations that are close to expected user experiences. They can be verified by using a prototype that looks and works like the intended product.

Any product or service can be analyzed according to appearance, how it works, and user experience. Pertinent and efficient prototyping can be accomplished by distinguishing between these aspects and specifying what should be verified for each one.

In addition to using visual, working, and user experience prototypes, Dentsu Business Design Square is using prototyping to test ideas and businesses.

Prototypes to generate new ideas

I have attempted to use prototypes in experiments in an applied design course at Chiba University, where I am a part-time lecturer.

Over a given year, about half of the class time was spent searching for good concepts, and I also had the students design some things and give presentations. They were very good at putting things together logically, probably because the Department of Design Science is part of the Faculty of Engineering. Yet, the students unfortunately did not create anything original. They simply tended to connect a story to an idea, and many of their proposals sounded similar to things I had heard elsewhere.

The students were unable to discover any original concepts because they are young, have a relatively narrow worldview, as well as lack knowledge and experience. Then in class we started using prototypes—rather than exploring concepts.

I used prototypes to enable the students to gain experience quickly. I initially had them start from prototypes, even for concepts that were rather ordinary and uninteresting. Every week I asked them to present to the class what they had discovered using the prototypes.

In class, I frequently told the students that I wanted them to search for things they could only come to know from a prototype. By repeatedly using prototypes to that end, they gained experience and, eventually, discovered things they at first had not noticed. Based on those discoveries, they clarified concepts, incorporated them into products, and succeeded in producing new ideas. To be honest, I was inspired by those results.

Then in April last year, when I visited the Rhode Island School of Design, a long-established design school in the United States, I got an idea from Charlie Cannon, an associate professor who heads the Industrial Design Department. He told me that, for the purpose of innovation, crafts are taught at the school—which has been dubbed the Harvard of art schools. I was astonished to hear that crafts, including woodworking and metalworking, were taught for about four hours a day throughout the year.

Among its alumni, the school counts two of Airbnb’s cofounders, while the institution itself has been described as the “MIT for the right brain” by John Maeda. He is an American executive, designer and technologist, whose work explores the area where business, design and technology merge.

Frankly speaking, I wondered why crafts need to be taught in this day and age. But I was reminded of the importance of crafts when discussing this in detail with Cannon. Crafts involve a continuing process of trial and error. The shape of materials such as wood and metal change each time they are cut, shaved, bent, and so on, through machining and processing. Sometimes the changes are as the craftsman had expected, and sometimes they’re not.

When doing crafts, we give form to ideas and make prototypes repeatedly over a relatively short time. As Cannon explained, future challenges are laid out in front of our eyes like a metal sheet. The question is: should we regard this challenge as just a hypothetical metal sheet, or should we try to make something new with it? That particular way of thinking is a distinctive strong point among the students of the Rhode Island School of Design.

In short, the Rhode Island School of Design has incorporated crafts in its curriculum so that students may learn how to develop new concepts empirically, through repeated trial and error and by working with their hands.

Tackling business innovation and uncertainty

Identifying clear tasks is difficult nowadays, but finding tasks and solutions through trial and error, as done at the Rhode Island School of Design, is an effective approach. Interestingly, this approach has been grasped and put to use as a concept in business largely by designers.

As products and services offering solutions to challenges become more innovative, uncertainty increases. Moreover, applying innovative ideas that go beyond the bounds of existing business is sure to cause massive uncertainty. But that, essentially, is the dilemma of innovating.

When I joined Dentsu Business Design Square, what surprised me most was that the unit intended to use prototyping to tackle dilemmas posed by business innovation and uncertainty. They planned to use prototypes of items that already existed, as well as of new items, to exhaustively verify things that we don’t yet have, such as trial earnings calculations.

Ultimately, prototypes will be used to verify businesses established through Dentsu’s creativity and logic. We are already starting to use all-new prototypes to promote business design.