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The Power of Prototyping: Tackling “Wicked” Problems with Design

Prototypes are often used as a tool for testing assumptions, but they can bring so much more to the table. Discover how great prototypes can provoke new ways of thinking and ultimately drive social change.

Words by Hina Shahid, Visuals by Danbee Kim

Social impact is defined as the effect on people and communities, as a result of an inaction or action—an activity, project, program or policy. To summarize, it means addressing pressing societal challenges and problems through designed interventions.

Societal problems are inherently messy, complex and ‘wicked’—a term coined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, both urban planners at the University of Berkeley in California, as they co-authored an article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Their definition has held true for over 48 years. They observed that there are a whole host of social planning problems that cannot be successfully tackled through the traditional linear and analytical approaches.

According to them, wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous, dynamic and contextual, with strong stakeholder dependence. And due to that very nature, they cannot be solved through conventional linear and analytical processes such as the scientific or systems-engineering approaches. Since then, it has been asserted that wicked problems require experimentational approach to solution seeking and making.

Designing for change

Design is an opportunity driven approach to problem solving. It not only looks at what is but what could be— one that shifts the focus from ‘existing problem’ to facilitating or creating ‘desired future state.’ This makes creative problem solving and abductive thinking approaches such as design, better suited for wicked societal problems.

“Design” with the capital D—are the techniques and methods previously characterized with the design-related professions (e.g. industrial design, architecture). They can be used in broader contexts like disinformation, climate change, social exclusion, food waste, etc. The experimentational approach to design comes from building prototypes and iterating them. This fundamental approach of ‘learning by doing’ and ‘thinking by doing’ affords it the means to tackle uncertain, ambiguous and ever evolving problems.

Prototyping is more than testing hypotheses

Most of us build prototypes or work with them, but have a hard time defining them. Here is the definition I use:

“Prototypes are a visual representation of a design idea, regardless of medium—they enable communication (conversations and discussions), aid in learning and facilitate decision making. The trial-and-error iterations work towards finding the optimal design solution.”

Prototypes help a group of people move beyond conversations or written documentation by creating an embodied thing. A thing that enables people to have a single articulation as opposed to abstract ideas.

This act of making accelerates thinking helps make decisions, uncovers blind spots, and brings teams together. The powerful aspect of the iterative development is to keep the tangible solutions close to its users (people who would be affected by its implementation), and continuously adapt the feedback in the following prototypes.

It is important to note that prototypes are more than a means to test assumptions and hypotheses. They are about exploring new possibilities.

Basing prototypes strictly off of assumptions limits the possibilities. It narrows it to binary answers of yes or no, leaving larger understandings at the table. Good prototypes answer questions that were not even thought of and great prototypes provoke thinking on the potential positive and negative impacts of the idea’s direction. This is specifically important for prototypes in the realm of creating solutions for society.

At Project Pluralist we prototype everything from how a learning toolkit might get delivered to schools to the learning modules themselves. One of our first prototypes were workshops for middle school, highschool and college students. The goal of the learning module was to create the following among the participants:

  1. Cultivate desirable behaviors and new competencies
  2. Encourage perspective taking
  3. Awareness of the reach and impact of individual actions at a systemic level

These workshops acted as a scaled down model of the learning programs, and enabled the team to test content (participant workbooks, videos on various topics), facilitation mechanisms—roles, exercises and activities, as well as understanding what was sticky for different age groups (high school vs college vs middle school).

One of our most important insights around the importance of creative facilitation and the need for training the facilitators—the educators came out of building and testing the workshops. This enabled us early on to spot the consequences of providing the content without fully understanding who the facilitators would be and what was needed to make them successful.

Image provided by Project Pluralist; Participants workbooks
Image provided by Project Pluralist; Teacher facilitating an activity

Understanding the “why” behind prototyping

In general, prototypes are created based on the goals or the purpose it needs to serve. Prototypes created in the earlier part of the development process are generally of explorative nature.

They help in refining the idea and exploring the various possibilities. While the evaluative or hypothesis driven testing is better suited towards the later part of the development process.

Most prototypes serve three purposes: explore communication, investigate the value for its users and assess feasibility. The purpose shifts with the development cycle.

In some cases, the same project could have multiple prototypes, each with a different focus, questions and even audience, in other cases one prototype serves multiple purposes. The three purposes are:

1. Communication

Explore sensory experience—the look and feel of the potential idea. Whether it's visual and verbal messaging such as brand language, visual interface or content. Prototypes that are built primarily to explore and demonstrate how users understand the options. They simulate what it would be like to look at and interact with it. The key questions here are, do they understand what is being communicated and are they able to interact with it as intended.

2. Value

These prototypes are built primarily to investigate questions around value and benefit to the user. The key questions here are about the role and utility—do users understand the role of the artifact and what is their perception of the idea or concept’s utility?

3. Implementation

These types of prototypes assess feasibility. The key questions are around how the idea works and how it will be brought to life. They are built primarily to answer technical questions about how a future artifact might actually be made to work.

In addition to the considerations around communication, value and implementation—prototypes geared towards societal impact also include assessment of consequences—mitigating unintended harm and negative impact.

4. Consequences

When the solutions geared towards society are truly designed with an understanding of humans, and human behavior, unintended consequences and ethics are a consideration from the very beginning. Here are a few sample questions that can help teams center humans and ethics as they build and test prototypes:

  • What are the unintended consequences of this solution on the individual, or the society?
  • What is the worst possible scenario for the use of this solution/ idea?
  • What is the possibility of bad behavior, or possible manipulation through this solution/ idea?
  • What kind of harm can this solution do for its users?

Understanding the consequences is not only relevant for solutions related to social impact but for every designed solution and intervention. In the past, understanding consequences has not been a consideration for designers and researchers. But as there has been an increased awareness about the adverse impact of technological and business innovations on our society, designers and researchers should explore the consequences on their solutions.

Hina Shahid is a multidisciplinary design practitioner. She is passionate about designing alternative solutions and imagining new reaities—with the ultimate goal of enhancing the human experience. Over the last 15 years she has practiced multiple dimensions of design—from research to strategic design and social impact.

Learn more about Hina and her work in her People Nerds profile, Prototyping for Pluralism: Design as a Means for Social Change.

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