From Post-its to Processes: Using Prototypes to Find Solutions

Dana Mitroff Silvers, Designing Insights, USA, Emily Lytle-Painter, Independent, USA, Ahree Lee, Consultant, USA, Jack Ludden, , USA, Ben Hamley, Queensland Museum, Australia, Yen Trinh, Queensland Museum, Australia


Prototyping, the practice of building low-fidelity representations of products, services, or experiences in order to learn and test before proceeding, is at the heart of the human-centered design process. This paper, authored by a multidisciplinary group of museum practitioners, considers how and when to use the practice of prototyping for a variety of applications. We offer case studies and best practices around digital, experiential, and process-based prototypes from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, and the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia.

Keywords: human-centered, prototype, test, iterate, design, model

1. Introduction

Prototyping, the practice of building low-fidelity representations of products, services, or experiences in order to learn and test before proceeding, is at the heart of the human-centered design process. Prototyping involves thinking and planning by doing, and is iterative, fast, and low-fidelity. In the museum sector, it is most well-known in the context of physical things like exhibition interactives or didactic signage. But prototypes can also be of digital products, interactions, or new internal processes.

This paper, authored by a multidisciplinary group of museum practitioners, considers how and when to use the practice of prototyping for a variety of applications. We offer case studies and best practices around digital, experiential, and process-based prototypes from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (Getty) and Queensland Museum Experiences (QMX), a creative “agency” inside the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia.

2. What is prototyping?

Prototyping is probably the single most pragmatic behavior the innovative firm can practice . . . (it’s) not an ideal but a core competence.
– Michael Schrage (2000), “Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate”

In today’s time of rapid change, prototyping is a core competence for the museum of the twenty-first century. One of the primary goals of prototyping is to get feedback before too much time, money, emotional energy, or institutional bandwidth has been invested. Prototyping can be used for external- or internal-facing projects, from designing a new website home page to modeling a new staff organizational chart.

3. The design-thinking process

Prototyping is often part of a larger, more formalized process called design thinking. The term “design thinking” has been used for decades to refer to the practices and approaches of designers (e.g., Rowe, 1987), and in recent years it has been successfully adapted as a tool for fostering creativity and solving complex problems (e.g., Brown & Katz, 2009; Kelley & Littman, 2001).

In this paper, we use the term design thinking as it is taught at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or The has developed a five-step process: interviewing and observing in the field; synthesizing insights; generating ideas; building prototypes; and testing with users (Kembel, 2009). For a complete discussion of the phases of the process, please see “Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design” (Mitroff Silvers, Wilson, & Rogers, 2013). 500w, 903w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Figure 1: The design-thinking process, as used at the Stanford

4. Getting ready to prototype

Defining the problem

Before starting to prototype, you must come to consensus on the context. What is the problem or project you want to work on? Your prototype will yield the best results when specific concepts or variables can be built and tested. If a problem is not defined clearly and succinctly, in a user-centered way, the rest of the process will suffer.

To do this, break up large projects like exhibitions or websites into manageable chunks. Reduce the size of the “unit of analysis” until you can define a singular variable and investigate it clearly with a prototype. For example, instead of prototyping something as big as “new wayfinding,” build solutions for improving specific problem points, such as a new location for digital signage or a specific front-line staff-visitor interaction.

Preparing your organization

When exploring the possibilities of prototyping (and the human-centered design process in general) at your organization, some principles should be considered.

It starts with you

The person initiating human-centered design ideology needs to believe in its basic principles. This does not mean you simply like the idea of being innovative; you must fully embrace listening to your users and be committed to iterative thinking and working. This is essential, as you will have to stand up for this working style when colleagues are defensive or stubborn in the face of change.

Show, don’t tell

In today’s world, buzzwords come and go. As a result, people fall victim to riding on a trend-driven roller coaster. Therefore, be careful about introducing terms like “design thinking” before people understand some of the key components of the process. Your colleagues may focus more on the terminology than on the process itself. Instead, start your initial conversations by using concepts that are already generally understood within your organization and by your management team. For example, the Agile software development process, with its emphasis on rapid development, small, frequent releases, and regular iterations, is a close “cousin” to design thinking, and teams familiar with the Agile process will find many similarities with design-thinking practices.

Preparing your team

Properly preparing a team for prototyping, especially if they have not been involved with the design process before, is critical. Getting your team primed to think and communicate differently is just as important as providing the space and materials.

When the team comes together, consider doing ice-breaker activities and warm-up games that get team members loosened up and ready to build upon each others’ ideas. Overcoming the awkward factor is critical to allowing “stupid ideas” to get the oxygen they need to flourish. Games can also help get the team into the mindset of showing raw, unfinished work to users or colleagues. There are a variety of games and warm-ups borrowed from improvisational theater that can inspire and engage your team (Mitroff Silvers, 2014).

Preparing your space

The physical space and materials you establish for prototyping affect the outcomes of the prototyping process almost as much as your team attitudes and interactions. Whenever possible, establish a dedicated space where teams can spread out, make a mess, and leave their work on view for colleagues to see. You may want to stock a small supply cabinet with arts and crafts supplies. This will encourage your colleagues to begin prototyping as a part of their normal work, instead of for special projects only. Also, consider getting away from your regular meeting rooms or office spaces to encourage new interactions and fresh perspectives.

5. Types of prototypes

Prototyping for digital deliverables

When thinking of a prototype, the image that comes to mind is probably closer to a slick three-dimensional printed model than an eight-year-old’s lemonade stand. This association is even stronger when the word “digital” is thrown in. However, the prototypes for digital products that the Web group at the Getty developed in the past year have been a lot closer to the lemonade-stand end of the spectrum than expected.

In some cases, the team created an interactive digital wireframe, but because of time and staffing constraints, that was the exception more than the rule. More often, they created sketchy wireframe drawings using tools like Balsamiq and assembled clickable PDFs. Often, the first round starts by breaking out the construction paper and Post-its.

Regardless of the form factor, the prototypes developed by the Getty Web group are all low fidelity. More specifically, they are “just-good-enough” fidelity. The team discovered that if the quality is too high, users get distracted by some aspect of the design that isn’t part of the issue being tested, or they are less willing to give open and honest feedback because they think the prototype is already finalized. If the fidelity is too low, it gets in the way of users being able to understand and interact with it, and staff end up over-explaining. The team learned that if they found the sweet spot of “just-enough” fidelity, then users can grasp the concept or variable and give useful feedback.

Example: Getty Exhibition Page Redesign

The redesign and reengineering of the Getty’s exhibition Web pages kicked off with an intense two-week cross-departmental effort involving designers, producers, editors, curators, and senior staff. The team identified three user types they wanted to serve through exhibition websites: casual visitors, more engaged “enthusiast” visitors, and art professionals like scholars and curators.

Each team focused on one user type to create a prototype. They tested the resulting sample pages with all the user types, then synthesized findings into one new prototype. This was again tested with all three user types.

The prototypes were all developed on paper and built by hand. Most teams stuck closely to the directive to reimagine exhibition webpages, but one team branched out to include in-gallery experiences as well. 768w" sizes="(max-width: 225px) 100vw, 225px" /> Figure 3: Exhibition webpage prototype at the Getty 768w" sizes="(max-width: 225px) 100vw, 225px" /> Figure 4: Mobile pages were prototyped as well

Lessons learned

Don’t get stuck on nitpicky details

While creating one of the exhibition page prototypes, the team got into a heated discussion over whether certain pieces of content should always be visible if the rest were accessed through an accordion menu. They realized that they needed to first learn if users even wanted the content there at all. Consider making several paper options to test, or bring scissors and tape to iterate on the fly. 768w" sizes="(max-width: 225px) 100vw, 225px" /> Figure 5: Low-fidelity prototype from the Getty workshop

Fidelity matters a lot less than you think

How would art historians, who are used to sophisticated Web tools and put a premium on great-looking products, respond to a rough Sharpie aesthetic? Would senior staff members and curators balk at testing products made from construction paper, Post-its, scissors, and glue? These questions surfaced more than once.

It turned out that all the senior staff members and curators who were user testers completely understood the prototypes and were able to give the team feedback. A couple of more conservative staff members needed some gentle encouragement, but even in a test with high-level staff, including a vice president and a director, they understood that the purpose was to test a concept. No one had a problem with looking at a paper prototype.

Think broadly about the problem

One of the exhibition page teams built a prototype to specifically address the casual visitor’s need for a starting point in an otherwise overwhelming museum. Part of the concept involved creating gallery signage to tie into a Web component, which was technically out of the project’s digital scope. Regardless, the team prototyped the gallery signage along with the Web presence, took it all out to visitors in the museum entrance and galleries, and found resounding confirmation that visitors needed something to help start them out on a museum visit. That key piece of information informed the team while creating their next iteration.

6. Prototyping for interactions

In the QMX group at the Queensland Museum, the team undertakes prototyping as a regular part of the exhibition development process. To support cross-disciplinary collaboration, staff from all departments participate in half-day workshops with ten or more employees.

To start, QMX uses a template to prompt teams to answer key questions and express audience needs with clarity. The template is designed to extract enough information to shape recommendations in the creative brief, another document that summarizes the key goals, target audiences, concepts, and ideas. The creative brief helps teams scale ideas and hand off projects for execution.

After using the template, the teams move into prototyping and build components of the exhibition experience. QMX staff members test their prototypes within the workshop setting, then with public audiences on the gallery floor. They focus on the interactions that visitors experience in the exhibition. 1024w, 450w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Figure 6: QMX team members referencing their templates during prototype building

Example: QMX Exhibition Experience Planning

At the concept development stage of the planning of the Lost Creatures exhibition in June 2013, QMX conducted a two-hour experience prototype to help the project team understand visitors’ interactions in the new space.

The team used masking tape to layout the exhibition plan at a 1:1 scale in the gallery space. Marking the layout in the physical space helped the team to better understand the spatial design, as areas that were perceived as spacious in floor plans actually felt tighter in real life. Seeing the size of plinths, sight lines, and circulations paths, and how real visitors moved around them, helped the team to change the floorplans and create a better experience for the visitors.

Draft plans and design renders were also posted in the gallery space as a type of “journey map” to elicit public feedback. This included photos and drawings of the key objects and interactions planned for Lost Creatures. The team tested what visitors responded to, and how the responses compared to the project team’s original objectives.

Lessons Learned

Get your ideas on paper

To help your team members synthesize their observations and develop insights about users, you can develop your own worksheet templates, with guiding prompts and questions for your team to consider. Posting completed documents in public work areas for the team to see serves as a visual cue of who you are serving, and referring back to the documents during prototyping helps keep team members focused on user needs and the original problem or challenge they set out to address.

Work on site and at scale

Walkthrough prototypes are particularly useful for testing interactions. The goal is to let the visitors experience what the proposed solution will actually be like in real space and time, so work in or as close to the site as you possibly can. When defining the problem, remember to observe visitors and their interactions: what are they carrying, who are they with, what is their body language?

Rotate teams

After working on the same teams, members can get comfortable or complacent. By shuffling team members and bringing in staff from a variety of departments, you expose participants to new points of view, leading to new insights. In rotating groups, junior staff members or less-talkative staff may have more opportunities to participate.

Prototyping organizational practices and processes

Taking prototyping one step further, you can begin applying the concepts of testing and iteration to internal structures and procedures. In today’s office environment, the work landscape changes regularly. Rather than altering the departmental structure every eighteen months in response, assemble teams regularly to address specific, pressing needs of the organization. The goal is responsive iteration, so if a group isn’t working, pivot. If the group is no longer needed, disband the team. In this case, your colleagues become “The User,” so use empathy to build an understanding of their needs as a member of the organization you are trying to model anew.

Using prototyping techniques for internal processes can help an organization become more responsive and efficient, as it begins to see change not as a revolution but as a constant evolution.

Example: Digital Initiative Group at the Getty Museum

In the Education department at the Getty Museum, several teams have formed to address specific areas of interest for new work. These teams act as incubators for new project ideas and inform the overall department’s strategic plan. After just one meeting, one of the groups immediately disbanded when they realized it was not the right group of people to meet about the subject. The teams have been a place for rich conversation and provide a welcome opportunity for creative expression.


Foster group vision

When the team works with a shared purpose, they will be more likely to work together effectively and solve the right problems. During the first meeting, consider drafting a vision statement for the group to agree on common goals and set the direction that the group is headed.

Fig 10: Getty team determines goals for Exhibition page project. 1024w, 400w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> Figure 10: Getty team members determine goals for the exhibition page project

Iterate your groups

Many institutions have the bad habit of getting stuck in formal routines. Instead, commit to being responsive. If one group stops working, make a new group. The informal style of meetings allows you to join together to address specific problems your institution faces, which means listening to and addressing the needs of your colleagues as you go.

Demonstrate results

Once you have talked about human-centered design processes with your organization, one of the most important things you can make time to do is show and demonstrate outcomes. Instead of bringing documents to meetings, bring prototypes, photos of visitors interacting with prototypes, and detailed stories about individual users.

7. Conclusion

Prototyping is a critical tool for the twenty-first-century museum. It involves moving beyond building physical models into new spheres of collaboration, communication, and process modeling. By embracing regular and rapid prototyping for everything from digital products to organizational structures, museums can become more agile and responsive to visitors’ needs.


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Kelley, T., & J. Littman. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Kembel, G. (2009). “George Kembel: Awakening creativity.” Presentation at the Chautauqua Institution. Consulted January 24, 2013.

Mitroff Silvers, D. (2014). “Using improv games to foster creativity and collaboration.” Design Thinking for Museums blog. January 27. Consulted January 30, 2014.

Mitroff Silvers, D., M. Wilson, & M. Rogers. (2013). “Design thinking for visitor engagement: Tackling one museum’s big challenge through human-centered design.” In N. Proctor and R. Cherry (eds.), Museums and the Web 2013. Silver Spring, MD. February 1. Consulted January 30, 2014.

Rowe, P. G. (1987). Design thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Schrage, M. (2000). Serious play: How the world’s best companies simulate to innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Cite as:
. "From Post-its to Processes: Using Prototypes to Find Solutions." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 1, 2014. Consulted .

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