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Build your way forward

Ready why prototyping is a key element of design thinking that means solving problems through experimentation and playing with possible solutions.
Multiple image of businessman writing something on a wall
© Deakin University
Complex problems don’t get solved in one go, which is why trying things out and learning through action is often the best way to build our resilience.
One of the most interesting applications of design thinking has been a very popular course at Stanford created by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans called Designing Your Life that assists students to get ready for their careers.
A central idea both in this course and in their equally popular book is that we need ‘multiple ladders’ to make the most of our lives.
For example, in a recent interview, Burnett and Evans explain:
When you design a product, you do not have only one idea; that would be terrible. You generate lots of ideas … there is tons of research that says if you start with three ideas, and you generate ideas from there, you will have a better set of ideas, and in turn will have a better chance of selecting something that is successful. It is the same thing with your life. There is not one ladder. Through our workshops on the book, we have talked to people all-around the country, and found that often people feel trapped. Successful people climbed that ladder and got to be a partner at a law firm or an executive at their company, but are unhappy and feel stuck because they thought it was a singular one size fits all road to meaning.
Burnett and Evans suggest that when we feel stuck – whether in life or our career – the best approach is to ‘build your way forward’. This is another way of saying: try stuff out (although it’s a little more complex than that).

Prototyping your life

Designers try things out by making models or prototypes, but they don’t just make one model, they make multiple models. They then look at what they’ve made and they tinker, play and move things around. Then they have another go.
Burnett and Evans suggest several useful techniques for practising prototyping in your own life, including the following practical advice.
Odyssey plans
Come up with three alternative five-year or ‘odyssey’ plans, each of which includes:
  • a timeline
  • a graphic representation of your goals
  • three key questions that test out assumptions in each plan
  • a six-word headline that sums up the intent of your plan.
Prototyping conversations
Find someone that does what you want to do or has solved a problem you are trying to solve and ask them questions about their experience. This isn’t about asking others for answers, but exploring how they went about building their life.
While the best way to do this is to talk to real people, YouTube is also full of fascinating talks and interviews with people who’ve led amazingly different lives.
You could then put together a blog of videos that inspire you and use these as prototypes for the types of conversations you would like to have in your own life.
Prototyping experiences
Try new things out for yourself. You can do this by looking for opportunities to volunteer or asking a colleague if you can shadow them and learn more about the way they work.
Mind mapping or brainstorming
If you’re part of a team, you can get together and do any of these activities together, and an essential way of doing this is through brainstorming.
If this isn’t possible, mind mapping is a creative way of brainstorming with yourself.

Prototyping as an example of design thinking

At first these activities may sound like a traditional way of researching a problem. However, Burnett and Evans suggest that we should also reframe the idea that comprehensive research will produce a solution.
One way of doing this is to develop different prototypes as a means of helping us to find and explore a range of alternative questions. In other words, prototyping is another way of remaining open and flexible.
The key messages from this aspect of design thinking are:
  • We learn by doing, so write things down, draw diagrams, create models, try stuff out.
  • Don’t get stuck on a single solution: try to map out multiple ways forward.
  • Talk to other people.

Your task

How do you think prototypes can help you to approach problems more creatively and flexibly? Can you think of something in your life you might like to prototype?
Use the comments to share how you might go about doing this. Also take a moment to reflect and comment on what other learners have to say and what you can learn from their ideas.
© Deakin University
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