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First Person Interview: James Oliver Senior and Grant Wedner on Prototyping

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The Refinement Phase of the End of Life Challenge is all about getting out there and testing your idea with real people. How do they respond? What do you have right? What did you miss? Prototyping is the way this experimentation is tackled in human-centered design. A prototype is a simple “embodiment” of your idea, or a part of your idea, that you can put in front of people to test specific questions. Each conversation gives you new information that you can use to improve your idea and your next prototype. Wash, rinse, repeat from there.

Prototyping is a very powerful process for discovery but it’s not how most people work everyday. So I sat down with two experts in healthcare, design, and prototyping to learn a bit more. I loved hearing how they approach the process, use very simple prototypes to test ideas, and learn by getting started early. Their real-life examples of prototyping make the process more concrete, whether you are prototyping something you can hold in your hand, an app, or something as abstract as a conversation.

Grant Wedner is a Senior Director at IDEO. He leads partnership activities for IDEO’s Design for Health portfolio. Grant is deeply experienced with IDEO’s prototyping and design practices, and his work has involved quite a bit of time looking at the end of life experience.

James Oliver Senior is a Creative Director of Brand Experience at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, Phoenix, AZ and Jacksonville, FL. James has worked in healthcare for over 10 years. He leads a team with over 80 designers working to understand and improve the patient experience using evidence-based processes that support Mayo Clinic as a world leader in medical practice, education and research. 

Why use prototypes?

Prototypes enable rich conversation and discovery with stakeholders. As James puts it, “We are going in not with a deep understanding of the space but rather not knowing, and seeing what we can discover. We use prototypes as vehicles to help us gain a bit of understanding.” These early sketches help our stakeholders “move from an imaginary or constructed space to something that is concrete.” Grant and the IDEO team use prototypes to let them “get out early with ideas and put them in front of a few people and take your assumptions and quickly do some checks on them.”

What makes a good prototype? How simple can a prototype be?

Grant and James stress that “low-fidelity prototypes are really important and really impactful and they don’t need to be super refined to get you to the insider answers that you need.” Products ranging from the iPhone to state of the art surgical equipment all started with surprisingly simple prototypes made from wood blocks, styrofoam, or objects that were lying around the office. “It is really important to remember that you can prototype conversations and you can prototype experiences. It does not need to be a physical thing.” Nor do you always need to build prototypes directly for your concept. Analogous examples from other sectors or industries can be powerful tools for starting conversations.

Where do you start prototyping? Against what questions or features?

Where do you start your experiments? “If we don’t know anything about a space, there is a phase where we like to map everything out as much as possible and put down an actor map or a process map.” James and Grant both caution that “there is a sense that you want to start with things that are much more complex, but it can be really, really simple things that you want to get right first. Building incrementally and starting with some of the small things begins to create momentum.” As you move forward it’s important to keep your eye on the big picture too. “You can have six or seven small improvements but miss the big picture, so it’s helpful to recognize and communicate what you are trying to achieve with each of your tests.”

Who is the audience for your prototype? How do you decide who to talk to?

In reimagining the end of life experience, “the reality is that your market is everyone you meet. Everyone will go through this experience. There isn’t anyone that you can’t have this conversation with.” IDEO likes to find “extreme users” for their conversations. “We like to look at the edges and they will  inform the middle, as opposed to looking at the middle and having it inform out.” Grant stresses though that big design firms and healthcare institutions have the resources to go after the ideal people for conversations. Individuals and teams in the Challenge don’t need to go to those extremes. “If all you have is a post-it and an audience of three people, that’s great. Start there.”

How do you talk with professionals and patients when talking about end of life?

Healthcare is “a very professional space so bringing all your professionalism and empathy to bear is always helpful, especially at a time that is very emotionally charged.” Healthcare professionals are extraordinarily busy so “structuring your experiments and your knowledge generation around what is already a busy episodic schedule” is very important. A good research conversation will start with a question “but you don’t want to co-opt the conversation. It is the observation that is going to drive a lot of the insight.” If all of that sounds like a tough environment for research, Grant reminds us that ““everyone is as expert as anyone else. It is a muscle reflex that you need to extend and practice. Don’t be intimidated by it.”

How do you stay open and not fall in love with your idea?

It can be tough to stay open to learning and let an idea go. James says, “All designers love their ideas but once you’ve been wrong a few times you are willing to admit this is probably true of most of your ideas.” He adds that “being as hyper-attuned to the actors as possible is key.” IDEO goes as far as to create “‘sacrificial concepts”. They take a more extreme version of an idea and “put it out there to glean a lot of insight, with the knowledge that this concept maybe doesn’t move forward but it is there for the learning purpose.” We need to remember that “prototyping isn’t necessarily precious. You may just want to learn one or two things and then they get thrown away. And that is totally okay.”

About the author

Jim Rosenberg is the "Community Activator" for the End of Life Challenge. Jim has been conducting interviews with people throughout the Challenge to help spark creative thinking. The “First Person” posts capture highlights from each of these interviews. When Jim’s not interviewing people he works with purpose-driven organizations to figure out, design, and build new programs and initiatives. 

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