Prototyping is the act of mocking up some aspect of an envisaged product or capability in order to asses its suitability, acceptability, or performance. It is usually applied to product design, but can be used in many different contexts for both internal and external customers. Successive iterations of a prototype, either as throw-away one-offs or through evolutionary modifications, help determine whether requirements have been properly expressed and understood, the item can be manufactured efficiently or at all, contains all desired functionality, is comfortably usable (ergonomics), is understandable and intuitive, and so on. Prototypes may be physical objects, systems, arrangements (or layouts), environments, or procedures.

Prototypes can be used in proof-of-concept exercises, to determine whether the desired outcomes or effects can be achieved. A form study prototype can be used to evaluated fit and finish, manufacturability, ergonomics, material requirements, and other things. A usability prototype may be used to examine user interactions and comprehension. A visual prototype can bee used to assess how an item looks in terms of its visibility (potato peelers with potato-colored handles are more likely to be thrown away with the peeled skins, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view) or appeal. A functional prototype is used to see how things work.

Methods of prototyping include the following:

  • Storyboarding: This allows investigation of the order, location, appearing, and arrangements of things and events. Movies are often storyboarded before production begins, but the technique can be applied to any series of events.
  • Paper Prototyping: This involves the creation of one or more drawings, which may be done to any degree of accuracy or scale, to see how things fit together and build shared understanding.
  • Workflow Modeling: This describes the flow of operations, decisions made and criteria required to make them, execution brances and diversions, and so on. They are often defined as flowcharts.
  • Simulation: Objects, and systems can be simulated when it is too expensive, time-consuming, or dangerous to build and exercise them in the real world. A wide variety of simulation techniques may be employed for this research (e.g., different kinds of analog, continuous, discrete-event, and hybrid simulations).
  • Physical Models: When in doubt, build something real and see how it goes.

Examples of prototyping:

  • Wind tunnel testing: This is applied to air and ground vehicles and also structures both singly and in groups. Water-borne vehicles are similarly tested in large tanks.
  • Flight simulators: These can be used to test physical performance characteristics of aircraft and also operational procedures.
  • Full-scale functional prototypes: Entire cable channels and museums are devoted to all the crazy flying aircraft that have been produced to explore various ideas and capabilities.
  • Ergonomic studies: Hand-held objects are often studied and designed with a keen eye toward comfort, usability, and safety.
  • Simulations of border crossings are used to understand ongoing issues and the effects of proposed changes, and also in the process of designing and building new ones.
  • Architects often build building models and landscapes out of foamcore and cardboard so customers can viscerally understand the look and feel of a proposed structure and its environment.
  • Building Information Systems (BIMs) like Revit are used to specify the design of a building and its fixtures and infrastructure in great detail. This supports defining bills of material, construction order and requirements, skills needs for all the different components and systems, site preparation and staging, and so on.
  • User Interfaces for computer software can be mocked up using tools like Balsamiq, Visio, or UI-builders included in different programming products. They make involve greater or lesser degrees of working functionality.(/li)
  • The command module simulator was famously used to identify a procedure that allowed the Apollo 13 spacecraft to be safely shut down and restarted, which allowed the crew to make it back home safely against long odds.(/li)

It is important to note that prototypes may turn up unexpected causes and effects, but also might not. Many lessons have had to be learned the hard way. You can’t test for effects you don’t know even exist. Remember the (first) Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse in Kansas City, and the failure of the railroad bridge that led to the formation of the Order of the Engineer.

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