Some learning designers rave about the benefits of prototyping. Prototyping can communicate design ideas that would be difficult or impossible to communicate with words alone. It can give stakeholders glimpses into the decisions they are making. It can simply help the designer work out ideas early in the design process. Dr. Michael Allen has long recommended a process of rapid and iterative prototyping to help the designer hone in on successful learning designs. But when I talk with learning designers who don’t prototype, I typically hear the protest that there’s no time or money to add additional tasks to already-tight development cycles.
In Prototyping, Todd Zaki Warfel puts forth a compelling argument for prototyping, including case studies showing how it can dramatically shorten the development cycle and improve the overall quality of the final product. And while the book is written from the point of view of a software and Web designer, it’s no leap at all to translate these ideas to the point of view of a learning designer – particularly one who is venturing off the read-and-click path.
Here are a few of the gems that Warfel unearths:
Audience and Intent
Audience and intent are crucial elements in determining how functional and visually faithful your prototypes should be. I confess that I’ve gotten caught up in interaction designs and created prototypes that sought to communicate that interactivity, but which left my audiences cold because of their sketch-like appearance. In truth, understanding your audience for a prototype is as important as understanding your final audience, the learner.
Though the section on audience is only part of a chapter, it provides some key insights into how creating a prototype for a fellow developer or designer to communicate an idea is different from creating a prototype for an executive or a client to sell a design.
Sketching, presentation, and critique
Again, while not a large part of the book, this section gives us a glimpse into the studio processes that are often lacking in software design – and learning design, too. Warfel expands the definition of sketching to include any medium in which you’re comfortable expressing ideas … including sketching in code! This helps drive home the idea that sketching is not about knowing how to draw, but about generating ideas. Presentation and critique is a process straight out of more traditional design studios, whereby one person presents the strengths of a design and others critique it. Sketching, presentation, and critique all take place on extremely short timelines – mere minutes for each – and are generally collaborative processes.
While I’ve participated in some of these activities in designing eLearning, I can’t say I’ve done all of them together in this way, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say they’re not a learning industry norm. I can see where they would have a lot to offer in terms of promoting creativity and refining ideas.
Chapters 6-11 of the book take some of the most frequently used and capable tools and methods for prototyping (paper, PowerPoint and Keynote, Visio, Fireworks, Axure RP Pro, and HTML) and step through how to use them, specifically for prototyping. So if you’re not sure that a particular piece of software that you have is up to the task, these chapters will help you evaluate it. Or if you don’t know where to start with software and you’re daunted by the learning curve of trying new tools and prototyping all at the same time, these chapters will give you a great shortcut.
In the final chapter, Warfel covers how prototypes can contribute to another software development process that is gaining popularity in learning design: usability testing. While I initially didn’t get the connection between usability testing and prototyping, it quickly made perfect sense and was a huge eye-opener. People often shove usability testing to the end of the development process … frankly, at a stage when it’s too late to make major changes. Testing functional prototypes for usability in the early stages allows for more major changes – even complete redesigns if they’re needed. And this chapter gives some excellent on-the-ground advice for usability testing, even right down to the habits of a skillful test moderator.
In Prototyping, Warfel writes, “Prototyping is commonplace in other design fields like architecture and industrial design. In fact, it’s not just accepted, but expected. Why isn’t it as expected in software development?” I would argue that in this area, learning design and development share a great deal with software design and development. Our industries didn’t grow up in the design studio, but learning its processes can be a tremendous benefit.
Warfel, Todd Zaki. (2011) Prototyping. New York: Rosenfeld Media. 197 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1933820217.
Publisher’s List price: $39.00
Amazon: Paperback $39.00, Kindle $13.20
Barnes & Noble: NOOK $13.20