Design thinking, a method for the practical and creative resolution of problems employing the strategies used by designers, has also been developed as an approach to resolving issues in other fields, such as in business and social contexts. When testing a particular idea, low-cost and low-risk experimentation is encouraged. Prototyping is a way of working which allows people to experiment, test and optimise an idea. The concept will typically start on a piece of paper before potentially being transformed and tested with real people to evaluate whether it will work.

Although as individuals we are familiar with prototyping processes (from repainting a room to buying a car), innovators can forget this crucial step along the way. Historically, prototyping has been an innovation method most commonly used by engineers, designers and web developers rather than by those in the public sector. Yet today, it is very interesting to witness how this approach may be useful for social innovation. So, how can you be inspired by design thinking to achieve better results? Let’s have a look at eight social innovation prototyping methods and some of the most remarkable cases.

Ideas develop through trial, error and constant refinement. It’s very rare for an idea to emerge fully formed. There are many methods in use for testing ideas out and refining them, ranging from the formal methods of randomized controlled trials to pilots and experiments.(‘The Open Book of Social Innovation’ – Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice & Geoff Mulgan).


The fashionably classic Sketches and Diagrams

Classic never goes out of style. Simple as it may sound, but sketches and diagrams are some of the most incredible social innovation prototyping methods that can absolutely transform or reshape a project and take it to the next level. Don’t stick to Post-its and old-school templates when you can create something that perfectly suits the testing needs of your product or service. For instance, take a look at the early sketches of the Dialogue Café TelePresence Pods here or the Culture Change Impact Framework here.


In Personas we trust

User personas can help you prototype better, by putting you in your customers’ shoes. They are archetypes that represent your target, those who will use your product or service. The key to success with this kind of social innovation prototyping method is not to get lost in the demographics! Personas are about the user’s motivations, desires, needs, attitudes and behaviours, rather than his age and sex. Unleash your imagination and try to design your personas to be as detailed and realistic as possible, but not idealised.


It’s all about Customer Experience Mapping

A customer journey map is a widely used tool to represent the user experience with a service that you can easily turn to as one of the most helpful social innovation prototyping methods.A journey map helps you think systematically through the steps your customers will take as they interact with your product or service. The stages are simple: Choose a process that you want to map and write down the steps (be sure to include even the smallest steps, even if they seem insignificant). The objective is to get you to consider the variations within the experience that you might otherwise overlook. Organise the steps into a map, usually in the form of a timeline. It’s also good to include alternative paths in the customer journey. Then, start looking for insights and asking questions. What patterns emerge? Is there anything surprising or strange? Why do certain steps occur?

Check out how InSites Consulting identified 8 distinct customer journeys for Philips Lighting using Wakoopa technology here.


Open Testing 101

This is a straightforward method of testing a product or service that combines social education and technological improvement. Google’s test car is a best practice of this method. Other examples include tracking the performance of different plug-in hybrid cars.

More about Open Testing and other methods of testing here.


Once upon a Storyboard

Stories have always been a part of user experience design as scenarios, flow charts and every other technique that we use to communicate how a new design will work. As part of the user experience design, stories can help you easily connect design ideas to the people who will use the product. Storytelling has always been a critical part of human communication. And, it has often played some part in designing human-computer systems. As the scope of human computer systems continues to increase to new form factors, social contexts, and cultures, storytelling techniques are becoming ever more important throughout the design and development process. (John C Thomas, Ph.D., IBM T. J. Watson Research Center).

When employing this method, keep in mind that the more, the merrier. Create a diverse team in order to collect more ideas and different stories.


User-driven is always a good idea

The user-driven prototype is different from any of the other prototyping methods mentioned up to now. As an alternative to building a prototype to test on users, you will instead put the user in the creator’s chair. The purpose of a user-driven prototype is not to use the solutions that the users have generated, but to understand their thinking. For instance, the aim of the ‘Prototypes of Social Innovation’ programme in Chile is to develop proofs of concept and prototypes of new solutions to solve regional challenges through open innovation. The project identifies major challenges in a region and issues an open call for innovations to solve them, encouraging individuals and Chilean legal entities (companies, universities and other organisations) to participate.i

Read more about the programme here.


The Serious Lego Prototypes

When creativity meets strategy, Lego figures appear. Rather than sketching or trying to imagine possible scenarios, you can just play; yes, seriously, by utilising the famous figures. You can use them in role plays and CJMs. Need more of this? As Tim Brown, CEO of international design firm IDEO, recounts in his book ‘Change by Design’, Lego prototyping has been widely used in IDEO’s design thinking process, including where it was once used to create a prototype for a complex insulin injection device. In fact, Lego has taken its toy’s ability to stimulate creativity and ideation seriously. In collaboration with Johan Roos and Bart Victor, professors at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, it launched Lego Serious Play, a methodology that aims to foster creative thinking and problem solving in businesses.

Find out more here.


Alice in Prototypeland

Last but not least, it’s not a tool this time but a golden rule that can be considered one of our recommended social innovation prototyping methods because of its importance. Keep your prototyping processes within a realistic time frame and decide who to involve each time. Otherwise, there is a danger of getting lost in a maze that keeps you from reaching your goal. The first example that comes to mind is Hackathons. What’s more, there’s UNICEF’s Social Innovation Camp that brings together ideas, people and digital tools to build web- and mobile-based solutions to social problems – all in just 48 hours. It is a method for social innovation; using the online world which has huge potential, to change the offline one.’ii

Find out more information here.


Involving the right people can also help with time management while protecting and keeping your project on track. Depending on the complexity of the project and the prototyping method used, you may have to create a time plan and an organisational chart to help you out.

By arming yourself with these commonly used methods, you can take action and build your own prototypes in order to deeply understand your users, decide on and refine your ideas and test your solutions. Whatever method you choose to utilise, remember to pay attention to the four key components of prototyping and testing: people, objects, location and interactions.


Learn more at Social Innovation Academy

To help you become a social innovation prototyping guru, Limitless, together with 4 other partners, has recently started a project aimed at developing the first online Social Innovation Academy in Europe. The Social Innovation Academy will be the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.

Why Social Innovation Academy? Social innovation is increasingly being perceived as the answer to the rising number of European societal challenges. While the European authorities, leading academics, policy experts, business people and activists agree that social innovation is the key to a better future for Europe and the world, it is extremely difficult for professionals to obtain high-quality training on what social innovation actually offers and, more importantly, how it can be done in practice.

The Social Innovation Academy is aiming to change this situation in Europe and beyond. If you are interested in keeping up with the project, you can subscribe to our newsletter, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedInTwitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here.


i   Retrieved from: https://www.innovationpolicyplatform.org/system/files/Chile%20-%20Prototypes%20of%20social%20innovation_0.pdf
ii  Retrieved from: http://unicefstories.org/tag/social-innovation-camp/
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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