Good Prototypes Remove Everything Else

Back in ’97 I spent some time at a Shockwave game boutique (didn’t we all). One day, a technology vendor sent over a prototype game – highlighting a new interaction model.

The game was obviously a prototype but we weren’t sure of what. All the elements on-screen very simple shapes and a random color (is that what we’re looking at?). The controller worked a little differently than we expected – is that the prototype? Unsure and unimpressed, we put the game aside and went back to work. Later that day, the vendor came by and explained the magic. Just like how an explanation deflates the funniest joke. The moment had past.

Fast forward a couple years and I’m working on the information architecture for a very large site redesign. We were hashing through hundreds of wireframes (paper prototypes) a month, each time a section of the page was signed-off on, it was removed from the wireframes and replaced with a box and a ‘see page ## for details’. The page header, footer, side nav, and many other sections were all treated this way. Unlike the game I described earlier, this removal of detail allowed us to focus the conversation and the prototype on the unknowns, while setting context and telling a story.

Otherwise, Seth Godin is right – the smart people, won’t get it. They won’t get it because they won’t know what they’re looking at. Black & white can tell a very good story without being close to the finish of the final product.

From my perspective, a protoype is rarely about the thing. It’s about having a focal point for a conversation, and the conversation should always change the prototype.