3 Prototyping Exercises to Get Unstuck by IDEO

Curated by IDEO.org designers based on their experience in the field, these exercises can be used to help you get unstuck and design more creative solutions to big challenges.

November 28, 2017

One of the most common misconceptions about prototyping is that it’s something you wait to do at the end, after you’ve decided on what your product or service is going to be. But the truth is that prototyping can (and should) happen during your entire project’s life cycle! By getting ideas out of your head early on and making something tangible, you create more opportunities to test out your ideas and it also helps build your confidence in them.

When prototyping, it’s easy to get stuck if you only focus on whether your prototype is successful or not. Instead, you want to ask more specific questions such as “What can we learn from this and what does it inspire us to do next?” By adopting this mindset, you focus more on learning than on failure or success, leading to new solutions you may have never thought of otherwise.

At IDEO.org, we use design to help improve the lives of people living in poverty and it’s only by constantly prototyping that we learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to create solutions that will be embraced by the people we’re designing for.  To help get you started with prototyping, below are 3 bite-sized prototyping exercises from IDEO.org’s Design Kit Travel Pack to help get you unstuck when facing a challenge.

#1. Make Your Question Tangible

Prototyping with IDEO the creators of Human Centered Design

Materials Needed:

  • Table
  • Two jars
  • Tokens
  • A poster


Is there a question that you’ve been struggling to answer related to your project? Use this method to get outside and get quick feedback in the real world. It could be something very simple and quirky, to something more serious about your world views. Passerbys just need to answer yes or no by putting tokens like a bean or pebble in a Yes or No jar.


  1. Create a poster with your question

  2. Set up a table with the poster and jars for answering your question

  3. Encourage people to place their answers in the jar

  4. Bonus points for bringing your question to life with props, illustration, or role-playing. If you can make a stranger smile, there’s a much greater chance they’ll engage with you.

Based on our experience at IDEO.org, we’ve learned that it’s essential to never get attached to a single solution.  This is why we often prototype a number of different concepts at once.  If you put one idea in front of people, they say that they love it.  But if you put multiple ideas forward, you get richer insights from the comparison. Try different questions on different days, or in different places to better understand nuance and mindsets.

#2. Storyboard Your Customer’s Experience

How to Storyboard Your Customer's Experience When Prototyping


Materials Needed:

  • Paper
  • Pens
  • Post-it notes


Make your ideas more tangible and considered by visualizing the steps in a person’s experience through a storyboard. By drawing out each step of your idea on a piece of paper you can iterate quickly at an early stage when you still have a lot of flexibility. This will help you refine the idea and identify questions about how it might work.


  1. Choose an imaginary customer and write down their name, age, and short description. (Or better yet, identify someone you met during your inspiration research)

  2. Use post-its or half sheets of paper, map out each step in your customer’s experience one-by-one from their perspective. What are they seeing, doing, and feeling as they learn about and interact with your product or service?

  3. Consider how your customer first becomes aware of your solution, how they make a decision to try it, what their first experience is like, and how they might spread the word themselves. Visualize each step with quick sketches.

  4. Look carefully at the key moments of your customer’s journey and sketch out alternative options for each on an extra post-it. This allows you to quickly iterate on the fly.

  5. Now,  act out the storyboard with your team to see how it feels. You’ll find holes in your plan just by experiencing it yourself.

#3.  Shop to Get Your Hands Dirty  

Prototyping with IDEO Number 3 Get your Hands Dirty

Materials Needed:

  • $20 
  • Timer


It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of talking about our ideas, but design is all about action. Use this exercise to help your team move past theoretical concepts and start making things.


  1. Assemble your team at a local retail store - the bigger the better! A hardware store, container store, or other big chain usually works best.

  2. Choose one of your ideas to work on. For example, “Today we’re going to prototype our idea of a pop-up health clinic for screening children under 5 years old.”

  3. Give everyone 15 minutes to explore the store and create their own scrappy set-up for your service or experience, using materials found in the store. Adding a budget for the total bill can unlock your creativity even more since it forces you to be more scrappy!

  4. One at a time, walk each other through the prototypes you’ve created, explaining how they would work and playing different roles.

The reason we love this exercise is that you will find yourself associating materials with your idea that aren’t intuitive or obvious and can lead to fresh concepts you might never find otherwise.

Ultimately, prototyping is just another word for experiments that are designed to help us learn. Therefore, after you test any of your ideas, regardless of their level of resolution, it’s important to take time to reflect on what you learned - the good, the bad, and especially the unexpected!

If you’re interested in getting your hands on more design and prototyping exercises to use with your team, don’t miss the opportunity to kickstart IDEO.org’s newly launched Design Kit: Travel Pack!

About the Authors:


Adam Reineck is the Global Design Director at IDEO.org where leads design teams with an eye towards design excellence, making early and often, and finding new ways to experiment in the social sector. Before joining IDEO.org, he spent eight years as a principal designer at IDEO, founded a design studio called New Factory and studied Industrial Design at California College of the Arts.

Joyce Kim is the Digital Marketing Specialist at IDEO.org where she focuses on inspiring communities across the design and social sector through storytelling. Prior to joining IDEO.org, Joyce built her marketing career working on value-led brands such as Ben&Jerry’s and Kiva.

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