Fail Fast with Prototyping

Note from the editor: We are excited to introduce User Stories, a new blog series highlighting industry stories from real Axure users. The UX industry is diverse and quickly evolving with software, web, and mobile applications dominating the modern landscape. Read these stories of UX projects in action to learn more about how the community overcomes industry and workplace challenges and what the future of UX may hold.

Raise of hands: Who made a mistake at work this week? Come on, get them up there. I know I certainly did.

I thought I had this brilliant, simple solution to a problem. I made a prototype and showed my whole dev team, who assured me my solution would be easy to implement. I was delighted! Excited, we shared it with a couple of customers… who promptly told us it wouldn’t help them AT ALL.

We’d talked to these customers before, but somehow my prototype was totally off-base. I’d gotten it completely wrong. But that was okay, even expected. The organization I work for celebrates mistakes like this, believing they are our greatest opportunities to learn from our customers. So I wasn’t embarrassed that my solution didn’t work out, and I felt safe to try again.

Many companies strive to create a culture of psychological safety, and prototyping can be an essential part of this effort at product development organizations.

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmondson, in her paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

In other words, individual members of the team are able to take risks without fear of social retribution. In psychologically safe environments, people feel empowered to ask for help, admit errors, and seek feedback because they know they won’t be ridiculed or demeaned.

Why Psychological Safety matters

So, what’s the big deal? Taking risks is scary, and embarrassment is a normal reaction when admitting a mistake, right?

Well, it turns out that psychological safety makes a big difference in how well teams work together. In a study of what makes teams great, Google determined that psychological safety tops the list of what makes Google teams successful:

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four

…The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Think about it this way: When a team member is afraid to ask a question, they may decide that it’s better to make a guess instead, meaning they may potentially move forward with a fundamental misunderstanding. Not only that, but mistakes are an inevitable part of exploration and innovation. When teams are able to share their thoughts and discuss new ideas uninhibited, they are more likely to be successful.

Making Mistakes Quickly and Efficiently

Prototyping is widely accepted as a tool that increases the efficiency of product development teams. Prototypes help teams test out new ideas quickly and cheaply, allowing them to catch potential usability issues before engineers spend valuable time building flawed features or products. It is through finding out where our assumptions fall short that we create the best products.

In order for prototypes to do their job, however, we have to be comfortable with the fact that they simply won’t be perfect. I like to tell people that a big part of my job as a User Experience Designer is to be wrong. Every time I share a prototype with our users, I am hoping they will show me what I’ve done wrong because I don’t think I will ever get it 100% right on the first try. Once I know what’s wrong, I can make the appropriate edits to fix it.

I Make Mistakes

So what are some of the mistakes I’ve discovered through prototyping? Let’s go back to that “brilliant” idea I mentioned at the beginning.

I’ve been working on a specific project with my development team for about 8 months. Mainly, we’re working to increase efficiency and reduce human error in some complicated accounting-related tasks in our software. At a basic level, our customers told us they wanted to be able to pay a vendor and then get reimbursed.

With information from our initial discovery conversations, our team did some brainstorming on potential solutions, and then I got to work in Axure. The next day at stand-up, I told everyone, “I’ve got it! It’s not nearly as complicated as we thought — look, we can do it in just one step!” We had a few customer calls scheduled, and I was excited to show them my prototype.

The customers we showed were unimpressed, to say the least.

I’d missed something: The person who paid the vendor and the person who submitted the reimbursement were different people. They had access to different information and different processes. They were in completely different departments of our customers’ organizations. There was no way, without asking our customers to completely reorganize their business, that this task could be done in a single step.

I’ll admit I was a little disappointed at first that my so-called “simple solution” wasn’t going to work. But guess what? The next prototype was even simpler. Once I realized we were dealing with two tasks, the cognitive load for each individual user became drastically lower.

A few days later, we came back to one of the customers most unhappy with our first solution, and they were delighted with the changes we had made! They were happy that we listened to them, and we were happy to know we would be building something of value.

Contributing to a Culture of Psychological Safety

Sharing mistakes publicly reminds team members that everyone makes mistakes. I’m lucky to be working in an organization that highly values psychological safety. Whenever the topic comes up, the VP of Engineering is the first to share mistakes he’s made to help everyone feel comfortable. Our engineering team even has a practice of sending out “Today We Learned” emails to help others in the department understand and learn from mistakes individuals have made (without shaming said individuals, of course).

Prototype testing should be deeply embedded in the product development process. It allows us to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from those mistakes early before we’ve invested too much time into the “wrong” idea. As UX Designers, we must embrace the discomfort of being wrong in order for our teams to succeed.

So get prototyping! Embrace the discomfort of being wrong and build better products for your users.