Prototyping and Humans

One of the most unexplored areas of prototyping is how prototypes and the process of prototyping can influence people in how they think, feel and behave. We are not psychologists but have a lot of experience with prototypes and what they do with people in Business Design projects. This is what we want to share with you on this page. Let's go!
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Markus Sorg

Business Design Prototyper

1. Introduction

One of the less understood topics in prototyping is the influence of prototypes and the process of prototyping on humans. With the experience of working with hundreds of teams we have observed that prototypes can have tremendous effects on how people think, feel and behave. These effects are very important to understand because in Business Design the team and how they work and behave is one of the biggest success factors. It's not an easy area to talk and write about, because it has a lot to do with how the human mind and psychology works. However, we don't need to be experts in that. But it's very helpful to have a basic idea of what's going on and why. So, please be aware that you always trigger a wide range of effects & biases when building prototypes.

2. Prototyping and Imagination

People are not very good at thinking about something "new". We are not good at imagining things that we haven't experienced yet with our senses. But in Business Design we often create and build something new. That is where prototypes come into play and help tremendously. Because they make the new, unimaginable idea or concept tangible and real. People with even diverse background and experiences can align perspectives and preconceived opinions and "mental models" about a new idea, wich can bridge the gap between people's imagination and reality.

3. Prototyping and Storytelling

Stories are very powerful, can shape narratives and influence how others perceive us and our ideas. In the Business Design Process, we often have to interact with the outside world, e.g. our Project Sponsors or other stakeholders, investors, customers and even within the team. That's why we need to become great storytellers for our ideas. Prototypes can be a big part in that, since they can help you tell your story more vividly and tangibly than with any business presentation. As a prototyper, it is essential to understand that every prototype you build tells a story. Prototypes can NOT NOT tell a story. That's why we need to be very careful how a prototype is visually designed, what we put into a prototype, how we present it to other people and how we handle the feedback we get for our prototype.

4. Prototyping and Feedback

It is very interesting to see how prototypes have an impact on how people give us feedback on our ideas. Since prototypes are so concrete and visual, they trigger all kinds of feedback...some is helpful and some 100% misleading. Let's look at some of the most common types of feedback we typically get:

Influenced by Emotions

Prototypes trigger emotions. Positive and negative. Because with prototypes you touch expectations, hopes and previous experiences in people. Since prototypes are often very visual, they are always "close" to emotions. That's why we often get very emotional and not necessarily fact-based feedback for our prototypes.

Influenced by Details

On concrete things you get concrete feedback. It's very interesting to see that people "zoom in" on the details of something when it's very concrete. That's why we often get feedback on details instead of the whole concept in general. Be aware of that and make sure you point the discussion of your prototype to the things you really want to know.

Influenced by Design

Everyone of us has a "visual taste". The challenge is that people often are not aware that their feedback is highly influenced by the visual appearance of things. For example, if somebody doesn't like the color "blue" and the font "Roboto" and your design is based on that, it may happen that you get heavy pushback on your whole concept or idea. If people don't like the design, they often come up with a lot of arguments why the idea behind makes no sense to them (and the other way around). In contrast, if people like the visual appearance of a prototype, they may think that the whole product and even business model is well designed (even if it not).

As a prototyper you need to be aware of that and understand where the feedback is coming from.

5. Prototyping and Motivation

With prototyping and prototypes, we often see an interesting effect on one of the most important ingredients of Business Design: Motivation. Motivated and engaged teams are probably the most important success factor in Business Design. If you don’t have have a motivated team, you will fail. Working on prototypes can spark motivation of team members and other stakeholders. Making fast progress on a daily basis and work on your idea in a tangible way gives people the feeling that they can reach their goals, because they can see it right in front of their eyes.

6. Prototyping and Fears

Prototypes can trigger a very strong feeling: Fear. In our performance-oriented society the fear of failure is a very powerful feeling that have a strong impact on how people act. Especially in surroundings where failure is perceived as something very negative, fear can paralyse people. Additionally, in Business Design we work on something new. We can fail every day. Prototypes play an interesting part in this, since we learned that prototypes can amplify this fear or take it away. For example, when a prototype feels "rough" (very bad design, inconsistencies, errors, dead-ends etc.) this prototype amplifies the fear of failure. And in contrast, when a prototype feels inspiring (good-enough design, consistent, on-point etc.) you give the people a very robust feeling that they can achieve their goals.

7. Prototyping and Teamwork

Building prototypes does have a tremendous effect on the way people collaborate in a team setup. Prototypes help members of interdisciplinary teams to align different perspectives and mental models of ideas and concepts. The process of prototyping also helps Business Design teams to reflect their own strengths and weaknesses, since a prototype usually mirrors own capabilities to turn a specific idea into practice in a very direct and transparent way (#nobullshit). Another interesting observation is that customer feedback based on prototypes is usually way more concrete, emotional, polarising and even "extreme" that it often leads to drastically increased (or reduced) level of cohesion and commitment of team members. In a nutshell, as Michel Schrage has put it in one of his famous books "Serious Play":

Contrary to the popular assumption that innovative teams generate innovative prototypes, in fact innovative prototypes generate innovative teams.

8. Psychological Barriers to start prototyping

You will see that some teams hesitate to start prototyping. In our experience there are reasons for this. These are the most common ones:

  • We don't know enough: If we don't know enough about an idea, we will struggle to build a prototype out of it.

  • The fear of failure: We don't want to fail. Prototypes can trigger the fear of failure (see section above) in a very drastic manner.

  • Difficulties to decide: When building a prototype you have to make a lot of decisions, which can be disconcerting.

  • We are not used to doing it: We just don't practice it.

  • Expert mentality: If we see ourselves as experts. Why build a prototype?

As a prototyper, it is your job to help teams to overcome these barriers.

9. Typical Effects & Biases

Let's have a look at some well understood biases and how they affect us in prototyping. Especially Coaches and Prototypers should be very well aware what these biases are and how they can effect teams and therefore the outcome of our projects. It's not easy to spot these effects and you need a little experience to properly detect them. But it can make all the difference to understand them, because these effects can be the difference between success and failure.

Framing Effect

The framing effect is when our decisions are influenced by the way information is presented. Equivalent information can be more or less attractive depending on what features are highlighted. (learn more)

This effect is obvious when you think about prototypes, right? With a prototype you present information in a certain way. You emphasise and de-emphasise information in the way you show the information in a prototype (e.g. through images, videos, hierarchy, size, wording, colours etc.). You can also completely leave out information to hide weaknesses of your idea. It's very easy to make bad ideas look good and and good ideas look bad just in they way you build your prototype. Be aware of this effect when you communicate your ideas with prototypes to the outside world (e.g. Sponsors, Customer Interviews etc.)

Priming Effect

Priming, or, the Priming Effect, occurs when an individual’s exposure to a certain stimulus influences his or her response to a subsequent stimulus, without any awareness of the connection. These stimuli are often related to words or images that people see during their day-to-day lives. (learn more)

With prototypes we stimulate people in a very intense way, because prototypes are very visual (words, images, videos, colours). With that in mind, we should be aware that these stimuli can provoke all kind of emotions with people based on their previous experiences. This can be very different with each person, because everybody has his own history and experiences. Be aware that you will provoke all kinds of emotional reactions to your prototype where nobody knows where theses are coming from. We have seen everything from pure joy to extreme disappointment and everything in between.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic. When we are setting plans or making estimates about something, we interpret newer information from the reference point of our anchor, instead of seeing it objectively. This can skew our judgment, and prevent us from updating our plans or predictions as much as we should. (learn more)

What we often see with teams when they are looking at prototypes is the following: They are often anchored to the solution they see. They can't imagine a completely different solution anymore and are somehow often unable to completely questioning what they are seeing. Often this effect is very robust and hard to mitigate. Even when new information comes in, teams have a tendency to be completely unable to question what we have initially built.

IKEA Effect

The IKEA effect, named after everyone’s favorite Swedish furniture giant, describes how people tend to value an object more if they make (or assemble) it themselves. More broadly, the IKEA effect speaks to how we tend to like things more if we’ve expended effort to create them. (learn more)

The Ikea effect is very important to understand when we build prototypes. As a prototyper it's important to work with the team very closely and involve them a lot when building prototypes. Because the identification and commitment for the idea is much higher when teams have the feeling that they have built it themselves. This also helps us to generate motivation and passion in teams.


Bikeshedding, also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality, describes our tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of our time to menial and trivial matters while leaving important matters unattended. (learn more)

We see this effect often with teams when discussing prototypes. Teams tend to fall into the trap that they want to discuss trivialities like layout issues, minor styling issues etc., because these issues are very easy to identify and resolve. But that's not the task in prototyping. We don't strive to build something "perfect" in every detail, we want to discuss much bigger questions like "is the DNA of our Business Model embedded" or "do we have the value proposition right". But these questions are much harder to tackle that's why teams love to discuss minor issues. As a prototyper or coach, you always need to be aware if the team discusses the right question when looking at your prototype.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes when we avoid having conflicting beliefs and attitudes because it makes us feel uncomfortable. The clash is usually dealt with by rejecting, debunking, or avoiding new information. (learn more)

We often see this effect in reactions to a prototype. Sometimes, a prototype features something (can be even very small), which makes people uncomfortable. It's somehow conflicting with their mental model about how something works or should work. If that's the case, we hear feedback which rejects the whole concept. It is not because the idea is bad, it is because they try to avoid the conflicting beliefs within themselves which we trigger with the prototype.

Status Quo Bias

The status quo bias describes our preference for the current state of affairs; resulting in resistance to change. (learn more)

We see this effect often with Lean Offerings or more mature prototypes. Teams are less likely to (completely) change them because they are more (emotionally) invested and have put in some significant effort. This leads to the situation that teams tend to be resistant to changing things. This is dangerous, because we need to quickly learn adapt for a long period of time. And if we do so, we need to change. Very quickly and very often.

Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue describes how our decision-making gets worse as we make additional choices and our cognitive abilities get worn out. Decision fatigue is the reason we feel overwhelmed when we have too many choices to make. (learn more)

We see this effect often when building prototypes with teams. When building prototypes, you have to make a ton of small decisions. Decisions regarding design, wording, messaging, features, UI / UX, technology and many more. This can be overwhelming. It's important that the prototyper takes these small decisions, which he knows best anyway, away from the team, so that the team can focus on the really important decisions regarding key elements of the Business Model.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. (learn more)

This effect typically happens with Lean Offerings (see also "Status Quo Bias"). We build Lean Offerings and invest time and money. We learn that the idea doesn't work. But we don't want to realise it and invest even more time, effort and money. We don't want to accept that we failed and start tweaking experiments in a way that they create the results we expect. Be aware of that effect when building Lean Offerings. Sometimes we just need to kill our darlings.