• Carolyn Stuart

Using prototyping to plan your pathway out of the COVID Rāhui

As we begin to embark on our journey back from the COVID Rāhui schools will need to come up with solutions for situations they have never encountered before. Every school operates within a unique context and at a time when keeping everyone safe is at the forefront, we cannot afford to make mistakes nor 'build the aeroplane while it is flying', nor think that one solution will fit every school. We must move wisely. Prototyping, a strategy from the design thinking methodology, will help you clarify your thinking and highlight potential problems with solutions ahead of implementation.

Of all the strategies I teach from the world of Design Thinking, prototyping is the one that educators find the trickiest to get their heads around. In this blog post I will answer your questions about prototyping and share with you ways to start your own prototyping journey.

When I first encountered Design Thinking I was on the leadership team of an IT company. Almost immediately I was able to identify how the different stages of this methodology would benefit education; all the stages that is, except prototyping.

Prototyping, in the IT context, usually involves building a mockup of an app or a website and getting potential users to try it out to give you feedback. The reason IT companies use prototyping throughout their development process is to ensure they only spend time and money on applications, or features within applications, that their users like and will therefore use. From bitter experience the IT world has learnt that the ‘build it and they will come’ (i.e. assuming you know better than your user) approach is a recipe for disaster. Hence, prototyping is a critical element to an application's success.

So what about education? Over the years we have regularly seen “build it and they will come”, both at the system level, (think IES) and at the school level (think ‘any good idea’ that you have really struggled to get people to engage with). I believe that right now, as we start our journey back from COVID 19, it is timely for education to take a leaf out of the IT industry’s book and begin to use prototyping to test ideas and solutions, ahead of implementation. If nothing else it will halt our ‘building the aeroplane as it is flying’ mentality.

Since I first encountered Design Thinking, almost five years ago, I have spent hours thinking about the answers to the following questions:

If we used prototyping when developing new educational strategies would it result in better solutions that are more likely to work?

The answer to this is Yes.

The purposes of prototyping are:

  1. To help clarify an idea. - As you begin to prototype an idea, the process reveals the gaps in your thinking. It takes your understanding of an idea from a surface level to a much deeper one. If you prototype with others the process causes robust, solution-improving dialogue.

  2. To enable you to explain your idea to others in order to test and refine your solution. The process is represented simply in the following diagram:

Can you prototype an educational solution that has nothing to do with technology?

The answer again is Yes.

Prototypes are more than a mock app or website. A prototype is a low-fidelity (think number 8 wire) solution or a representation of a solution that enables you to refine and test your ideas with the people who will use your solution.

A recent example of a low-fidelity prototype was Leaders Connect 2020. We had an idea based on an unmet need we’d observed around helping leaders connect with each other. We figured out how we could test the idea using the resources we had at hand, ran a trial of the process and then tested it with real users, getting their feedback in order to take the idea to the next stage (watch this space).

What are the most common or easiest ways to prototype an idea for education?

There are lots of ways to prototype. Below are the ones I have found to be most useful when working in an educational context.

1. Napkin Sketch

Napkin Sketch

Imagine you are in a restaurant and you grab a table napkin and pen to sketch out your idea to help others understand.

Pro tip: A4 or A3 photocopier paper works well for napkin sketches. If you have sharpie pens on hand use these as it helps people see the diagram more clearly

2. Storyboard


This is a series of boxes used to tell the story of your idea step-by-step.

Pro-tip: A3 paper folded into a grid of eight boxes works well. Once again sharpie pens are invaluable to help with clarity

3. Journey Map

Imagine a pictorial map, a bit like you get in the front of some novels, which shows the journey of an idea from start to finish

4. Low Fidelity Model

Leaders' Connect 2020

This is when you try out a low-fidelity example of your solution to a subset of your users in order to gain feedback ahead of scaling it to a much larger group of users. E.g. what we did in the Leaders Connect 2020 example given above.

5. Workflow Diagram

Workflow Diagram

This is a diagram that shows the different actions you will take depending on the outcome of a decision or the answer to a question. The diagrams help you plan the actions you will need to take in different scenarios ahead of time.

6. A Day in the Life of…

This is generally a mix of sketches and writing detailing a day in the life of the user of your solution. It helps you understand how the solution impacts different people in your community. It can be extremely helpful to explain to others (e.g. parents) how a solution plays out for different groups of people.

7. Short Narrative

This is a short story that provides a real-life story of your solution.

Does it matter which type of prototype I use?

The answer is No.

Choose the type of prototype that will best illustrate the solution you are working on. I’ve given some examples below based on the current COVID 19 situation but this is by no means an exhaustive list!

Sometimes a prototype might be a combination of two or more types. What matters is that whatever type/s of prototyping you choose, it is successful in helping you clarify your thinking and explaining your solution to others in order to test and refine it to something that has a much higher chance of working first time.

Is prototyping easy to learn if you have an education background?

The answer to this question is Not Always.

I find that when I run Design Thinking workshops with teachers and school leaders the most challenging part is supporting educators to get their heads around, you guessed it, prototyping. I think that the reason for this is because as teachers we spend our lives rapidly and repeatedly solving problems for others - think of how many problems you solve ‘on-the-hoof’ in any given day. It can therefore be a big adjustment to apply the discipline of prototyping a solution to get clarity and feedback before implementing it.

The good news though is that once people have experienced the process, they quickly see the value of it and appreciate how much better their solutions become. Below are some photographs of real-life solutions from my work in schools across New Zealand - with thanks to the educators for allowing these to be shared.


Prototyping is one of those things that if you take the time to invest in the process the rewards far outweigh the time invested. Prototyping ideas results in solutions that are crystal clear and highly effective. Prototyping stops you having to ‘build the aeroplane while it is flying’ and at this time as we look to journey out of the COVID Rāhui it offers a process that will increase the safety of everyone in your community.

If you want to start using prototyping with your team but need help to get started then you are welcome to email me on [email protected] and we'll figure out the best way to move forward.

And last but by no means least...

If you like the way I think you can sign up for Thursday Thinking here and enjoy my thinking delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday morning.

Til next time


New Zealand


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