Works like, looks like

Photo by Julian Wearne

My friend Nick Napp introduced me to some new terms when we were discussing prototypes a few days ago. In the toy industry they classify their experimental versions of products as 'works-like', 'looks-like' or 'works-like, looks-like'. As you might guess 'works-like' prototypes demonstrate the functionality that the designers are after, but look nothing like the intended product, 'looks-like' means that you have an empty shell that doesn't work but reflects the intended form, and 'works-like, looks-like' is a more traditional prototype that has both the form and function.

I love this language, because it gives us a way to express some of the lessons we've been learning in the web industry. Traditionally in engineering disciplines the risk is that your technology won't work – that the bridge will collapse after you've built it. That was true in the early days of the web, we had no confidence that we could build a photo upload site that would actually work, so we got into the habit of testing the functionality through prototypes. In our minds, the only kind of prototype was 'works-like'.

A lot of the most interesting recent techniques for startups are focused on reducing market risk instead of technology risk. I see everything from running AdWords campaigns that lead to a shell landing page for your hypothetical product, to powerpoint-prototypes or photoshop mockups as 'look-likes', because they're intended to answer fuzzy questions about people's superficial reactions to the products.

Our current problem is that we've overloaded the term 'prototype' to mean both kinds of experiment. I've seen the confusion and frustration that this causes, as engineers use the effort to try and answer technical questions while the business folks gnash their teeth at the slap-dash styling that makes it useless for showing to potential customers. If we adopted the terms and mindset that they're actually two different things, then we'd have a better chance of modularizing our design process to answer those questions separately, and then have a final synthesis phase where we try to bring them together into a 'works-like, looks-like' final prototype. I found this article from the D School very enlightening on the way traditional product designers apply the same technique.

I'm going to try to clarify my thinking about the design process by using these terms going forward, and I'm curious if anyone else has run across anything similar in the web world?

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