Three Things I Learned Rapid Prototyping

I’m leading an ambitious project here at EARN. We want to help low-to-moderate income Americans with fluctuating incomes save.

It’s hard enough to save with a steady income. It’s doubly hard if you are one of the millions of part-time, contract, and gig workers who experience regular ups and downs in their incomes.

Put yourself in the shoes of Amy*, a childcare worker who makes more money in the summer when kids are out of school, supplementing her low periods with buying items from thrift stores and selling them online. Or Bob, a carpenter who is paid by the job. Or Cynthia, a contract worker piecing together many jobs after developing a painful cyst in her wrist.

Helping people with volatile incomes save is a hard problem and I will be the first to admit that rapid prototyping of interventions is not a panacea. But after three days, thirty user tests, and a few thousand index cards (used to mock up mobile screens), I am convinced that rapid prototyping is a critical skill to test, learn, and refine quickly.

Rapid prototyping may sound like a fancy term, but the concept is very familiar. Test an idea with the minimum possible investment. Challenge yourself to maximize learning, not affirming. The process is also simple – develop a hypotheses, model the experience with a prototype, simulate the experience with a user, synthesize feedback, and repeat. Experts recommend about five user tests to gather most of the information you need.

Here’s what I learned in my three-day immersion:

1. Test, don’t debate

Smart, passionate people (like team EARN) like to debate, but our prototyping facilitators were quick to steer debates towards tests. Person A is convinced that saving in a separate account is best, but person B doesn’t think it matters? Let’s split into two groups, build two prototypes, and see what users think. It’s okay if you do not reach consensus — at least we’ll know the idea was polarizing and we can make a more informed decision.


2. You can move a lot faster than you think

On Day 1, we were building prototypes in an hour. By Day 3, we were iterating between tests and building entirely new prototypes in 10 minutes.

It was a perfectionist’s nightmare, but it was truly incredible to see how quickly our team could align on a new idea, build it, and test it. Some wise person once said that work expands to fill the available time. When you know a user is waiting outside to see your next idea, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can build. And at the end of three days, we had tested more ideas than we had in the last six months.

3. Non-profits can (and should) prototype

Our facilitators described our EARN team as “ambitious, thoughtful, and teachable”. As I left the workshop that day, I thought about how lucky I was to work at an organization that embodies these three adjectives.

At EARN, we are committed to moving quickly and using the best methods out there to serve our Savers. We’ve seen phenomenal progress, launching a new product 18 months ago and growing to over 100,000 SaverLife members nationwide. But with half of Americans lacking $400 in emergency savings, we have a long way to go.

Rapid prototyping is one of the tools we use regularly to vet new ideas. We draw inspiration from our early facilitators at Prototype Thinking Labs, a book called Sprint, and our friends doing similar work in other industries.

What have been your experiences with rapid prototyping? Are there other frameworks or methodologies that have been helpful for you?

*Names edited for privacy