When faced with a problem you're trying to solve, relying solely on past experiences or existing knowledge may limit your ability to discover new opportunities that could offer your users a truly exceptional user experience.
By embracing a "fail fast to learn fast" mindset, you foster a culture that promotes experimentation and embraces failure to create something that distinguishes your organization from your competitors.
Rapid prototyping is a process that beautifully supports this mindset. It encourages you and your team to try out ideas, test them, and improve them until they align with your desired outcomes.
In this article, I'll discuss the Build, Measure, Learn approach to rapid prototyping. This is an approach I’ve used with great success in various organizations throughout my career. I'll share the key lessons I’ve learned and provide best practices for implementing this approach and gaining stakeholder support.
Introducing the Build, Measure, Learn approach
The Build, Measure, Learn (BML) cycle is an iterative process. It involves creating a prototype or Minimal Viable Product (MVP), testing it, and using captured data and user feedback to improve it.
This process was first introduced in the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries as an approach for startups to bring a product or service to market more quickly and effectively. Ries argues that many startups launch with an idea they believe people want but then spend months or even years trying to perfect it without ever showing it to a customer.
While everyone has great ideas, becoming fixated on one idea can make it difficult to consider alternative approaches. By not incorporating data and feedback from your target audience and users into the development of your idea, you’re taking a risky bet on the success of your product or service.
Why is BML an effective problem-solving approach in UX?
Although BML was initially introduced as a process for startups to adopt when launching an MVP, it can also be effectively used during your design process when you're looking at how you might solve a problem.
In a previous UX Lead role, when I introduced the BML approach to problem-solving it represented a significant shift from our previous ways of working. Design decisions were often based on internal feedback, and progress could be slow due to multiple rounds of feedback. Instead, this approach introduced the concept of moving quickly through ideas and using user feedback to ensure that our approach resulted in users being able to complete key tasks successfully and efficiently.
When I initially integrated BML into my design process, I must admit that I was unaware of its background. However, I strongly believed in the concept and recognized it as a vital component of the human-centered approach to problem-solving that I aimed to establish within my organization. BML served as a bridge between problem identification and the delivery of solutions informed by user feedback.
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How to use BML for rapid prototyping
Take the ideas you’ve generated for solving the problem and create a prototype that you can test.
The fidelity of your first prototype is entirely circumstantial. If you work in an organization with a well-defined design system that you can easily grab components from, then take advantage of this to create a prototype that will closely resemble the look and feel of your digital product or service. Alternatively, you can start by creating low-fidelity wireframes.
Remember, the mindset you’re looking for is to "fail fast to learn fast", so choose the approach that allows you to quickly and effectively go from an idea to a prototype that you can test.
Now it's time to evaluate your prototype against your desired outcomes.
The method you choose to measure the effectiveness of your prototype depends on your goals and objectives. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider which testing methodology is best suited for your needs.
One common methodology I use is "think out loud usability testing." This approach allows me to assess whether users can successfully complete key tasks and identify any usability issues that may hinder their progress. Typically, I conduct these tests with five users per iteration and measure the following:
Task success: This is often measured as a binary outcome to assess whether a user completed a task or not.
Efficiency: I analyze the speed at which a user can complete a task and collect self-reported data from the user on how they perceive the task's ease. The user rates the ease on a linear scale ranging from 1 (very difficult) to 5 (very simple).
When we combine this approach with our "fail fast to learn fast" mentality, testing with five users strikes a balance between revealing problems and iterating quickly to address them.
Usability testing allows you to gather both quantitative and qualitative insights. The quantitative data helps measure success, while user feedback provides the context for this data. This combination is invaluable for gaining a well-rounded understanding of the user experience, providing useful insights for effectively iterating on your prototype.
During the Learn phase of BML, you’ll analyze the findings from your testing and determine the next steps based on what you’ve discovered.
This will likely present you with three possible actions to take:
Scrap it: If the prototype fails to meet the desired outcomes, and leaves users confused and frustrated, then it’s necessary to start over and explore new ideas.
I don't usually worry about conforming to conventions or staying on brand with my early prototypes because it helps me see if a different way of thinking might better meet the needs of users. I’ve scrapped many prototypes because of this, but the lessons I’ve learned have helped guide further iterations in a direction that wouldn't have been possible without this approach.
Adapt it: If the prototype generally meets your goals and objectives but users encounter some obstacles, then it's likely you have a good understanding of the issues and reasons behind them.
You can return to the Build phase in the BML cycle, make iterations on the prototype to address the problems, test it again, and then analyze the impact of these changes during the Learn phase.
Approve it: If the data and feedback collected during the Measure phase shows that the prototype aligns with your goals and objectives, you can proceed to the next phase of the process. Depending on the fidelity of the prototype, this may involve refining the design and preparing all the necessary assets for development.
The main things I’ve learned about rapid prototyping
It’s common to face pushback or receive questions from stakeholders regarding the benefits of this approach. In the next section, I share detailed guidance on how to obtain buy-in for rapid prototyping, but before we get to that, there are a few key points that I consistently highlight to help educate stakeholders.
Testing isn’t a major obstacle
Some stakeholders may resist this approach due to the belief that it will impede progress. However, this isn’t the case. Online tools like Lyssna allow for quick test setup and launch, with results often available on the same day. This enables you to rapidly iterate your prototype and deliver the final solution quickly.
Testing is cost-effective and saves money in the long run
Another concern you may encounter is the perceived cost of testing. The availability of online tools allows for more frequent and lower-cost testing compared to traditional lab-based methods.
By developing and launching a solution based on user feedback, you can avoid the risk of redesigning and redeveloping a solution that fails to address the problem. This approach is a much more efficient use of an organization's resources and budget.
The objective isn’t to prove something
Throughout this article, I’ve been careful to avoid presenting this approach as a means of validating prototypes against a hypothesis. Rapid prototyping involves using user feedback to enhance an idea and transform it into something that you’re confident can be developed without any significant usability issues. It aims to enable users to successfully and easily complete key tasks.
The validation of whether the solution addresses the problem happens when it’s launched in the live environment. This can be done through an A/B test against the existing solution (the control) or to all visitors.
In either case, it’s crucial to have the appropriate success tracking and feedback mechanisms in place so you can effectively measure this.
How to get buy-in for rapid prototyping in your organization
Up to this point, I’ve highlighted the advantages of using BML as an effective problem-solving technique. However, all of this is insignificant if you fail to persuade your stakeholders of its value.
After all, without their support and agreement, it will be difficult to fully integrate this approach into your design process.
So, how can you get stakeholders on board?
Collaboration is key
The key to success is to involve stakeholders in the design process. Your goal should be to make them feel included so that they can understand and experience the benefits firsthand. This approach is much more effective than simply trying to persuade them through a presentation.
In a previous organization, I had to manage the expectations of multiple stakeholders from different teams. They all had their own ideas for how we should design a new feature and wanted it delivered quickly.
In the past, this process would have involved a few design iterations based on subjective feedback from stakeholders, relying on their assumptions rather than user feedback.
For this specific project, I took their ideas, created a prototype, and conducted usability testing. I used the insights gained from testing to iterate on the prototype, exploring more extreme solutions to the ideas. The insights from both the testing and the initial iteration were then used to produce a design that incorporated all the key learnings and aligned with our business objectives.
Within a couple of days, I turned this around and took the stakeholders through the process, highlighting user behavior throughout. This not only engaged the stakeholders but also excited them about this new approach and allowed them to experience its benefits firsthand. It demystified any notion that testing slowed down the design process, effectively demonstrating the value of incorporating user feedback.
Start small and build from there
A crucial factor in the success story mentioned above was that instead of spending time explaining the concept of rapid prototyping to stakeholders and trying to convince them of its benefits, I simply went ahead and let them experience it firsthand.
This approach is a more effective way to gain the necessary buy-in. So, where do you begin?
Start small: When trying to get buy-in for a new way of working, it's important to start small and have patience. Identify stakeholders you work closely with. They’re more likely to be receptive to trying out a new approach.
Keep them involved: As mentioned earlier, consider how you’ll involve stakeholders throughout the BML cycle. After creating your first prototype and analyzing the findings, you may want to show them some highlights from a usability test. Demonstrate the speed and impact of this approach by working through a few iterations of a prototype based on what you’ve learned. This will effectively showcase the speed at which you can iterate on a prototype and the value of user feedback.
Share your story: Once you’ve convinced one set of stakeholders about the benefits of this approach, you can think about how to convince other teams to adopt it. Are there any internal PR opportunities for you to share a story of how you helped a team achieve their targets through this approach? What relationships does the stakeholder you work with have that can help spread the message to other teams across the organization? Regardless of the approach that suits your organization, I encourage you to be proactive and make sure you build upon your momentum.
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Try it for yourself – and don’t give up!
The BML cycle is just one approach you can adopt for rapidly prototyping ideas during your design process. However, I’ve tinkered very little with this approach in my design process over the years, given it’s proven to be an effective method for problem-solving.
Regardless of the approach that works for you, the key to success lies in how you involve your stakeholders. If you can do this effectively, they will understand the value through the results and become your strongest advocates for implementing testing throughout your organization.
Mark Jones is a freelance UX designer, researcher, and strategist with over 15 years of industry experience. Throughout his career, he has effectively demonstrated the benefits of and implemented people-centered approaches to problem-solving in the organizations he has worked with. Currently, he works with SMEs within the ecommerce and travel and tourism sectors, helping them identify, understand, and solve the right problems to increase conversions on their digital platforms.
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