Participatory Prototyping

Participatory prototyping enables you to make your ideas tangible. This gets people beyond talking towards creating and doing. Participatory prototyping allows you to put your ideas in front of users early and often, which provides rapid feedback and iteration to improve your innovations.

When to use it?
Generate: Participatory prototyping gets participants into the generative phase. Use this when you have a new idea or a critical uncertainty you want to test in a tangible way. Think of a prototype as a fast and cheap experiment that will generate new learning for the team.

How to do it?

  1. Create a physical prototype of your idea. You can use foam core, cardboard boxes, paper, magazines, and craft supplies.

  2. Tell a story about your idea. How does your idea add value, and for whom?

  3. Enact a scenario that brings your idea to life. Simple role playing can make a service or a system real by showing its impact on stakeholders.

  4. Combine your physical props, stories and scenarios.

  5. Present to users and listen non-defensively for feedback.

This activity works best with 3-6 people.

About an hour.

Pros and Cons

  • Participatory prototyping combines the power of making, enacting, and telling to make the abstract real.
  • It enables testing early and failing often to succeed quicker.


  • Some participants are unfamiliar with physical making and uncomfortable with role playing in a work environment, so you will need to create a safe environment for this activity to work.
  • A prototype is not based on statistically significant sampling.


  • You can provide basic prototyping materials for under $100 from the $1 Store. Also collect old magazines and look for potential materials that people are giving away on Freecycle.
  • Consider recording the enactment of the idea and making an iMovie.
  • When participants present their prototype for feedback, ensure they don’t get trapped into justifying their design or defending their decisions. Instead, they should ask the users questions like: What would you do instead? Is that important to you? Why?



Image Source: Government of Alberta internal systemic design training course – October 2014

Additional Resources

Emily Strouse, Design Research

Paper Prototyping for Participatory Design