A little over a year ago, the way we work at Zeus Jones started to change.
More teams were hunkering down, committing a week at a time to build out early ideas into minimum viable products. More time was being put into thinking about how to evaluate if those MVPs were, in fact, viable. And people were pumped about it. Everyone seemed to want to be on a project that was quickly making and evaluating ideas.
We called it “Prototyping.” And, as is so often the case, we started to use the word a little lazily, without really thinking about its meaning. So not long ago, a few of us got together to discuss: What exactly is prototyping at Zeus Jones? How does it impact the work we do? And why are we all so excited about it?
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How were you introduced to the concept of prototyping?
For me, it was through traditional software development, where you’re building something to validate functional, technical requirements. At the time, it was a functional process. Creative wasn’t a priority.
I was first introduced to a prototype as a noun through usability testing. If I think about prototyping as a verb, that happened way earlier, but I didn’t really realize what it was at the time.
Yeah, what ZJ defines as a prototype I never really considered a prototype before coming here. When I used to think of a prototype I thought of a physical thing.
Yes, perhaps I should have led with that question: How do you define a prototype?
A prototype is traditionally a technical, digital product that’s just a smaller version of something that will eventually be made. But at Zeus, it tends to be a proxy that allows you to assess whether there’s some validity to a particular concept. The definition is broader… and therefore messier.
What about the act of prototyping – the verb?
To me, it’s a methodology: I have a hypothesis to test. But you may not have a controlled environment, so you have a lot of variables you’re taking into account.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about prototyping as testing. For me, prototyping is whenever we begin making something. Prototyping involves working with a small team, having an idea, and building out that concept.
It’s always more powerful to show an idea than to tell people about it. The act of prototyping is about finding the best way to represent a concept or idea.
Even that’s a form of testing, to me. You’re creating something, and rather than putting your energy into selling a concept, you’re exploring how that concept would actually work. Testing doesn’t have to be so formal.
How does prototyping influence the work you do at ZJ?
Rather than working towards one endpoint, prototyping allows us to identify moments of making. It turns a sometimes very linear process into a more fluid, dynamic process.
The fluidity of it is the biggest difference to me. It frees us up to feel like we don’t have to have everything perfect, so you become less precious about everything.
So what value do you guys see in creating prototypes?
I think the value is in the doing. Everyone has ideas. The quicker you get to making, the better the end result is, and we can get on to making even more things.
There’s this energy that comes with making things. It’s really easy to schedule a bunch of meetings, have a presentation, but not really move anything forward. Prototyping makes the work more exciting for everyone. Clients and Joneses want to be involved. And that makes the feedback better, which in turn continues to make the work better.
I would also say that it’s really the times when we create a full closed loop of making, testing, editing, optimizing and doing it again and again, that we get the most value.
Can you think of a time when things went terribly wrong with prototyping?
There are tons of pitfalls! For example, making sure you’re recruiting people that are a proper representation of who you’re trying to connect with. I would also say, it’s not “traditional research;” it’s messier than that. And so you have to interpret the results with that in mind.
How do you think this way of working is changing ZJ?
I can just tell people here are really psyched about it and want to be involved. It would be awesome to see more people involved in making.
It really is upping the game on everyone’s maker skillset. If I think about that ZJ mantra, “actions speak louder than words,” we should be realizing strategy through creative immediately.
I agree. When I started at Zeus, I felt like we agreed the traditional creative process was broken, but we didn’t always have a better alternative. It feels like this process has led us to our own way of coming to ideas that we believe in, and we want to put out into the world. I think that’s why people are so excited about it.
It makes me wonder if there’s a way we could trade off, like teaching one another about our respective skillsets. I’m not expecting you to make an animation in After Effects. However, I think it’s beneficial for both of us if you understand how that animation is made. And then you can teach me something!
What advice do you have for Joneses or clients who are interested in being involved in prototyping, but who aren’t makers?
Give yourself more credit. You’re a human. You have a brain. You can invent new things. Give yourself some permission to explore and create.
Totally. As a human, you have the capacity to explore and communicate emotion. And a prototype is essentially a device to communicate emotion.
I think at times there is a paralysis that comes from not knowing how to start from scratch. A lot of times it’s about taking small pieces and figuring out how to bring them together. Yeah, just being human about the process.
Yeah! At Zeus Jones, we’re all just human beings!