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Using prototypes to test new policy ideas

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Prototypes are a key part of how designers and policy designers use their skills to improve policymaking and test new ideas. We wrote about the advantages of a prototyping mindset in 2017, learning lessons from a project at that time on the private rented sector. There has been a huge amount of activity in the public policy design space since then, and the updated Policy Profession Standards now reference ‘prototypes’ or ‘prototyping’ in seventeen different places.

This year we’ve used design prototypes in a project on marine plans with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Marine Management Organisation (MMO). This, amongst other projects, has been an opportunity to keep learning about how prototypes can be used effectively. 

Below, we outline five advantages we have found in using prototypes which we hope will inspire policymakers to consider this approach in their day-to-day work. First we describe the marine plans project.

How we used prototypes in the marine plans project 

Our key challenge question was ‘How can we improve the use and usability of marine plans for marine licence applicants?’. Over four months we involved 35 stakeholders in 30+ hours of research and testing. Following initial evidence-gathering, we conducted interviews and a two-part workshop with marine licence applicants from across different industries, including telecoms, energy companies, ports, environmental charities and a local authority. Participants co-created 50+ ideas for how to improve the use and usability of marine plans which they collectively refined down to six, using an adapted version of Policy Lab’s policy canvas. We developed eight high-level design prototypes based on these ideas and insights before testing them with applicants and stakeholders. 

‘Prototyping’ can mean different things to different people. For this project, our aim was to identify, develop and test concepts for Defra and MMO to learn from and use in the next iteration of marine plans. We wanted to use the prototypes to learn what participants valued about each concept or what concerns they had, rather than developing a finished product.

We approached this work by identifying hypotheses to test and then creating prototypes to address these. The format of the prototypes included: 

  • hand-drawn visual storyboards
  • a simple Word template
  • mocked up user journeys
  • a visualisation of a speculative digital twin.  
A speculative page to test the idea of a digital twin

Five advantages of using design prototypes in marine plans

1. The benefits of going lo-fi with your prototypes

We all like to present our most polished work but prototyping can embrace the idea that doing so might not always be the best approach, particularly when exploring new propositions. For example, we wanted feedback on the concept of using videos to provide information, so we presented hand drawn storyboards to clearly convey the idea but also signal that it was at an early stage of exploration rather than a concrete proposal. Using a more polished prototype with screenshots or a recording might have suggested the idea was further along in development and could have invited feedback on aspects such as video quality, voice of the presenter or other aesthetics, which we were not seeking to test at this stage. 

Simple, lo-fi prototypes also help to reduce risk and costs when an idea would be complex and time consuming to develop. In a different prototype, we were able to test some potentially complex solutions quickly and establish what users valued in them by using a series of screen layouts with suggested content. This feedback will then help to prioritise later work.   

A storyboard to the test the idea of a training video

2. Fast iteration = more expansive insight gathering

We tested the eight concepts multiple times over a four-week period, gaining new insights each time. After a few sessions, we could see where feedback and comments indicated a strong level of consensus about an idea - for example whether it solved a problem, it wouldn’t work in practice or it would lead to new issues. We adapted the prototypes when clear feedback or strong suggestions emerged, in order to gather feedback on possible variations. We iterated all prototypes at least twice, sometimes three times, during the course of the testing phase. For example, an industry stakeholder suggested the idea of live workshops when testing the video concept. We built a mock event invite page and agenda into the designs for the next interview later that day.

A mock-up of an event page to test the idea of a live workshop

3. Diversity of concepts

Prototyping new concepts is a chance to be bold. We used a number of idea generation techniques with stakeholders, including the government styles of action cards and change cards, to generate a diverse set of ideas. These tools led stakeholders to come up with ideas ranging from simple - but important - tweaks to more far-reaching speculations. This was an effective starting point for prototyping. The wide range of ideas also encouraged us to push the boundaries in our subsequent designs. Even if some prototypes were eventually disregarded, feedback on them helped us gain new insights into marine licence applicants’ motivations and fears.   

4. Listen, listen then listen again

Prototyping is an extension of research. To make the most of it, you listen, enquire and reflect on what’s been said. After introducing the prototypes and gauging initial reactions, we took a participant-led approach to the testing, following lines of inquiry that participants raised and following their lead in the conversation. We tried to stay detached from the participants’ feedback. If they didn’t like an idea, our task was to find out why rather than convince them that the idea was a good one. 

5. Don’t dismiss resistance

When you get resistance to a concept, the temptation can be to throw the idea away completely. But, it is really important to learn from that resistance. We met considerable resistance to one of the concepts; it was potentially complicated and time-consuming so participants quite rightly told us this. But they also saw some value in it and this learning can now be incorporated into the shaping of future solutions. 

Next steps: building on design prototypes

Following the testing phase, we provided Defra and MMO with recommendations for which prototypes they could consider progressing with, along with a set of design principles to apply to future work. The prototyping and testing doesn’t stop here, however. We’ve gained insights into which concepts resonate well and what users value about them but there is still more to learn about how these ideas could be developed and implemented. Further prototyping and testing will be needed to ensure that policies and related services work in practice. 

For further advice on prototyping, the Open Policy Making toolkit is a helpful place to start. 

If your team is keen to understand how prototyping can help your policy development, we'd love to hear from you:  

You can find out more about our work and how you can partner with us here: 


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