Marshmallows & Prototypes

I’m continually trying to think of ways to explain the value of prototyping to people in the interactive industry who are not engineers or developers. Yes, they understand why prototyping is done, particularly with something like a car or airplane, but tend to view it as an extra step in the process that requires spending more time and money upfront. For those of us that understand prototyping’s benefits, we know that it actually results in better products and saves time and money by reducing or eliminating rework.

A few weeks ago, a graduate school professor sent me this video (shown above) that I want to share with you. This TED presentation by Tom Wujec really clarifies the value of prototyping and collaboration, and why an iterative process is important for teams.

In his research, Wujec found that the majority of teams go through the following process:


Because the main objective is not addressed until the final minutes of the challenge – at which point the structure often collapses – team members are now in crisis mode, scrambling to fix the structure. Through this process, they tend to fail when the deadline hits.

Successful teams, however, tend to follow this process:

Essentially, they are prototyping the marshmallow structure through an iterative process. This process not only results in successful freestanding structures, but also results in some of the tallest structures.

The Marshmallow Challenge is important for companies and individuals to understand the value of prototyping in a simple, hands-on way. The iterative process allows people to uncover hidden assumptions in design and development projects. Teams can make it to the finish line with a stable, functioning structure/end product within the specified timeframe, thereby reducing mistakes and crisis modes at the last minute. Any of this sound familiar?

Other video highlights

  • Recent business school graduates perform the worst because they are trained to find the single correct plan to make the structure stand. (Statistically, as a new MBA graduate, I’m doomed.)
  • Architects and engineers perform the best. (Hopefully, this is self-explanatory.)
  • Recent Kindergarten graduates perform the second best because they don’t vie for power and get started with the iterative process right away. (Ah, naïveté.)
  • CEOs perform better when they have executive assistants on their teams to act as project managers and manage the process. (Thank goodness for assistants!)

Take aways

  • Prototyping uncovers flaws, assumptions
  • Don’t wait until the final minutes to address the main objective
  • Teams need someone to facilitate the process
  • Don’t let age fool you; consulting a Kindergartner may give you new perspective

You can run a Marshmallow Challenge in your office! Visit the website for more information. And the next time someone asks “Why do we have to prototype?”, remind them of the Marshmallow Challenge. If you do partake in this challenge, be sure to share pictures and feedback with us.

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