What is a prototype? What are the roles of prototypes in companies?

Carlye Lauff, Daria Kotys-Schwartz, Mark E Rentschler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


Prototyping is an essential part of product development in companies, and yet it is one of the least explored areas of design practice. There are limited ethnographic studies conducted within companies, specifically around the topic of prototyping. This is an empirical and industrial-based study using inductive ethnographic observations to further our understanding of the various roles prototypes play in organizations. This research observed the entire product development cycle within three companies in the fields of consumer electronics (CE), footwear (FW), and medical devices (MD). Our guiding research questions are: What is a prototype? What are the roles of prototypes across these three companies? Through our analysis, we uncovered that prototypes are tools for enhanced communication, increased learning, and informed decision-making. Specifically, we further refine these categories to display the types of communication, learning, and decision-making that occur. These insights are significant because they validate many prior prototyping theories and claims, while also adding new perspectives through further exploiting each role. Finally, we provide newly modified definitions of a prototype and prototyping based on this empirical work, which we hope expands designers' mental models for the terms.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)061-102
JournalJournal of Mechanical Design
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2018


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