Skip to main content
Prototyping: A Key Skill for Innovation and Life-time Learning.
ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (2014)
  • Vimal Viswanathan, Tuskegee University
  • Olufunmilola Atilola, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Joseph Goodman, Georgia Tech Research Institute
  • Julie Linsey, Georgia Institute of Technology
Physical prototypes play a crucial role in any design project; but all the critical effects that physical prototypes have need to be further studied. Often, design courses (including capstone courses) include some type of prototyping. More needs to be understood about what students need to learn from prototyping and the benefits of hands-on learning. Physical prototypes help designers by providing critical feedback on their designs. Existing literature shows the importance of prototyping in design projects, while some researchers are concerned with the design fixation caused by prototyping. In order to maximize the benefits of prototyping, it is essential to study the design thinking involved in it. This knowledge may help designers, especially novice designers and students in making decisions about which prototyping method to choose. In this study, data are collected from a realistic design project carried out by a team of professional designers. Through interviews with the designers and direct observations on the prototyping and testing cycle, the following hypotheses are investigated: (1) Building and testing prototypes helps to supplement designers’ incomplete mental models leading them to better ideas and (2) Prototyping leads designers to design fixation. The results strongly support the hypotheses. Data from the current study is also compared to prior research on semester-long graduate student team projects. This prior research indicates that many unarticulated tests occur when prototypes are built and this leads to a significant number of improvements to the product. Surprisingly, this also occurred with the practicing designers. This demonstrates that the engineering design curriculum may need to adapt to better teach students to take advantage of the unexpected and students must have building skills in order to leverage this advantage. The data also show that building simple physical prototypes frequently in a design project helps to eliminate the shortcomings in initial ideas and lead designers to better ideas. In order to reduce the fixation associated with prototyping, it is essential to minimize the cost (in terms of money, time and effort) associated with prototyping. Due to the need for low sunk cost and opportunities to learn in unexpected ways from prototypes, engineering students need to have proficient building and testing skills so prototypes do not induce fixation due to sunk cost. The professional design team also did things the student design teams did not. The professional team built representational prototypes and those with selected functionalities at times. They also used strategies that likely reduce design fixation including prototyping only parts of the system and systematically used low cost materials like wood and plastic when testing physical interfaces for fit and assembly, not structural capacity.
  • Design Fixation,
  • Mental Models,
  • Prototyping,
  • Sunk Cost Effect
Publication Date
October, 2014
Madrid, Spain.
Citation Information
Vimal Viswanathan, Olufunmilola Atilola, Joseph Goodman and Julie Linsey. "Prototyping: A Key Skill for Innovation and Life-time Learning." ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (2014)
Available at: