Learning prototyping with the marshmallow challenge

As mentioned in my last post about prototyping, Tom Wujec’s TED talk is an excellent way to learn more about prototyping. The title of the talk is “Build a tower, build a team.” I highly suggest that you watch the TED talk (it’s only 7 mins long), but I’ll give an overview what this exercise is, how to give one, and some of my observations (and the benefits) from conduction a marshmallow challenge.  I’ve given this challenge to adults as well as my daughter’s kindergarten class and it is a lot of fun. 


What is the marshmallow challenge

It’s an exercise where teams of 4 compete against each other to build the tallest tower out of 20 dry sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Major rules: 1) you have 18 minutes 2) the marshmallow must be on top of the tower and 3) the tower must be built on a table – the measurement is from the bottom of the tower to the marshmallow (In other words, you can’t stack chairs on a table and win that way!)

How do I give one of these?

Go to marshmallowchallenge.com. Everything you need is here, including slides from Tom’s TED talk. The last time I did this, this exercise was part of an overview of design thinking.

What have I observed from these exercises?

First, the participants tend to have A LOT of fun. The competitive juices are flowing. The clock is ticking. They are trying to build the highest tower of anyone – ever – on the planet.

Second, it’s a great example in the importance of prototyping. The teams that do the best are the ones that build smaller scale towers and test out the structure with the marshmallow on top. I have a small sample size here, but most teams I see don’t even think about the marshmallow until there is a minute left. At that point, it’s too late and the tower ends up tumbling. Per Tom’s talk and my own observations with my daughters class, kids are always thinking about the marshmallow. (Note: I think this is largely because they are focused on who gets to eat the marshmallow after the exercise!) See the picture below. This is a montage from a recent challenge of teams’ marshmallows with about 1 minute left. Notice how many of the marshmallows are still on the table!


Back to the snowflake example, kids learn by prototyping and test out the structure along the way. In fact, kindergartners tend to have better structures than recent business school graduates! 

So what are the benefits?

Hopefully these are somewhat obvious by now…this is a great team building exercise and also hammers home the importance of prototyping. I like to end the challenge with a questions, “what project are you working on where you are waiting too long to put the marshmallow on top?” Then I give some tangible examples of thing that I have done to build prototypes.

As you can tell, I love this exercise and would encourage you to consider hosting your own marshmallow challenges. In the next two weeks I will be hosting a couple of challenges that should be interesting. First with a 3rd grade class (my guess is they will do better than kindergartners) and second with insurance professionals at the Retirement Industry Conference (my guess is they will do worse than the 3rd graders!).

I’ll report back on the results soon. Stay tuned!


Rapid Prototyping from a six year old

Source: designspectacleblog.wordpress.com

Kids are amazing prototypers. It is how they learn. Have you ever watched a two year old continually drop a toy to see what happens? She is experimenting. She is making sense of her world by doing.

I had a recent experience with my daughter that showed me that she is better at prototyping than I. We were making snowflakes – one of her favorite crafts. You fold paper several times. Next cut out some shapes. Then you unfold the paper to observe your snowflake – except that is not what my daughter did. She would cut a little then unfold the paper to she what she had made. Cut a little more and then check it out. Cut a little more and then it was done. My method was to cut, cut, cut and then unfold to see what it looked like.

What my daughter was doing was prototyping. As opposed to me – I was just cutting away and waiting until it was too late to change course. Have you made the mistake I have made before? Maybe it was with a project – you worked weeks and weeks without getting feedback. Or a presentation – you spent two days getting everything right before showing it to your boss. Try and take a cue from a six year old and check out your snowflake before it is too late.

I’ll save more on kids prototyping for later when I cover Tom Wujec’s TED talk.

Everything is a prototype

Photo credit: d.school

Prototyping is important….really important. I am often surprised at how much I and others want to toil away on building something big without first building a prototype. Maybe it’s because the word prototype conjures the image of a scaled down model car, or a mock up of a room…and because we aren’t designers or engineers we see no need to prototype.

But anything can be prototyped. You can prototype a powerpoint deck. You can prototype a financial model. You can prototype a process.

As a design thinker, I view everything I do as a prototype. My next presentation I am working on – prototype. This blog – prototype. A product we are trying to develop – prototype. My relationship with my children – prototype.

What are the benefits of thinking in terms of prototype? Here are a few:

  • You can welcome feedback as you don’t claim that your product, process, relationship are perfect and or finalized
  • You can view the feedback as what is precious, not the prototype. I’ve heard it said, “construct your prototype like you know you are right, test your prototype like you know you are wrong”
  • You are still in the mode of a learner. You use your prototype as a way to gain empathy and to learn about the users of your prototype
  • You are still thinking about iterating

Here’s an example of how I prototype at work. I wanted to construct a graph that showed risk vs return, but I needed the feedback and thoughts of others colleagues. Rather than construct the graph completely, I printed out circles and then cut them out. When I talked with my coworkers we placed the circles in the appropriate place. I was treating this graph as a prototype and I wanted to construct it in a way that invited feedback. Allowing the users to move the circles around changed the dynamic of the conversation. I do this sort of stuff all the time and it’s funny to see the looks I get when breaking out the scissors, glue stick, or other arts and crafting materials. Actually, I could create an indicator for creativity – number of times I use crafting materials during the week. The target should be 5 – once a day!

See the picture below for the example.

Risk/Reward Prototype

Risk/Reward Prototype

I believe making prototypes will help make you more efficient and creative. Just the simple act of making the prototype make give you insights into the problem you are trying to solve.

So what can you view as a prototype? How have you prototyped lately?