How do you build a humane gopher trap?

What does a lawn chair designed for senior citizens look like?

How would you create a tool to teach kids algebra?

Stanford d.school professor Michael Dearing presented these questions to Flite when he visited our San Francisco office this week to talk about rapid prototyping.

This concept is one of the design philosophies of IDEO founder David Kelley and the renowned Stanford d.school.

The core idea is to "think with your hands" by building and testing ideas. Sometimes the planning phase of a project gets bogged down with long brainstorming session, meetings, and emails deliberating pros and cons.

By contrast, rapid prototyping focuses on action. Planning is important but planning by doing is even better. By building something concrete and putting perfection aside, you can iterate and keep improving with each revision.

So with that in mind, Michael split the Flite audience into small groups and gave us a challenge: take 5 minutes to brainstorm a solution to one of the proposed problems -- gophers, lawn chairs, or alegebra tools -- and take 10 minutes to build a product.

Here's what we learned from Michael's talk and from our hands-on rapid prototyping session.

1. Everything is a prototype.

Aiming for a perfect, complete product that can never be changed again -- that's intimidating, whether you're shooting for a product launch or a personal goal.

What doesn't seem as scary? Iterating until you get things right. The process of iteration is endless, so making mistakes and course correcting gradually is more approachable.

It also encourages ideas and options to flow freely, which increases the likelihood of hitting upon some that work. So think of products, including yourself, as prototypes that are constantly improving.

2. Left-brain and right-brain thinking goes together.

Conventional wisdom wants to bucket people into clean categories: artistic, creative, visual, versus analytical, numbers-driven, and methodological. But design thinking suggests that both parts of the brain should work together, and more importantly, that people with different strengths should work together.

As Michael said, "Messy teams are better. Pull people together and toss vigorously." This is where the best ideas come from. 

In our rapid prototyping session, one group had two graphic designers but it was mainly those from account management, finance, and QA who did most of the building.

A designer noted how impressed he was by the non-designers' ideas and implementation. So creativity isn't something that's purely in the realm of designers. Design is a way of thinking that can be embraced and leveraged by people from all over an organization.

3. Failure is compost.

There's no instance where a failed attempt doesn't become a part of the finished product. Even if an idea doesn't appear as a feature in the final product, the failure helped to show you what didn't work.

You can then go in a direction that gets you closer to what will work. This means that every experience can inform better decisions in the future. Failure isn't for naught -- it becomes compost that feeds new ideas.