How one designer prototyped prototyping

4 min read
Christopher Gillespie
  •  Oct 24, 2017
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Ricky Lyman is a man who has committed the ultimate meta act: he has prototyped the process of prototyping. His new venture, ProtoMVP, arms entrepreneurs and product managers with all the minimum-viable wireframes and visual concepts they need to get buy-off or attract investment for a fraction of the typical cost. And it is, itself, an MVP.

At the heart of ProtoMVP’s appeal is a minimalistic approach to design: It offers exactly what entrepreneurs need—nothing more, nothing less. This sort of product precision isn’t something that Ricky landed upon overnight, however: It took years of careful sculpting.

Good design is a gradual process of subtraction

According to Ricky, great, minimalistic design is a process of subtractionTwitter Logo to a product’s essential core. It’s similar to how Michelangelo is, perhaps apocryphally, said to have explained his creative process as, “It’s easy. You just chip away any stone that doesn’t look like the statue of David.” In Ricky’s case, he began his journey by chiseling away at a very large slab of corporate marble.

“Great, minimalistic design is a process of subtraction to a product’s essential core.”

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When an early employer of his—a hulking communications company not known for its aesthetics—needed help designing a few simple web pages, Ricky leapt at the task.

“At first I was terrible at it,” Ricky recalls. With no concept of programmatic limitations, he mocked things up in Photoshop with lots of rounded corners and shadows. The pages came out cluttered and clunky. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said, “but I loved design and I kept going.”

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This landed him a role at a wick-less candle company—not the cutting edge design environment you’d imagine as his next step, but one that set his career on fire (in the good way). Scentsy rapidly grew from 50 to 5,000 employees and Ricky’s responsibilities swelled in proportion. Ricky managed multiple domains, launched microsites, and attended design conferences. His work improved so dramatically that friends began trying to lure him away with side projects. But when he heeded the call and went freelance, it wasn’t as freeing as he had hoped.

To simplify, Ricky had to go all-in

As a freelancer, Ricky designed any website that came his way—from restaurants to flower shops—but he found the WordPress work restrictive. “The most economical way to do things as your own agency is to use a WordPress theme. For this, you must fit the client into a box,” said Ricky. “I just hated that model—it was like being a chop-shop.”

The prefabricated websites fit clumsily alongside customers’ erstwhile marketing and product designs. The sites typically included too many features—often at the client’s behest—and didn’t fit seamlessly into the overall customer experience.

“Why not design the whole experience—offering and all?”

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Ricky’s aversion to all this clutter led him to take on more and more of each client’s overall design work. If he was going to invest as much time as he was into learning everything about a company and its mission, why not design the whole experience—offering and all—and carve it all down into one, sleek work of art? His big break came from a project for a health app called Simply Breathe.

Breathing life into products

At first, Simply Breathe wasn’t even an app. The CEO wanted to reduce people’s blood pressure and was amenable to new ideas. It was just the kind of open-ended challenge Ricky was looking for. “Having a goal and no parameters was really exciting,” he recalled.

Ricky researched all manner of therapies proven to reduce blood pressure and landed on one that linked hand-eye coordination and breathing techniques together. Studies suggested that it could reduce stress, but he didn’t know how they’d deliver a solution.

It was only through user interviews that Ricky realized that those who find stress hard to handle or who are predisposed to high blood pressure—the company’s ideal users— typically hate to slow down. “They’re the type who are always checking their phones,” said Ricky. That’s when the lightbulb when off: He decided to harness the phone-checking impulse to reduce stress.

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Simply Breathe was Ricky’s first attempt at building an app and it quickly ballooned in size and scope as he applied everything he had accumulated in his design repertoire. There was a piece that challenged users to balance an on-screen ball using the phone’s accelerometer. There was a part that encouraged users to sync their breathing with an animation that expanded and contracted, and there were audio and visual elements that became more pleasing as the user progressed. When the app finally teetered on the brink of overwhelming complexity, Ricky had his marble slab. He began chipping away.

The more Ricky experimented upon and improved Simply Breathe, the simpler and more polished it became. He tested it relentlessly and stripped off that which was unnecessary. Features, animations, and actions all gradually washed away until all that was left was a singular gaming experience that actually impacted health outcomes.

Ricky had gotten a taste of design sculpting and there was no going back.

The power of prototyping

Over the past 5 years Ricky has seen people do incredible things with his prototypes. They help companies organize teams, feel out solutions, and validate ideas. One client accrued over one hundred thousands dollars in pre-orders with nothing more than one of his prototypes.

Now, with ProtoMVP, Ricky is validating his own idea. It’s a minimum viable product for minimum viable products. For a fixed fee he helps creators quickly understand whether their users, buyers, or investors want what they’re pitching.

“Let’s get back to helping people create great products.”

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The fixed price is a key element to his productizing design services. “I’ve found that a lot of the industry doesn’t trust designers’ quotes as much as they should,” said Ricky. “Clients don’t understand why their quotes either range widely in price or in quality.”

This often stems from the client’s lack of understanding about how the design process works.

“Let’s say you have a bid on the website that’s $50,000,” explained Ricky. “Perhaps the client considers that expensive, but that designer is going to truly execute and pour everything into it. If the client instead opts for the $5,000 proposal, at first they will feel like they’ve saved money but then they’ll spend the next few years unhappy and paying off expensive design debt.”

With a fixed price, Ricky allays their initial concerns. He gets an opportunity to educate them on what they truly need, establishes a relationship, and can then go about sculpting freely and without restriction.

Great design is truly timeless

After over a decade of design, Ricky’s product is anything but cluttered. Every element—from the slick website to his finely polished sales pitch—bears the satisfying resonance of a tibetan singing bowl. All that remains is what’s absolutely necessary, and there’s perhaps a lot that new designers can learn from his careful curation.

“Designers have developed something of a pop culture,” said Ricky. “Everyone’s designing based on each other’s designs and things are starting to resemble Dr. Seuss-style contraptions: dashboards and graphics that are stunning to look at and yet utterly impractical.”

Ricky can’t help but despair at the divergence of form and function. “Let’s get back to helping people create great products,” he said. “Less really is more.”

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