Testing: The Iteration Spiral

Hang out in the space of innovation and you’ll quickly see where things tend to break down: Execution. Oddly enough, it seems like even when a team comes up with a great solution to a challenge – one that the whole team agrees upon and is rooted in empathy – they still struggle to execute on it. There are many reasons for it, but two seem to nearly always be present: (1) lack of margin and (2) perfectionism.

Our lab focuses on the not-for-profit sector and as a result, we hear “I’m maxed out,” quite a lot. It’s not their fault! With the commonality of limited funding, non-profit organizations typically ask their employees to handle the jobs of what should be broken into several positions in the organization. Nevertheless, that’s the reality we have. And we have to work within our constraints (Want to learn more about dealing with constraints?). I’ll spare you the treatise and simply say, “You have to consider what needs to die first.” Something you’re doing doesn’t give you the Return on Investment you deserve. That thing(s), needs to die. We’ll talk more about that another time.

The second is perfectionism. We’ve been trained since childhood to put our best foot forward. If we’re going to submit a project, it needs to be of A+ quality, right? If you’re going to write a paper, it has to convey exactlywhat you want to say with no grammar or spelling errors, rihgt? 😉 Wrong. Our end-users would rather have something that meets their needs that’s half-baked than something that is perfect and largely useless to them. Perfectionism in the context of Design Thinking has to be thrown out… at least for a little while.

I’m going to focus us on the latter struggle here. We’ve got to learn to be ok with something simple. Something basic. Something that does the job we need to get done, even if it’s not perfect. The Iteration Spiral helps us do that.

It’s important to note where we are in the Design Thinking process. We’ve gained Empathy, Reframed/Define, Ideated and created a Prototype, but now, we need to Test it. The Iteration Spiral is a tool to help us acquire the learnings we need to get our design from a Prototype to a large-scale, working solution for our end-users.

When we set out to create a framework for preparing for implementation, we knew that it needed to be rooted in empathy, easy to understand, and most importantly, easy to use. The Iteration Spiral goes through a cycle of Stage, Arrange, Re-Empathy, Analyze. Each cycle gets faster and intergrates the learnings from our End-Users back into the prototype. By the time we have gone through the Iteration Spiral 3-5 times, our prototype has already begun to prove legitimate and viable. We’ll quickly know if we’re on the right track with our End-Users or if we’ve missed the mark entirely.


Staging is about getting all of the pieces set. Who is the leader of the prototype? What departments/teams need to be involved? What’s the Value Proposition for our organization and for our end-users? These, along with many other questions need to be addressed first. We have to get everyone on the same page before we begin – this shouldn’t be hard if we’ve done things right in the first four stages of Design Thinking.


Arranging is all about the questions we’re going to ask. Now that we know what we’re hoping to achieve (via the conversation in Staging), we need to develop Empathy questions that will help us get the answers we need regarding our prototype. We do that by working backwards.


The term “Re-Empathy” is intended to remind everyone involved that we’re back to that original posture of learning. This is the moment when we actually go to our end-users and learn from them. We want to assume we’ve made mistakes and do our best to discover them now so that they don’t remain in the prototype. By discovering them now, they won’t hurt us further in the future.


I think you know what I’m about to say here… We want to break down what we’ve learned, update the prototype and reevaluate whether or not we’re on the right track. Look back at your Value Proposition. Are you achieving what you set out to do based on the responses of your end-users? If you are, what could you do to make it even better based on their responses? If you’re not, what do we need to do to the prototype to get it back on track?

Once you’ve gone through the sequence once, we start back at Stage once again. We want to make any changes to the leader, teams, departments, value proposition or anything else that needs to be changed – but strictly based upon the learnings we’ve acquired from Analyze. Changing things like the leader for the sake of change is unnecessary turmoil that will result in the slowing of process. With each Spiral leading to integrated learnings in the prototype we get closer to what the end-users need and want.

As you can imagine, that first prototype is not going to be perfect. Great! That means we’re learning – and that will ultimately get us where we want to go. As you go down the Spiral, the process accelerates and you prepare for larger-scale deployment. This process of Testing enables us all to be confident that we have something special leading into to Implementation.

Over time we will reach a "prototype" that is achieving the Value Proposition we had originally intended. It may take time, but we'll get there. With each testing cycle, we will be one step closer to calling it "perfect."

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