Provotypes are an interesting — and extremely fun — way of designs better by first the most unusable or provocative versions of them. In this blog post, I explain how and why this technique offers much more than just good laughs.

Let’s face it: most likely, your test users are not designers.

That is why asking concrete questions such as “what would you like to see here” work poorly in UX research, let alone in future-oriented concept analysis.

Regular Joes seldom use services with a designer hat on. Thus, without training or experience, it is often difficult for them to come up with ideas for new features or articulate why they like or don’t like certain aspects of the service. This is where provotypes can be of help.

No, that’s not a typo. Provotype is a artefact — digital or physical — whose main goal is to provoke discussion among different types of users and stakeholders. Here’s the fun part: it is not supposed to be realistic, but ridiculous, funny, obscure, artistic — or even downright instead.

Here’s the fun part: it is not supposed to be realistic, but ridiculous, funny, obscure, artistic — or even downright annoying instead.

Whereas classic prototypes are effective for solving well-defined problems, provotypes can be massively useful when we need to reach a little further in the future — or explore and break boundaries.

Doing provotype exercises with the attendees of our workshop at the Shift Business Festival.

Provotypes are great in provoking discussion because they visualize and concretize ideas much further than spoken words or written descriptions. When we simply read about ideas, stories, and concepts, our minds start to visualize them according to our own experiences and expectations. Often those expectations are not met with reality, due to us having different backgrounds and visualization abilities.

Using a provotype enables all stakeholders to have a discussion while having an overtly exaggerated (and sometimes hilarious) version of the product right in front of them.

Scholars Joachim False and Laura Boffi (2016, 89) also talk about design interventions, that “can be seen as a form of inquiry that is particularly relevant for investigating phenomena that are not very coherent, barely possible, almost unthinkable, and consistently under-specified because there are still in the process of being conceptually and physically articulated.”

Provotypes work exactly like that — it’s an intervention. It intervenes expectations and models of thinkings by investigating possible future scenarios, new concepts or problematic side effects of existing services.

Provotypes as tools of shared learning

This May, we experimented with provotypes at the Shift Business Festival, where we held a workshop on understanding emotions in digital design and development. Since the workshop had no pre-registration, we had no idea how many and what kind of people would attend it. With this in mind, we wanted to create design tasks that a diverse group of people could discuss and work on together in groups.

When I suggested the idea of making provotypes to my fellow designers, they instantly liked the idea. We created a fake “medicinal Coca-cola bottle” that imagined what the packaging of the world’s most famous soft drink might look like now, had it retained its historical status as a medicine for hangover (we’d all love that!).

Additionally, we designed a new, sillier version of the Finnish tax administration website, just well.. Just because we could (you can see the final result below).

Yours truly and my colleague Tiina presenting at the Shift Business Festival.

Besides these concepts, we created tasks where the participants could explore various far-out design decisions within existing services, such as how to make the low-fare bus trip website,, extremely difficult and annoying to use for colorblind people.

Since the objective was to demonstrate how emotions affect the way digital services are designed and built, these non-functional designs worked really well as conversation openers. They enabled the participants to put a designer hat on for a moment — and have a good laugh while doing so.

”I’m having way too much fun with this”, Tiina confessed while building this monstrous Comic Sans edition of the Finnish tax administration website.

In the case of the tax administration website, we allowed the participants to compare the original and the provotype, and then discuss which three elements they would change in the provotype in order to make it seem more trustworthy for the user. One participant felt that the font (in this case the infamous Comic Sans) distracted her too much. Another thought that the copy text itself was more important in conveying the message than the font. These are exactly the kind of problems we designers often have to tackle, when forced to prioritize work due to budget, while making the best possible decisions in terms of vision, schedule and the client.

The colorblind assignment, on the other hand, led the group working on it to google facts about the disability in question in order to make the prototype as terrible as possible. And of course, if you know how to make something really awful, you’re on your way to understanding how to make it good. One of the participants noted that she had never thought about designing websites from this angle: making a provocative version in order to avoid pitfalls in the actual version.

Playful research

Provotypes are not for precision science. They mediate concepts and ideas. Typical scientific research methods “aim for clarity and precision, seek to eliminate sources of bias, and strive for unambiguous outcomes” (False and Boffi 2016, 89). When choosing the right research method for service and UX design projects we try to eliminate those ambiguities and strive for precision.

What if design research could also be playful?

Choosing the right research method is not the easiest task, but not because we want to make sure we are making everything we can in order to produce the right kind of end-result.

It is difficult, because the methods we choose take part in shaping the reality we are exploring. It is like taking a photograph: It is the photographer who chooses the content and composition, but the camera being used also affects the outcome of the picture.

Tips for building a provotype

Provotypes do not work in every project, so you need to choose the context wisely. When you start making your own provotypes, whether it is for research or workshop facilitation, you might find these tips useful:

  • Keep it provocative: The idea of a provotype is to provoke. Depending on the context and the objectives, a provotype can and should be irritating, inappropriate and ridiculous. Don’t hold back!
  • Keep it simple: Adding more elements, ideas, texture, visual flows or anything can make the provotype just a messy bundle of thoughts.
  • Keep it focused: What is the purpose of the project where you plan to use provotypes? Is it for research, education, team-building or learning? Keep the focus in mind.

I’d love to see what kind of provotypes you come up with — so tag me @Ahaverine and let’s play together!

Further reading

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