16.Nov 2020

About Seeds, Trees and à la carte Menus: Learnings at the Prototype Fund

Six months to develop a prototype to increase political participation in Switzerland. A daunting task. Who has accepted the challenge? 24 highly motivated people are currently tackling this endeavor in five project teams. They work on 

  • gamified political self-education and voting help (CH+), 
  • the electronic signing of popular referenda and initiatives (Owlly),
  • a tool implementing your group’s self-chosen diversity criteria for committees or lists of political candidates (FairElection), 
  • enabling the public to address questions directly and sometimes publicly to parliamentarians (Q&A Bundeshaus), and 
  • on bringing democracy to schools (Voty). 

We at the Prototype Fund Switzerland do our best to support their team and individual learning journey while improving our prototype, the Prototype Fund. 

Two months into the program, it is time to look back. How did we fare as a lean and agile organization in the world of Swiss politics? The macroview: the fun and motivation curve was steadily high with minor plumps while our progress curve was somewhat less smooth but nevertheless sharply upward trending. 

From our many lessons learnt, we picked three to share with you. 

Acceleration time

First lesson learnt: it takes time to get up to speed. It has proven challenging to “switch on” the project at the program start on 1 September 2020. Team members are still transitioning out of other projects. They need time to get to know each other and build the fundament for their collaboration. The conceptual basis is developed and strengthened through a lot of exchanges with internal and external stakeholders – a time-intensive endeavor. The Prototype Fund could improve this process by asking key questions about the project’s ambitions and the road to a prototype right after the jury selection to let the teams – in particular project leaders – ponder them over the summer. The “answers” would then be discussed at the Kickoff Worksop. Oftentimes, the best ideas occur during your hike in the Swiss mountains.

Oh, user testing is hard

Second lesson learnt: “If you are asking yourself when to start user testing, it’s actually too late already.”, in short: “test more, fail earlier” in Sandro’s words (owlly). User testing is at the heart of any tool with the ambition to advance digital democracy. Politics is already complex enough so software should not create any additional hurdles. Through our first workshop and through learning by trying, we now know: user testing requires asking the hard questions. 

  • Who are your target groups? No, it’s not the Swiss population…
  • What do they want to use your tool for? It is mostly not what you thought…
  • What hypotheses is your solution based on? Be ready to overhaul them…again, and again.
  • Which feature should you forget about? Yes, you will have to kill some, maybe all of your darlings. It is the users’ darlings that need to survive for your endavor to succeed.

User testing also requires recruiting users, coordinating meetings, presenting your ideas in an understandable format, and being specific about what you want to test.

Agile or not? We need to work with you either way

Third lesson learnt: we are an agile organization in a (mostly) non-agile environment. The projects interact with environments that do not operate on a six-month timeline with many short-term goals. How is it possible to remain an agile environment in a non-agile environment? We had to adapt our initial “plan” for the program of the Prototype Fund. We wanted to co-design the content with the teams. Before the Kickoff workshop, we had thus only determined the basic structure of our program with, for example, bi-weekly check-in calls and save-the-dates for workshops and demo events (see the program structure below). We strived to be truly user-centered and organize workshops and mentorings according to projects’ self-stated needs. Sounds unrealistic? It was. 

After Nikki had increased her (already strong) network substantially by calling a dozen contacts from contacts for a workshop to be held the following week, we figured that our à la carte approach had to be complemented and adapted in order not to avoid resource waste. We also realized that the project leads do not always have the headspace to think about the forest when their tree seeds do not want to grow. We thus changed our approach and now propose fixed “menus” to the projects. Together with the project leads, we then decided which “menu” (workshop topic) would be served next month, and noted any special “dietary” requests. Now, we have time to recruit the best “cooks” aka experts in time. Any side-effects of being somewhat less lean than planned? For now, it is just that Nikki’s network is growing somewhat slower. 

Give me the numbers

Last but not least: some stats about our measurable achievements as Prototype Fund.

  • 2 months
  • 45 weekly written checkins to learn about teams’ mood and motivation
  • 4 bi-weekly 2-hour calls on Jitsi and Big Blue Button to share learnings, successes and raise and solve challenges
  • 3 workshops (incl. Kickoff Workshop)
  • 1 internal Mid-Demo Day with the jury members
  • 3 open-source software tools for all communication:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on our learning journey via and to stay in touch via newsletter, twitter, telegram or via the Opendata.ch accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Figure: Program Setup as presented on the Kickoff Workshop on 1 September 2020