“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.”
A few years ago, while working with Cisco Systems, I was working on a performance-related issue in the middleware. After much ado, we thought we had discovered the source of the problem and started working on the solution. It continued for many months; more sources were found, and then the product was shelved. So, what went wrong?
It was a story repeated time and time again; ideas being executed by people with an obsession for making a difference in the market, making significant changes in society, or just completely reinventing the wheel, only to realize right at the end of their journey that they’ve been wasting their time or focussing on the wrong thing.
This is where the importance of prototyping kicks in. The art of prototyping has been practised since our early childhood, where we created mock-ups of real-world objects with the simplest of materials such as paper, cards, modelling clay, or just about anything else we could get our hands on. There is not much difference between these prototypes and the early rough prototypes we may develop at the earlier phases of testing out ideas.
Let’s look at what a prototype is
Prototyping is an experimental process where design and development teams implement ideas into tangible forms from paper to digital. Prototypes can take many forms, and just about the only thing in common the various forms have is that they are all tangible forms of your ideas. With prototypes, you can refine and validate your designs so your brand can release the right products.
Prototypes start with simple sketches or storyboards used to illustrate a proposed experiential solution, rough paper prototypes of digital interfaces, and even role-playing to act out a service offering an idea are examples of prototypes.
In fact, prototypes do not need to be full products; you can prototype a part of a solution (like a proposed visor of a helmet) to test that specific part of your solution.
Prototypes are usually quick and rough. They are helpful for early-stage testing and learning (or unlearning).
Prototyping is all about bringing conceptual or theoretical ideas to life and exploring their real-world impact before finally executing them.
Prototype in Design Thinking
Prototyping is an integral part of Design Thinking and User Experience design in general because it allows us to test our ideas quickly and improve on them in an equally timely fashion.
Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a problem-solving technique that can be applied to small or large problems. It can be used to address business or non-business problems.
Here is the design thinking process illustrated by Stanford University, popularly called the Stanford school framework
In my view, we should use prototyping at different stages of Design Thinking.
E.g., the prototype in the ideation method allows you and users to explore alternative solutions. This is possible because prototypes are physical representations of your solutions, and thus prototyping will enable you to think by doing.
Following are some of the purposes fulfilled by practising prototyping:
- Explore and experiment
- Learn, understand & move forward
- Engaging stakeholders, testing, and experiencing
- Inspiring and motivating
While prototyping is the key to product success, let’s look at how prototyping helps product innovation.
One of the more widely accepted definitions of innovation is introducing something new. That something could be anything from new services to products, processes, and even incremental improvements to something that already exists. In practice, however, people usually refer to new or improved products when they talk about innovation.
But what, exactly, is product innovation? Product Innovation is probably the most famous type of innovation, and it can be defined in different ways. Without going through all possible definitions, let’s keep it simple and straightforward: product innovation is the development or improvement of products in a way that tries to solve problems for consumers, customers, companies, or society at large.
Three key reasons why you should consider product innovation:
Win over your Peers (competitors)
Practicing product innovation brings a competitive advantage to your organization. As a matter of fact, successful companies have always found a way to leverage innovation and gain a competitive advantage.
You can get ahead of your peers with product innovation when you.
- Develop new products that answer the needs of your consumers
- Continuously improve your core products and make incremental innovation second nature.
- Redefine the competition by taking existing products to new channels or markets
For example, in the 70s, watchmakers in Japan almost took over traditional watchmakers in Switzerland. As a result, Swiss companies had to redefine the value of their products to stay ahead in the market.
This was when Swatch took over a market once dominated by Japanese companies like Seiko or Casio. They repositioned themselves and created a fashionable line of swatches. Traditional watches also found a new market as the Swiss companies started the demand for luxury watches turned into collectables and long-term investments.
Encourages quick recovery from difficulties
Product innovation is the chance to bounce back. If you create the right circumstances and strategize around this decision, product innovation can help you pivot.
E.g., Nokia, a company famous for its numerous innovations and strategic pivots, started as a wood pulp mill, then moved on to rubber boots and their most recognizable product, the Nokia cell phones.
When Apple took the world by storm with its smartphones, Nokia could not catch up. They were close to bankruptcy, but once they sold their cell phones business to Microsoft, they pivoted their business once more and turned to high-end networking and software products. This helped them increase their enterprise value 20 times in the past ten years.
The story of Nokia depicts that the action you take on product innovation can make or break a company.
Drives growth with a good product portfolio
A portfolio of good products drives growth and brings more profit than services that can increase revenue but have a lower margin. For example, products are more accessible to scale than services in many cases. They are hands-off and easier to take care of. This is why the model of Service as a Product has been very successful. Airbnb, Uber, Fivers were able to scale and turn big profits.
Apple’s product portfolio is an excellent example of various products working within a single framework, iOS. Every product is connected, and the innovation is brought forward to the other device via iOS whenever any new development within the portfolio is upgraded. This helped Apple create a very effective product portfolio, which drove the business to a new height.
There are numerous examples where product innovation has led to the organization’s growth to a newer level, like, Tesla, Amazon, LEGO, etc.
Prototyping for Product Innovation
Prototyping is a critical aspect of Product Innovation. Perfecting the prototype system can go a long way in ensuring product competitiveness.
Well-established organizations and startups generate ideas about exciting new products and services every day. Business leaders need to marshall ideas through a market-driven development process to transform ideas into widely adopted products.
Benefits of Prototyping in Product Innovation:
Developing a product is expensive and time-consuming; hence, companies of all sizes and ages need to decrease the risks inherent in bringing new products to market. Prototyping can help measurably reduce such risk, particularly if you are uncertain about: the degree to which the market will choose your product over competitors’ offerings; the ease with which your target market can operate your product; or how potential customers will use your product.
Multiple prototypes help the perfection of the product.
As Steve Jobs was creating the dent in the universe, which became the first iPod, he started with a crudely cut piece of wood that fits in the palm of his hand and had a rotating wheel. That’s a far cry from the portable music player that revolutionized the music industry and had ripples in dozens of others. Months later, Jobs took an updated iPod prototype with playback functionality and dropped it in a fish tank to prove to his design team that it was too large. He concluded that because air bubbles were seen escaping from the casing. For him, if there were air bubbles, this revealed there was wasted space that could be eliminated.
Test your prototype in the context
After developing some prototypes, you will have a version that needs to be tested with representatives of your target market. The closer testing can be done in conditions that mimic how customers will use the product, the more powerful and relevant the feedback.
Aim for simplicity: Only build in crucial functionality.
As products progress through development, there is a tendency to desire to include every feature and functionality in a prototype. In fact, each prototype should be aimed at answering one question. That means including a particular and limited set of functionalities. Otherwise, you run the risk of diluting the purpose of the prototype. In addition, you can minimize the cost and turnaround of your prototype testing by including only vital functionalities.
~ Sheshagiri V, Author and Consultant, Product Management
Emeritus offers professional product management programs in collaboration with top business schools. These industry-relevant programmes in product management include user research, prototyping, and product analysis. Speak to an advisor today to start your upskilling journey.