3 Ways to Improve Your Prototyping Process

Great product development teams always have a bias toward building things. Whether through instinct or experience, the team will know that a paper sketch, a spec, or a great design in CAD is nice, but a design that works on paper is nothing like having a prototype. The reasons are well known. Creating a prototype forces you to think through aspects of your product that paper studies and computer models won’t uncover. Prototypes are also unmatched communication tools; they help different members of a product team, and possibly end customers, see the product in the same way. Prototypes build momentum and confidence.

Years ago, when the time and difficulty involved in building prototypes was higher, almost every team needed to be encouraged to build more prototypes and to build more frequently. Most people need to fight the temptation to hold on to the design a little longer, to make it a little better or a little more complete, before building. The amazing tools available for prototyping have reduced this problem, and now we sometimes see teams that have shifted too far in the other direction.

Like most good things in life, the urge to build can be taken too far. Before starting to build something, ask yourself two questions.

“What do we want to learn?”

“How will we use this prototype to answer our questions?”

You may find you can learn what you need with a simpler prototype, or maybe someone else has already answered the question. Sometimes, the team just needs to do a little bit more background reading. Randy Schekman, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, recently quoted a colleague that said, “With a month of work in the lab, we successfully avoided an afternoon in the library.”

To launch a successful product, the team must make good decisions, quickly. To make those decisions better and faster, focus on the information you need, how you can get it, and how you will use it. Here are three techniques to help your team strike the right balance between research, analysis, and action:

Write down the most important purpose of the activity. For example, you may write, “To test our hypothesis that heart rate measurement is the most valuable feature of our new fitness tracker.” Writing it down makes the goal visible. This can help you identify a better goal, and makes it easier to see alternative ways to reach the goal.

Set a deadline. And then consider what you’d do with a different deadline. If you expect to spend three months designing, building, and testing, how would you answer the same question in three weeks? Does the extra time provide enough extra validation or confidence in your answer? What else could you do with that time? Finance people talk about the time value of money, the idea that money available now is worth more than the same amount in the future. If you are building a new product, consider the time value of knowledge (especially information about what your customers need).

Get a second opinion. Take fifteen minutes of a colleague’s time to describe what you are trying to do, and different approaches you might take. A fresh perspective can spark new ideas, or just give the team extra confidence that they are on the right path.

Remember that the goal is to create a successful product, which means customers want it and you have the ability to deliver it. Focus on activities that drive improvement in these areas, especially customer needs, and you’ll be miles ahead.