Key Ingredients of a Killer Prototype

We often think of prototyping as something only a gifted designer or developer can do. But there are lots of examples in the real world of how ordinary people can pull it off. If you can draw a stick figure, you can prototype!

When I first started the research behind Discovery Driven Planning, it was pretty normal for companies to conceive of, build and launch new products and services into the market without doing much in the way of pre-commitment customer testing. Sure, an occasional focus group or two, or sometimes the designers would create a mock-up, but normally things were put into the market and left to sink or swim. By now, of course, with the benefit of the lean startup and agile movements and the ascendancy of design thinking, we realize that getting early customer feedback about a proposed innovation is incredibly useful. Part of that process is that of creating prototypes (or as some call them “minimum viable products”). My good friend Alberto Savoia recommends testing even before you have a prototype in a process he calls “pretotyping” (see his terrific book The Right It) for more on that.  

What is a prototype?

You can think of a prototype as anything that gives a user something “real” to react to. The purpose of creating one, for you, is to get as much feedback about different aspects of your offering as possible. A prototype can be a line drawing, walking user through the process. It can be a video. It can be a role play. It can even be a block of wood – the original PalmPilot reportedly began as a palm-sized block of wood, carried around by inventor Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins, reportedly was burned from the failure of the GRiDPad, a handheld computer that was an “engineering marvel” but still too big for users to buy it. Determined not to make that mistake again, he carved a block of wood small enough to fit in his shirt pocket and pushed the engineers to get the materials small enough to fit that!

The key to the pretotype / prototype learning challenge is that you are pretending or mocking up something that doesn’t exist yet to see whether the world would welcome it. A few key points:

· Don’t lead the witness – get physical, real reactions from people rather than showing it to them and asking if they like it.

· Get feedback from people who are likely future users – don’t make the mistake of designing a product that you and your buddies who are just like you would like.

· That being said, if you’ve stumbled across a problem in your own life that you think bugs enough people, that may well be worth heading to the prototype stage.

In the early stages, try to keep your prototypes fairly low-fidelity and disposable because chances are you are making a lot of assumptions. As you feel more confident that you’ve nailed the problem, then you can start to work on the program for real. 

Fun prototypes with materials you probably have lying around the house-if you’re an engineer

This is the sort of entrepreneurial success story that I love. And it is a case of someone stumbling across a problem they were having that turned out to be shared by a whole boatload of people.  

In 2013, Scott Dickey, an entrepreneur with engineering experience was remodeling his kitchen. Even then, the encroachment of electronic devices was becoming a large-scale menace. His wife had a great idea – why not put electrical outlets inside drawers so that you could get the gear off the countertops. Scott thought that was an interesting idea and went hunting for a product that might usefully solve the problem. Finding nothing that fit the bill, he got to work creating a prototype – with the idea that the product needed to not only fit into a drawer, but should include interlocking safety features and be simple to install. 

Scott Dickey, from the company website.

He used the first prototype in his own kitchen, much to his wife’s delight. She suggested that he might sell them. He leveraged his network and collaborative partners to create a working prototype within a month, and a month after that was on the market.  

The need for speed in this prototyping process was that he planned to launch and promote his product at a huge kitchen and bath trade show – in fact, he booked a booth before he even knew if he would have a viable product! At the show, his team saw literally hundreds of people and got lots of feedback on what customers would value. The company, Docking Drawer, has enjoyed rapid growth and is even being given away by developers as a gift to new home buyers!

Some of the lessons: start with a clearly defined job-to-be-done (get clutter off the counter) that a lot of people have. Use resources that you can access easily (ok, it helps if you have a background in semiconductor engineering). Bring in others with complementary skills and necessary capabilities (like 3D printing and manufacturing). Prototype in hand, get it in front of lots of people. Then have a plan for growth if it should happen. 

Early prototypes of some popular products

It’s interesting to look at how prototypes played a part in the launches of some really big ideas. Dropbox, for instance, used a 2009 video to illustrate the usefulness of having one file that would provide access to documents across multiple devices. Amazon’s Bezos bought books and mailed them himself from conventional bookstores before building out his warehousing infrastructure. Netflix tested whether DVD’s could be mailed by…well, mailing one! Google’s popular adwords product reportedly used frantically typing students to test the concept before building out the product. In 1999 Nick Swinmurn, a software engineer, couldn’t find the shoes he was looking for in a local store. That gave him the idea of selling a wide selection of shoes on-line. But, nobody knew if people would actually buy shoes online. So, similar to Bezos, he took photos of shoes from conventional sellers and advertised them on his website. When people clicked to buy, he bought them and sent them off. That was the beginning of Zappos!

Prototype learning resources

There are a lot of resources that get into depth on how to prototype. This article is a great overview and introduction. Alberto’s book as well as the resources available from IDEO are also hugely helpful.  

The main encouragement here is to try it. The more prototyping you do, the better off you’ll get at it and the faster and easier it will be. And who knows? You may just discover the inspiration for a fast-growth entrepreneurial business!

Want to know how your organization is doing on getting beyond innovation theater?  

You might find our Innovation Mastery Survey to be useful. We have a few different models for how you can do the survey and analyze the results, from a pretty inexpensive self-serve version to a more elaborate diagnostic and debrief with me. Get in touch – write us at

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