How to Make Sure Prototypes are Useful, Even When They Fail
Posted by Plish on November 28, 2016
It worked flawlessly for 4 minutes and 25 seconds…
And then it didn’t. The VP smiled and said, “I get the idea.” After getting through the embarrassment of the failure, the team learned what went wrong, and got to work testing variations of the failed component. The new versions didn’t fail, and the product went on to eventually make millions…
“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” – Warren Buffet
Risk and fear walk hand in hand with lack of knowledge. The best way then to minimize fear and minimize risk is to understand, to know what’s happening. Prototypes are part of that knowledge building process.
The knowledge base that takes shape through prototyping is equally, if not more, valuable than the actual mock-up itself.
The challenge in most organizations is to make the shift from being object/success based, to process/knowledge based. Then, even if a product never gets commercialized, the knowledge that gets created can be used for other products, other projects, and make those into money-makers. Knowledge creates a bolder approach to the future!
What do we do to make sure we’re after knowledge, not just results?
Whether you are creating products, services, or even a new business model, don’t think of prototyping as a ‘testing an idea’ event, but instead as a learning process. The best way to change into a process based mentality is to ask questions, and then create prototypes that will get you that knowledge. Three basic questions guide how you get that knowledge as efficiently as possible. Notice that nowhere are we asking,”Will this work?” Instead, ask yourself these questions and then start prototyping!
- Which answers can I get to easily? Easy translates into fast answers. It doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, it just means that there are few moving parts, so to speak. The relationships are clear cut – there are anticipated outputs for each input. Subtract a dimension from your concept and test that. For example, if a knob has three dimensions but you want to see how easy it is to grab, cut it out of cardboard and build a two-dimensional model. Sketch when you can. Is there infrastructure in place, such as test equipment, that makes it easy to test something? Quick answers, that’s what you’re after. You might not be able to go to the moon with your prototype, but you might be able to get more confidence that it’s possible.
- Which answers can I get cheaply? Low cost doesn’t mean quick or easy, though often it does. These prototypes also often aren’t highly accurate. But that shouldn’t matter. Can you build something out of polymer clay instead of 3D printing it, or molding it? Find ways to duplicate function using cheap materials or techniques.
- Which answers will give the greatest bang-for-the-buck? Getting these may be neither cheap to test, nor fast to create, but, at the end of the day, they yield potential answers that could unlock future decisions. To find these, ask what part, system or sub-system, if you eliminated it from the design, would cripple it hopelessly? What is key? The movie “Victor Frankenstein” is playing in the background as I type this. The electrical charging system is key to energizing Frankenstein’s creations as none of his creations are possible without electricity. Those electrical systems are his bang-for-the-buck systems. Those are the types of things you want to prototype!
With each of these three types of prototypes, make sure that you have back-up plans. Make extra parts. Make variations. Confirm that you understand why things are happening the way they are.
When do I prototype the final product?
Even though it’s often tied to ‘go/no-go’ decisions about a product, prototyping the final version is part of the prototyping process spectrum. It’s still about knowledge creation, so if you’ve learned what you can about the systems in simple, cost effective methods, and you’ve learned about the ‘bang-for-the-buck’ systems, there shouldn’t be many surprises. Still, expect the best, and prepare for the worst. Have plans in place to deal with those surprises.
Remember, prototyping is about knowledge creation! That’s why failure is okay. (In fact, believe it or not, you want some level of failure!)
Let’s summarize what it takes to make sure prototypes are useful.
Make various types of prototypes to answer questions:
Make easy prototypes. Learn.
Make cheap prototypes. Learn.
Make prototypes of your key components and sub-systems. Learn.
Document your learnings. Build upon what you know. Experiment to find out what you don’t know, and document it so it can be shared.
Follow this process and your prototypes won’t just be an artifact tested in a one-time event. They will be doorways to knowledge, and knowledge eliminates fear, allows you to deal with risk, and ultimately, leads to success.