You might be thinking that once you have a product idea and written a product spec, all that’s left to do is make the product. Well, if by “make the product,” you mean, “prototype like crazy,” then you’re correct!
Today, you’re going to learn why prototyping is so incredibly vital to product development.
What Is a Prototype?
A prototype is an unrefined or partial version of your product concept. A prototype is meant to be made quickly and inexpensively. For example, a prototype of a fly swatter would be a stick with a striking surface attached to it. …Actually, that’s just a fly swatter. Bad example.
A prototype of a website might be a wireframe drawing. A prototype could be a sketch, a mockup, or a partial build. The only hard-and-fast rule about prototyping is that a good prototype always uses duct tape. Always.
If you think about the entire product development process we’ve discussed thus far, your product concept has not actually had any interaction with a target consumer. Sure, you’ve identified an opportunity and thought long and hard about how your product concept might solve someone’s problem, but you haven’t actually proven anything yet.
You have a hypothesis.
Prototyping takes your product idea from hypothesis to proven theory. The prototype should help you answer questions like, “Will my product actually work?” and, “Will consumers like my product?” and, “Does my product deliver actual value?”
Prototyping is learning.
More specifically, prototyping is a three-step process: Build-Measure-Learn.
“Build-Measure-Learn” is the process for making a prototype, seeing if it works, and then improving it based on what you learned. (Some people call this the “Design-Build-Test” cycle.)
It’s what you do over and over in product development until your product is perfect (as much as it can be, anyway) or you run out of time (more likely to be the case).
Advice for build-measure-learn: Build cheap and measure carefully. Consider what metrics are important to your consumer, and get quantifiable data on how your prototype performs when possible. Having received the results, consider both what did and did not work.
When talking prototyping, it’s necessary to bring up the MVP: the Minimum Viable Product. This term was made famous in The Lean Startup and is now nearly ubiquitous in product development.
The MVP is as basic a prototype as you can get away with in order to learn something. The key idea is to build a prototype quickly and inexpensively, which is most important about MVPs.
You can end up going down a deep rabbit hole reading up on all the “do’s and don’ts” of MVP design, but you’ll start to lose the forest for the trees. Better to simply appreciate the reasoning behind an MVP, which is the same reasoning behind prototyping in general: inexpensive learning.
Another thing that is discussed ad nauseam with prototypes: failing.
“Fail early, fail often.”
“Fail your way to success.”
Indeed, product developers love themselves some failing.
The key takeaway is that failing can and should be reframed as learning. Case in point would be Thomas Edison, who is said to have remarked, “I have not failed…I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Dude had a positive attitude, you have to admit.) The common expression about learning from mistakes certainly applies to product development
Three prototyping do’s:
1. Do build with a clear plan. Consider what you hope to learn with your prototype, and build it accordingly. Don’t over- or under-build.
2. Do use your prototypes to help manage the development schedule. For example, you might plan to get one prototype iteration done per month or to have a prototype with certain functionality done by a particular date or milestone.
3. Do consider prototyping earlier in the process, during the concept generation stage. Nothing communicates ideas and helps clarify thinking like actually building something.
At some point, you want to stop learning and eventually finalize your product. Next, we’ll learn how to finalize and launch that product.
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