Prototyping for Success (and Failure): The Value of the Prototype in Design, Development, and Sourcing

I've recently been reading a bit from IDEO founder, Tim Brown, on design thinking and the importance of prototyping in IDEO's design culture.  IDEO is one of the leading product innovation and design companies in the world. I posted the above video because it quickly captures the reasoning behind why IDEO encourages utilizing prototypes extensively in the design process.  I love the question the video begins with: "How can somebody become great at failing cheaply and quickly?"  The concept of failing fast and failing cheaply is widely promoted by successful entrepreneurs and innovators as a way to reach a successful product or business model through innovation.  Devorah Klein (in the above video) and Eric Saperstein, of IDEO, gave a speech at the 2008 Nantucket Conference, Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs: Identifying New Markets and Developing the Winning Product or Service (h/t blogger Simeon Simneonov) which I thought gave a great snapshot of IDEO's process.  Some main points:

  • Focus on Desirability (As captured by Simeon: The core of the IDEO philosophy starts with a focus on desirability. Come up with something people want then figure out how to optimize the technical and business aspects of it.)
  • Get Inspiration:

    • Spent time with people, both current customers and people who you’d want to have as customers. Develop deep empathy. 
    • Imagine what the future could be. Do not constrain your thinking. 
    • Embrace failure. Failure is data. 
    • Build to think. The act of creation helps you see things in a different light. 
    • Build low-res prototypes. Paper is OK. Iterate quickly. Generate many options. Be passionate about your prototypes but evaluate them dispassionately. 
    • Build it yourself. It’s another way to get yourself to see things from a different perspective. 

In the successful product development projects and entrepreneurial ventures I've been involved with, executives and managers have always been extremely involved in the prototyping phases, often building the prototypes themselves.  If possible, build it on your kitchen table or in your workroom with whatever handy materials you can find.  By getting your hands dirty, you become fully acquainted with the ins-n-outs of your product.  Think of the early stages as play and allow your mind to roam freely.  

Understanding the emphasis on the iterative nature of this process is key.  Although it's fun to tell and hear stories of entrepreneurs having a dream one night about a product that went on to great sales success, the truth is that most successful product developers and entrepreneurs have a substantial amount of failure under their belt that we don't hear as much about.  Think: that old Michael Jordan commercial in which he talks about every game winning shot or free throw he missed, or Thomas Edison saying that he didn't mind failing over 100 times before he reached his successful lightbulb, because he knew that each failure brought him one step closer to success.  One is much more likely to develop a successful path to market by doing the hard, but fun, work of developing several iterations until something desirable and viable is reached.  

Referring back to my last post on developing empathy for those that might use your product, this goes for more than just listening to your users or potential users.  Involving your partners in the supply chain to foster collaborative innovation will help you develop a solution that accounts for the whole lifecycle of a product.  On the manufacturing side, through prototype iterations, one can discover and work to eliminate design elements that might cause snags in manufacturing and assembly.  

Thus, when it comes to the design and development of a product, although many see this as a linear process, it's important that valuable feedback later in the project–say, from a manufacturers point of view, can work it's way back into "earlier" points of the design process and change the design accordingly.  This is why it is important to fail cheaply in the beginning–because spending lots of money on something that is likely to change later in the process burns cash needlessly.  

Once the design begins to solidify somewhat, one might need to move towards more mechanical rapid prototyping processes to gain and share information more effectively.  This post on MindTribe's blog, a Silicon Valley engineering firm, does a great job of explaining some of the various forms of rapid prototyping, such as stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Polyjet, and Machining processes.  

From a sourcing perspective, the prototype is immensely helpful.  Not only will it spur feedback regarding the design from a manufacturers perspective, it is often critical in communicating an enormous amount of information on the product's look, function, and construction.  If a picture speaks a thousand words, a prototype speaks a million.  One is much more likely to arrive at accurate projections and quotations of cost in the sourcing process, when manufacturing vendors can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear what they are to be producing.  

If your product or business is not enjoying the success you would like to see, perhaps you are still just in the prototyping stage and x number of iterations away from success.

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