| By Chuck Schaeffer
- If you want to deliver breakthrough products to the marketplace, you need to create breakthrough prototypes. There is an unmistakable interconnection between successful prototypes and successful products.
- Creating successful prototypes benefits from a closed loop prototyping process that facilitates simulation workshops, multimedia design, iteration rhythm, holistic measurement, knowledge management and a clear definition of done.
- Multi-media prototypes invite the most inquiry, improvisation and feedback which lead to the most advanced prototypes. The best practice is to begin with low fidelity concepts and advance to richer designs pursuant to a continuum model.
A well-defined, fast paced, high-velocity prototyping process is needed to efficiently cross the innovation chasm from concept to commercialization. The Vantive Prototyping Process™ has been developed and enhanced over many years and includes essential steps to iterate in continuously faster cycles and achieve finalization without wandering, stalls or delays. The Vantive Prototyping Process™ is an agile-based progression made up of time-boxed activities for simulation workshops, multimedia design, iteration rhythm, market, customer and prototype measurement, knowledge management and the definition of done.
Note that this process excludes innovation budget, strategy, culture and team which should have been completed well before the prototyping process.
Prototyping can be thought of as a production process to convert a raw material into a finished good. In this case, the production line is a series of inquisitive collaborations and improvisations where each session either terminates the prototype or produces a successive iteration.
The raw materials are the short-listed ideas from the prior Design Thinking workshop. The Design Thinking process will have prioritized the highest impact objectives (aka Hills). The prototyping process must then efficiently discard those ideas that are not feasible or financially rewarding – or advance those ideas that may convert a novel idea into a unique product, service or experience that delivers value.
Break-through products are the result of innovative prototypes run through a maturation process. Well before these products are embraced by the market, they are simulated with mock-ups that undergo continuous inquisition and incremental advancement. There are no short cuts. Break-through products and services are the result of an evolutionary simulation process that transforms an idea or design into a finished product.
Effective prototyping sessions are not presentations. They are working sessions that thrive on dialogue, collaboration and even constructive tension. Instead of seeking confirmation or buy-in, they invite input, interplay, feedback, criticism, controversy and even absurd ideas to advance prototypes in unexpected ways.
The simulation process is designed to confirm assumptions, identify choices, negotiate trade-offs, demonstrate how products perform under varying conditions and enable measurement for market acceptance, cost to manufacture and sales projections.
The best prototyping sessions are more like social gatherings among friends. They are sort of like ideation shindigs where participants look forward to social interaction and the building upon creative ideas. Participants feel safe to express any idea, and know they will not be challenged, chastised or judged for ludicrous, nonsensical or unpopular ideas. Everyone recognizes that the prototyping process benefits from the divergence of many ideas and will later benefit from convergence to filter down to the best ideas.
Group-based collaborations don't end with the workshop. Between iteration workshops, members role-play the prototypes. They put them through use cases or customer scenarios. They vet them with peers and customers. They individually score them. And then they bring suggestions from their role-plays to the next workshop.
One thing good prototyping sessions don't do is confirm hypothesis'. A common mistake is to create a prototype to confirm or reject something. The first critical flaw with this approach is that it assumes all assumptions are known and valid; which is seldom the case. It also stifles creative thought and fails to recognize that prototyping workshops often reveal unexpected and counterintuitive findings that completely change the prototypes value, viability or direction. Limiting a prototyping session to a hypothesis confirmation or a binary result does not invite surprise, insight or revelation that more often than not delivers an ah-ha moment or breakthrough advancement. In fact, if your prototypes don't deliver surprises, you are likely too conservative in your thinking and creativity.
Prototypes use digital or physical media and sometimes multi-media to simulate, visualize and encourage interplay.
Most prototypes start with two dimensional sketches or wireframes. In fact, starting with refined prototypes is generally a mistake. Low fidelity designs invite more questions, suggestions and alterations.
Early prototypes then evolve into computer models or malleable objects created with foamware or similar simplified sculpting media. 3D printers, stereolithography and laser sintering can fabricate three dimensional physical objects at a lower cost than model shops and in a fraction of the time.
As rough designs illustrated in simple two-dimensional renderings evolve into software design illustrations, computer-aided models or three-dimensional objects they invite new and different inquisitions, questions and suggestions. However, a caution, as the prototype becomes more fixed, so does conformance thinking and groupthink. Even among experienced innovation teams, as the mockup stabilizes so does the team.
Better modeling, simulation and prototyping tools simplify the creation of prototyping media, lower the cost of media production and accelerate iteration rhythm which itself enables more iterations per cycle.
Delivering innovative products or services that delight customers doesn't happen in a single step, so an iterative process is needed. However, iterations can quickly hit a point of diminishing return. To counteract that slowdown in progress, prototyping sessions should be broken into discrete, time-boxed workshops with clear goals and fixed durations. A rapid-prototyping rhythm of shorter iteration cycles that produce more artifacts per interval will accelerate progress and result in a more tested, refined and mature innovation.
Agile methods are well suited for innovation frameworks as they promote rapid-prototyping, adaptive planning, continuous incremental deliveries and outcomes that are embraced by customers.
Just as an agile sprint begins with a sprint objective and backlog, a prototyping iteration begins with a Story and Design Thinking Hills. For consumer-based industries, the iteration story generally describes the customer experience (CX) to be achieved. The CX is an emotional goal and is seldom described as product value, benefits or utility. Instead, a successful CX is expressed in consumer satisfaction goals such as delivering a memorable or rewarding experience that makes the consumer's life easier, more productive or more enjoyable.
Consumer value is not well expressed in quantitative terms, and should instead use emotional descriptors such as satisfied, delighted, engaged, rewarding and memorable to better illustrate the intended outcomes. Techniques such as Design Thinking are an alternative method of problem solving that consider how to achieve a human-focused behavioral or emotional goal often expressed in the form of a better future situation for customers. Benefits are measured in people terms, not in product terms.
The agile iteration will end with a demo and retrospective. The retrospective is a team-based self-reflection. Like an agile retrospective, it should identify what went well, what could be improved and what the team will commit to improve in the next iteration. Most importantly, lessons learned should be recorded in a way that are easily accessible for future reference and committed improvements should be assigned owners for fulfillment.
This agile approach to rapid-prototyping creates a rhythm of more frequent sprint-based artifacts, measurements, stage gates and milestones that demonstrate more proof points during the journey and increase assurance of enthusiastic customer adoption.
The most important prototype metrics are not related to iteration cycle time, innovation speed or other internal performance measures. The most important measures are customer measures, and primarily how customers measure value when making purchase decisions. This is why customer insights are a pre-requisite to the innovation framework.
Customer value for prototypes varies by industry. For consumer-based industries, innovation is generally not created from lower cost alternatives but delivering better and more rewarding customer experiences. Unlike product features or benefits, customer experiences directly contribute to customer affinity, which is one of only four sustainable competitive advantages. Experience guru Stephen Andersen uses a pyramid to illustrate the continuum from task-based value to people-based emotional experiences.
Measure of Success
To cross the product-to-experience chasm, state your Story goals in terms of emotional or behavioral adjectives – such delighted, satisfied, memorable, rewarding, or a joy to use – that describe the desired customer experience.
For business-to-business industries, the purchase decision criteria change and evolve over multiple phases. Early in the process, customers look for capabilities to satisfy their needs, such as features, functions and ease of use. Once a group of products are shortlisted, decision criteria becomes a comparison exercise. Finally, once a preferred solution is decided upon, the decision criteria change to price, payback (aka return on investment) and risk reduction. Products or services that align with the company's strategy and contribute to competitive advantages are particularly influential.
Sample Business to Business Decision Drivers
Each of these business criteria must be individually considered and measured with each prototype. For example, an important prototype measurement is customer time-to-value. Accelerating time to value reduces risk, minimizes operating cash flow, incurs less business interruption and demonstrates measurable success by showing financial impact.
I've previously written on other prototyping measures such as market measurement, prototype performance measurement and innovation portfolio measurement, so I won't repeat myself here.
Institutionalized knowledge is a powerful asset if recorded and made actionable.
Two types of innovation knowledge that too often fail to be harnessed are iteration retrospectives and lessons learned. Retrospectives are performed at the end of each iteration cycle. In addition to capturing what worked and what didn't, the introspection should capture the specific actions that contributed to measurable prototype advancement and the information or methods that closed open assumptions.
Experienced facilitators also track which participants are engaged and which may be declining in engagement. Non-engaged participants deliver no value, slow the prototype evolution and increase cost. The facilitator must quickly invoke engagement techniques or consider member rotation.
Changes in prototype goals and decisions have a way of being forgotten and coming back in future iterations. A log is needed to document changes in goals, assumptions and reasons the prototype itself was modified. It's okay to revisit prior ideas, but some form of organizational memory is needed to prevent making the same misstep twice.
When is it done?
One of the most common questions I get is when is the prototype done?
The short answer is when assumptions (market size, competition, demand, etc.) have been verified, customer response (acceptance rate, price elasticity) has been measured, the business model has been accurately projected (i.e. sales forecasts, cost of sale schedules, profit model, etc.) and the prototype is ready for commercialization.
However, the more tactical question is when have we done enough iterations to advance the concept to commercialization?
The answer here is less precise, but I generally suspend iterations when the prototype hits a point of diminishing returns with each cycle, or at the point where the financial model is insufficient to justify the innovation.
You realize the point of diminishing returns when prototype measurements fail to advance from one iteration to the next. It takes conscience observation to recognize when conversations repeat themselves, group feedback declines, recommendations are just reincarnations of previous recommendations and new thought is in decline.
That said, it's also important to recognize that alternations, refinements and fixes are completed in a fraction of the time and cost during the prototyping cycle as compared to post-product release. Achieving a few refinements by completing an additional iteration or two is significantly less costly than incurring customer service response, altering production and re-launching.
Better automation tools enable faster and more realistic prototypes often created with multiple media. But I've noticed they also bring a less recognized tendency to over-prototype or run more iterations than needed (thereby decreasing time to value). New tools that simplify prototype creation or trade manual for computer automated simulations create a new challenge of abundance. There's always an incremental improvement to be made, an assumption to challenged and another view to be heard. But there's also the reality that new products and services need to get out of the lab and into the hands of customers to get real-world feedback.
In a way that perfection is the enemy of good, abundance can be the enemy of innovation realization. Abundance delays results and creates bloat. To counter, I typically recommend managing to forced scarcity. Iteration and prototype cycles should be time-boxed. Depending on the type of innovation, I may also recommend allocation of time-boxed phases, such as 10% of cycle time limited to ideation, 10% limited to the design concept and 80% limited to prototyping evolution. These time boxes force measured progress, prevent Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time available) and eliminate unclear or ill-defined proposals.
It's equally important to know when and how to kill unproductive propositions quickly and for definitive reasons. This is an easier determination and will be realized when the prototype fails to advance to a value proposition necessary to achieve the minimum business viability model.
The Point is This
There is an unmistakable interconnection between successful prototypes and breakthrough products. One does not happen without the other.
Prototypes go through a sequence to iteratively advance and ultimately bridge ideas into break-through products that are embraced by customers. Virtually every game changing product and marketplace innovation is the result of a persistent prototyping process.
The prototyping process and methods discussed herein are designed to reduce time, cost and waste, discard mediocre and ineffective ideas as soon as possible, and advance successful concepts to commercialization in a reasonable period.