Getting Quick and Dirty with Prototyping

Prototyping has a lot of uses.  Sometimes we use it to show the look and feel of a completed product, before it is actually in production.  Other times we are trying to prove a concept works.  Or, it might be a way to make a potential product seem more real to potential investors.

Mostly, we use prototyping as a learning tool.  We build things to see how users might react.  The goal is to test a concept, or an idea an interaction and move quickly to refine it, change it or scrap it.

Because we move quickly, we avoid worrying about if a technology actually works.  We usually fake any technology we can.  A screen is a piece of paper, with content printed or drawn on it.  We talk through a script of what is actually happening and pretend everything works.

For a user, they generally care less about how something works than if it works.   So we focus more on what the customer will experience than on baffling them with numbers and features.

During a presentation yesterday, a client asked about this.  “What’s the value of doing these rough prototypes, as opposed to going off and creating something that really works and is more finished.”

There are two parts to the answer to that question.

First, we create these quick prototypes before we invest the effort to do proper engineering or development because it is a really cheap way to find out if we are making the right thing.

Seriously.  If we run off and develop a really complete fantastic version of a product that isn’t what the customer wants, what have we done?  Wasted a lot of money for no sales.  And a lesson.

If we spend almost no money to create the same product from paper, glue and chewing gum, we get that same lesson.  The user will show us why they don’t like it.  We learn the lesson.  We don’t spend the money.  Or the time.

These photos are of an early prototype we built to understand size, scale and configuration of a medical device.    The first is really rough.  Size and scale.  The second is really focused on human interaction.   Where do people touch it?  Where do I put it in the room?  How does it fit with the other things that are there?  Neither one contains more than a few dollars worth of materials.  There is no working software.  They didn’t require any real engineering.

Yet, we learned a ton from them.

Also, there is another factor.  It is not as apparent.  When you create a rough prototype—I mean really rough—with tape hanging off of it and buttons that are attached with Velcro and screens that are pictures of Elmo cut out of magazines, you have something people feel free to criticize.

The will let you know what is wrong with it.  Not just that the workmanship is rough.  In fact, you can tell them “Look, this is rough.  I’ve created this to illustrate an idea.  Why don’t we walk through how you would use it and you can tell me where it might go wrong.”

They will be much more likely to give you honest feedback for another reason: it does not look done.  People often don’t see the point of asking you to change something if it looks like the work is already done.

If it looks like you’re still thinking about it, they are free to express opinions, move buttons and draw right on the product.

Let’s be honest, if you bring them a really finished looking prototype, you just want them to tell you how great it is.  The work is already done.  Going back and making huge changes is not what you have in mind.

The customer knows this.   So do you, now.

11 thoughts on “Getting Quick and Dirty with Prototyping

  1. Pingback: Creative Toppings | Arduino and prototypes – designing interactions [#isa2012]

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