What is Prototyping?

The term prototype can mean many different things to different people. For some, it might invoke thoughts of elaborate sketches, CAD drawings, complex simulations, or detailed physical models. For others, it might provoke thoughts of mocking up a business model, for example in the form of a pitch deck or with tools like the Business Model Canvas. And while these specific tools might all be used in a product development scenario; they might not necessarily make a good starting point for your prototyping journey. To start this course, we will take a much broader definition of what a prototype is.

At the most basic level, a prototype is something that is created with the intention of learning from it.

Learning from prototypes can happen in several different ways, as described in detail in the remaining chapters of this course. What you should remember at this point is that prototyping is always about enabling you to make progress in your startup endeavour. You should not waste time building prototypes if you have not identified what you want to learn from them beforehand. A prototype should help you with achieving parts of your overall goal, not force you to waste time or money. To borrow one of the guiding principles from Alberto Savoia’s great book on the subject, prototyping is about building the right it, before you build it right.

Side note no. 1: In this course, the term “product” is used to mean both “physical product” as well as “service”. Almost all the presented principles and tools are applicable for developing and testing both kinds of products. In fact, many of the highly regarded products today feature elements of both. Your new perfect wireless speakers are a great physical product for sure, but their true potential lies in the seamless integration of services like Spotify or Amazon Echo. The mobility service you use, like Uber, Donkey Republic, and Lime only work with the physical vehicles that will move you around your city. So, even if you consider your idea to be either on the physical product or the service side, it will likely sense to take a more holistic product-service systems perspective.

Side note no. 2: There are a lot of different product development approaches out there – many of which are very buzzword-laden. Some form of prototyping – as described in this course – is featured in most of these approaches. For a useful visual overview, you can check out the figure in the blog post “Shifting gears between design thinking, lean startup, and agile” by Mike Pinder from Board of Innovation.

Resources

  1. For a great primer on early-stage prototyping, watch this talk at Stanford eCorner on determining whether everyone wants something before building it, by Alberto Savoia.
  2. Alberto Savoia’s book “The Right It”. Alberto even went so far as to prototype his book by releasing a shorter, scrappier PDF-version with his main ideas early on to see what the feedback would be. You can read this “Pretotyping Manifesto” for free. [Hint: He mainly uses the term “pretotyping” whereas I use the term “prototyping” for consistency reasons in this introduction.]
  3. Check out this blog post on shifting gears between design thinking, lean startup, and agile.