Why You Should Prototype (All) Ideas

Let’s start with the bad news. If you are moving into the startup space, you should confront reality early on. Even with the best entrepreneurship education programmes, incubators, accelerators, and coaches, we must accept that many – if not most – new ventures will not be successful. This is not meant to get you down, but it is part of the reality of starting your own venture. However, the fact that other startups have failed before you also gives you a chance to learn from their experiences early on and adapt your approach. One of the best sources for this is a report by CB Insights called “339 Startup Failure Post-Mortems”. In this report, founders and investors give extremely helpful accounts of why the startup they were involved with failed. Their findings from an earlier analysis are also summarized in another report called “The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail”.

Now the somewhat better news. Studying these reports allows you to be better prepared and to build pre-emptive strategies to potentially circumvent some of these pitfalls. One of these strategies should be continuous prototyping.

On an individual level, the practice of prototyping forces you to get ideas out of your head and bring them into the real world. This will greatly help you with clarifying your thought process. During this activity, you are continually refining your idea by “thinking with your hands” (Brown, 2009) and learning about different ways in which your idea can take form. The experimentation with physical representations of your idea will greatly accelerate the discovery and learning process during product development. Prototyping also has psychological effects. In an interesting academic study led by Gerber & Caroll (2012), the authors point out three of these effects. First, engaging in low-fidelity prototyping helps you to reframe “failure” as a valuable opportunity for learning. Second, continuous prototyping leads to a sense of “forward progress”, which is especially important if you find yourself feeling “stuck”. Third, prototyping will help you strengthen your belief in your creative ability.

Prototyping together with your team ensures that you are all talking about the same thing and will help you to align behind a common vision for your product. Framing prototyping as a team activity allows you to leverage the different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and points of view inherent in a group. This joint activity often leads to new and unexpected insights for your product. Creating low-fidelity prototypes as a physical representation of a mental model of an idea also encourages a team to further reduce the uncertainty associated with a proposed solution and move past detrimental fixation on individual ideas or already existing designs.  [Note: This effect is referred to as “design fixation” in the academic literature – read about its classification and practicalities in this paper from Google’s Head of UX Research].

One of the most important reasons to build a tangible prototype is the ability to share a prototype with potential users and customers and incorporating the gathered feedback into your product development process. Note that customers are the people who pay for your product, while users are the ones using the product. In many cases, customers will also be users. However, there are also products and services, where customers and users are not the same people. For example, if you are building a new learning application for pre-schoolers, the users are the children using the product, while the customers are the parents who are paying for the product. Your product will have to be appealing to both groups to be successful.

If done right, prototyping keeps you in a continuous feedback loop with the market so you can build a product that fulfills a clear need, includes a sustainable business model, and is based on a realistic product development roadmap. This process will help you to uncover underlying key assumptions as well as shortcomings of your product and reduce the chances of failing in the market. It is important to state at this point, that “reduce risks” does not mean “eliminate risks”. Prototypes can only give you an indication. Even after carefully prototyping your product, many assumptions and blind spots (i.e. things that you don’t know you don’t know or couldn’t anticipate) will remain until you launch your product in the market. “Unknown unknowns” are referred to as unk unks in the academic literature. Check out John W Mullins’ famous piece on discovering unk unks

If you find yourself preparing for a pitch or product demo, prototypes will likely be your best communication aid. Entering a presentation or meeting with a prototype will almost automatically centre and align the conversation. Even if the prototype is not what the other audience members expect, it will give you an anchor for discussing improvements and potential directions. It is worth checking out the short blog post “Never attend a meeting without a prototype” by Diego Rodriguez.

The process of identifying the most critical underlying assumptions of your idea and translating those into early prototypes can often feel overwhelming. To break down these tasks, it is often helpful to view prototyping through different lenses which will force you to think about your ideas and prototyping from multiple perspectives.

Source: Own collection. This figure shows three different lenses through which prototyping can be viewed. The figure is based on Brown (2009, p. 4).

In the next sections, let’s look at each of these lenses in a little more detail and also dive into which questions you can ask while prototyping with each of these perspectives in mind.