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Prototype your way to innovation success

September 20, 2016

Building a prototype is an important part of any innovation project, and while it can seem like a daunting task, it really shouldn’t be. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives this definition of a prototype: “an original or first model of something from which other forms are copied or developed.” A prototype is your idea made visible and functional. A first prototype should be basic – and getting caught up in perfection defeats the purpose of a prototype.

Prototyping is extremely helpful as you work out the finer details of your idea. It forces your brain to see the whole picture because you’re making it real. If the idea is merely on paper, you could miss important details. It’s also easier for your customers to give quality feedback if they can see something real instead of listening to an idea.

The inVision team prototype kit.

The inVision prototype kit. We keep a variety of materials on-hand to help our clients build prototypes during innovation projects.

Prototypes tend to be crude, elementary models --- forget about the robotic arm that picks up an object. You’re not building a fully functional product (which would be way too expensive and take too much time to build). Think fast and cheap, using existing materials and systems to create something new (the materials in the inVision prototype kit range from aluminum foil and Play-Doh to coffee trays and masking tape). When we work with our Innovation Engineering clients, we focus on creating two prototypes:

  1. Looks-Like Prototype

This is where you’ll start, because a looks-like prototype should cost nothing and take very little time to create. What does your idea look like? This should be fairly simple to build or map out. This can be a physical item, if you are making a new product. You could literally paint a block of wood to look like your new product; functionality isn’t a concern, nor should it be at this point. Drawings or slide shows could serve as your prototype if you’re looking to demonstrate what the new product or service could look like. The key point here: the purpose of the prototype is to show what the new idea would look like, not how it functions.

Note: You should show this prototype to a select few of your target market customers for initial feedback. If the feedback is generally negative, go back to the drawing board to rework your looks-like prototype before moving on to the next prototype. If the feedback is positive, it’s on to a works-like prototype.

  1. Works-Like Prototype

This prototype takes the idea deeper. How does your idea work? This is a little more challenging to build or map out. Remember: this prototype doesn’t need to look like your finished product or system nor does it need to be pretty. It doesn’t need to cost much, either. This prototype needs to demonstrate the functionality of your idea. If it’s a new product, slap some parts together to show what this idea will do for you or the customer. If it is a new service or system, make a flow chart or diagram to show how it works. You could also make a video demonstrating what your new service or system would do. Think of it as a “rough copy”, not a shiny, finished product. Show us how it works – no polish needed.

Once you have both prototypes made, you should have a rough concept of your idea in action. Now, use the two prototypes to do your market research: Talk to your potential customers and get their feedback on the prototypes. Is it meaningfully unique? Does it solve their problem? Once you gather some data, make adjustments to the idea based on your feedback. Tweak the prototypes if you need to and include them in your presentation to senior management.

Prototyping is an important step in the innovation process and shouldn’t be overlooked. Build your prototype and get it out there -- get as many eyes on it as possible and take the feedback seriously. Evaluate suggestions and positive feedback for feasibility. If the feedback is all negative, it may be time to kill the idea and find a new one. Prototyping is a great way to gauge market response to an idea, and it’s an important part of the learning cycle. After all, it’s always better to fail fast and cheap than to fail slowly and expensively.

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