Prototype Thinking: The Next Evolution in Lean Startup

Sarah Harrison
Jan 7, 2016 · 5 min read

What if one day, you came up with a brilliant idea for a new startup or product concept, and were able to get user feedback that day?

How quickly would you be able to know whether your product idea is a viable business concept, how you should best position it, and who your target market is and what they think of it?

If you currently have an idea for a product or are working on starting a startup, do you know yet who your target market is and what they think of your idea? Do you know whether they’ll buy it and if you’ll find product-market fit?

How long will you work on your product before you find any of that out?

I was chatting with a friend of mine over the holiday break. She mentioned she’s considering starting her own company in 2016. “Oooh, tell me more!” I exclaimed, excited for her.

“Well, I’m still in the planning phase, but we’re going to start small first and build an app.” She began by telling me a little bit about who it’s for, what it will allow them to do, with details about some of her ideal features. “I’ve got the first draft of a proposal written up, and now I just need to sit down with my engineer and work through some of the details.”

I felt a familiar understanding. This used to be my process for building products as well. Gather all the ideas, feature requests, target market data, then put together a spec, review with the devs for feasibility, then design, build… and then hopefully get some customer feedback.

The way we normally approach product creation. We invest a lot of time into our idea, specs, and building, before we get any feedback, which often has us going back to the drawing board.

Things are different now

Tell me which side of the table you’ve been on in this scenario: Three friends go out to dinner, split the check, and pay with their cards. As the three sign their slips, one friend, let’s call him Joe, gets out his calculator/phone to calculate the tip. The other two friends gawk at him incredulously. A calculator?

“I can’t believe you’re still using a calculator, dude,” one friend says.

“You just double the tax,” says the other.

Joe gives a blank stare.

“No, you just take the first number of the total and double it.”

Joe gives another blank stare, then goes back to his calculator.

To Joe’s friends, their methods of tip calculation are so simple, they can’t imagine why Joe would pull out a calculator. But to Joe, who hasn’t learned these methods, they’re just speaking gibberish. His calculator method works for him, so he’s sticking to it.

To me, going back to the “old ways” of creating a spec and building a product before getting any customer feedback is like using a calculator at a restaurant.

Actually, the analogy sort of breaks down, because, while using a calculator at a restaurant is slow and clunky, it reliably gets you a correct answer. The slow and clunky way of building a product before getting any customer interaction doesn’t even reliably result in a viable business — what’s the stat these days, something like 94% of all startups fail?

So we have all the Lean Startup folks telling us to “get out of the building” and get user feedback, and these folks are really like Joe’s friends at the restaurant. They throw down exact change and walk away, rounding up or down based on how much they liked the service, calculating this all without missing a beat in conversation. They say “just double this, and round that” and make it look so easy. But their methods might as well be voodoo as far as Joe’s concerned.

However, if someone sat Joe down and walked him through their method of tip calculation, and he got the chance to practice it a couple times, with a bit of coaching, Joe might quickly get to that level.

That’s exactly what I want to do for folks like my friend, before she invests all her hours and cash with a development team, building her unvalidated product concept.

Earlier this year I joined a fellowship at FactoryX. I began learning the Prototype Thinking methodology they use to quickly validate business concepts and understand their target market. I participated in the Academy workshop, an intensive program that teaches startup founders and teams to apply Prototype Thinking in their business.

I observed firsthand how this way of thinking, which is like Lean Startup but faster, cheaper, and more specific, helps companies make faster product decisions that result in way better products and user experiences.

This is a way of thinking that FactoryX founder Tom Chi perfected at GoogleX while working on hardware projects like Google Glass and self-driving cars. It is not limited to just high tech companies — Tom often speaks about working this way on projects in developing countries and in areas of social good.

Prototype Thinking helps us change our normal flow, from coming up with a business idea to formulating plans & specs to building, to instead go from coming up with a business idea straight to getting feedback from people in your target market. This helps inform our business plan, specs, and features before we invest any resources in building the wrong thing. This is an important shift from our default method of creating a business, because it helps us get to a better product and better user experience for our target market much faster.

With Prototype Thinking, we validate our idea before we invest resources into it, allowing us to iterate quickly until we get a valid concept. Then when we build, we know we’ve got a solid idea, so iterations tend to be smaller and quicker optimizations as well.

I’m now working with the Academy team to bring Prototype Thinking to a wider audience. In the past few months, we’ve taught to design students at Stanford, 7th graders at a Civic Tech Challenge, and dozens of entrepreneurs and teams.

We want to teach anybody with a business idea how to test out their idea quickly and easily, so they can focus their time building a great business that will change the world.

If you have an idea for a world-changing business, and you want to learn some concrete steps for how you can test it — before you build it — I would love to work with you. I’m creating a program to teach the Prototype Thinking methodology in a self-paced format, easily accessible from anywhere. I’m currently accepting a handful of pilot students to help me shape the curriculum and format of this program.

If you’re interested in learning Prototype Thinking, and would be willing to work with me to help shape the content of the program, please schedule a phone or video chat conversation with me on my calendar. I would love to hear about your business idea and see if I can help you bring your product creation process into this new way of thinking.

Sarah Harrison

Written by

Climate-focused design strategist with +

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