What I Learned by Prototyping With no Prototyping Experience
It’s going to be ugly… and that’s OK.
I’d like to show you something that makes me quite embarrassed and uneasy, with my teeth tightly clenched and a flutter in my belly.
What is it, you ask?
It’s the very, very first visual representation of Blubel — a bicycle bell that helps you navigate through the city safely and quickly. It’s also my start-up and my proverbial baby.
Two years ago I had the idea for a device that would be driven by a community of cyclists. Think crowdsourced cycling routes suggested by real people biking out on the street. Even though I knew what I wanted, I wasn’t quite sure what it would look like (or how it would work).
But I decided to put it all down on paper anyways, do a little animation, and apply for some funding.
Needless to say we didn’t get that funding.
It was the first of many little fails that one experiences as an entrepreneur, but it was also a start of sorts for our prototyping journey.
From childish drawing to a hacked together V.1
Despite looking like a grade schooler’s drawing, my little animation captured the imagination of Alessio (now Blubel’s CTO) and he started work on the app that would power our bell’s navigation.
Not content to sit back, I decided that despite my lack of any previous experience building a product , I’d make our V1. With no funding, it was really our only choice.
So I got engrossed in Arduino.
I started out with an Inventor’s Kit — plugging in various LEDs and piezo buzzers to see how it might all come together as some sort of navigation interface.
I added more and more components, my family and friends thinking I had gone a little off the rails, until we had a very simple electronic prototype that could prove the initial Blubel concept.
The next step was to find something to house this in.
I could have had it 3D printed or designed by someone — but firstly I didn’t really know how to do that, and secondly, I didn’t want to commit to an aesthetic before being 100% sure about the functionality and features and how it would work with the app and the community.
Momentum is a powerful force, and it can be easy to get swept away with an idea once you start to see it come together. At this point I could have easily gone to a design studio to build Blubel for us. But I’m glad I didn’t.
Instead, we built this:
Yes, that’s a yoghurt pot.
The pot was big enough to store the Arduino. Round to replicate the ring of LEDs. And light enough to attach to the handlebars with a velcro strap.
Crude. But it was just what we needed at this point.
In comparison to the beautiful CAD models you see online, this one looked pretty appalling.
In practice too, it was a world away from the sophisticated testing versions you see.
The yoghurt pot would occasionally pop open, spilling its contents.
The buzzer inside, while effectively warning about upcoming turns, would startle other road users and attract many weird looks.
It wouldn’t sit all that well on the handlebars — spinning around like a top when you made any tight turn. Basically, it wasn’t anything like we had imagined.
But that was the power of it.
The whole process of putting things together, playing around, and testing functions really helped me to understand what it was I was trying to achieve.
If that first animation was the germ of the idea, actually getting my hands dirty was when this product came to life.
The real power of an MVP
And boy did we learn from it!
For a start our testers, while terrified by the contraption, were also super committed to work with us to improve it.
(I think it was partly feeling sorry for me, seeing my desperate-looking navigating pot and realising that this is how I spent my spare time.)
Also, because it looked so imperfect, they didn’t feel bad telling me what could be improved. In fact, it’s crude form meant it wasn’t hard to come up with suggestions of improving it and they felt encouraged to be able to contribute at such an early stage of the process.
We saw how people reacted to the LED interface, like the colours that people liked and disliked (primary blue and red were glaring for some reason, so in the current version it’s nice shades of turquoise and orange).
We realised how the surface of the device is really important not only for the aesthetic but to ensure visibility of the lights: with a glossy finish you can’t quite see the instructions in daylight.
We studied the gestures even with this basic prototype to see if we needed a more detailed LED screen or a map. And the great thing was that we learned we didn’t and that our navigation system turned out to be less distracting than the phone apps.
And while the buzzer was quite abrasive sounding, our testers said that it really helped them cycling because they didn’t have to keep checking the device for directions, so we started thinking more about the sound effects.
More importantly, even with this silly looking prototype, we got the thumbs up and the encouragement to keep going with the project!
Taking the prototype to the next step
With the encouragement and feedback from our yoghurt pot product, we found a team of product designers and gave them a detailed brief to help us take the yoghurt pot to the next level.
We found an electronics expert who redesigned the ball of electronics I had come up with into a respectable looking PCB. That’s when all this early fiddling about started coming together into a more of a real thing.
Then after months of iterating with the help of the designers, using the numerous 3D printing and rapid prototyping tools, we developed much more refined prototypes — both visually and in terms of functionality.
Building a product is a continuous learning process and I’m sure we’ll be revisiting some of the early concepts as we improve the design. But I guess this early prototyping phase taught me one really important thing: to let your ideas get out even if they look laughable.
It was a tough thing to do because from an early age you’re taught that making mistakes is bad, but with prototyping not making mistakes is bad. All the glitches and imperfections really highlight the most important things and help to refine the design brief.
And more importantly it brings people to connect with and support your project at a really early stage, at a point when it really counts.