Prototype or die — 5 reasons why prototyping could save your project


Illustration by Jordan Lang

We are at the client’s office, going through the typical strategy presentation for a new product. As we share the human needs being met and the business opportunities, we see a few blank stares. It is clear that something is needed in order to hold the attention of the stakeholders in the room, and we have come prepared. Under a white cloth lies a prototype of this new product. We lift the cloth and silence fills the room… but not for long. After a quick walkthrough, a few seconds of awe and contained nervous laughs, a myriad of questions start pouring on. Success! Putting a prototype on the table served us to instantly align and excite everyone in the room!

At propelland we design products, services, and experiences to help companies and startups transform and grow. We aim to help our clients meet their business objectives by adding value in people’s lives. We differentiate ourselves from an ocean of design firms by emphasizing our ability to “Make Ideas Real”, increasing our clients ability to launch new products and services into the market successfully.

This is a first of series of blog posts that we hope will illuminate the value of prototyping and share knowledge and understanding on how to bring ideas to life. This post focuses on the top 5 reasons why prototypes can save your project. In the future we will go through other important topics like: the different types of prototyping, tools, processes, best practices, prototyping team profiles, and share specific use cases to help show real life examples.

But first let’s start with our definition of a prototype.

“Prototypes are an emulation of a desired experience — the first steps of making an idea tangible in order to find market fit. A prototype is not defined by its look, functionality, size, shape, or fidelity, it’s defined by its purpose.”

Why Should We Make Prototypes

1. Testing your ideas & assumptions

Our job as designers is to improve the lives of others. However, most of the time designers don’t fall under the demographics of the target user, therefore it’s essential to know how to empathize with potential users, to put ourselves in their shoes. This way we can identify their pain points and validate assumptions in order to create solutions that solve their unmet needs.

When validating ideas with users, it is important to note that more often than not how users “use a product” is opposite to how they “say they would use a product”, which is were the importance of having a prototype comes in. Observing how a user interacts with our product (the prototype) will give us more reliable insights than if we just ask them about hypothetical scenarios.

Remember to stay humble when testing and validating your solutions with users. Use the testing process as an opportunity to identify “unknowable” problems and develop new insights that will help identify if you are heading in the right direction. During the testing process we may develop new learnings that challenge the overall user experience, the value offering we are creating, and/or the business model behind the concept.

In summary, prototypes are a great tool because you are able to demonstrate how effective your solution is to meeting user needs and what improvements can be made to your solution.

2. Exploring feasibility

Technology ignites innovation, while design distributes it. When designing new products or services our building blocks are often new technologies that have never been used in a particular industry. Therefore it is important to create prototypes that prove the technological feasibility of an idea, helping to inform the rest of the team about the technical constraints of potential solutions.

Engineering in this case should just focus on proving feasibility, any other work would not be considered lean and therefore a waste of time and resources.

Photo by Peter Prato

3. Aligning the internal team

Prototyping assists in aligning team members around core ideas packaged into a single deliverable, helping the team establish focus and strengthen a core vision around a product or service.

Prototypes become symbols that guide our decision making for why we are creating a product or service, who it is we are designing for, and what the solution should look like at the end of the process.

4. Gathering business interest

A prototype is a very efficient tool for communicating ideas because it shows us a glimpse of what a product/service could become.

Effective communication is key for gathering momentum within an organization, in order to keep pushing a concept through the innovation pipeline. Having a good quality prototype that communicates the viability, feasibility and usability of a concept can be the deciding factor that secures funding for a project or product.

When demonstrating a prototype, having a compelling storytelling is a must. It is as important as the prototype itself. This is because, in the end, it is not about the prototype, but about how the prototype communicates a vision that convinces decision makers.

5. Failing fast and cheap

Innovation requires a lot of forward thinking but at the end of the day is a quantity game: the more ideas we test, the more successful products and services we will launch into the market. Therefore, we must make sure the innovation process is as lean as possible. We must move fast and cheap. The sooner we fail or succeed, the more innovation we can carry forward as a team.

Prototypes do not need to be like the final product. This fact grants flexibility to designers and engineers to be smart on the materials and fidelity we use to build prototypes. In the images above, you can see examples of two low fidelity prototypes that use cardboard tubing, PVC pipes, foam, and a cart we already owned to quickly test proportions at scale. Total first two prototypes cost: probably around $15. Would you imagine making these first prototypes directly out of plastic or metal? The cost and time would have skyrocketed simply to gather the same learnings.

There are many benefits to creating prototypes, we identified these 5 as being core benefits to our design process but understand there are many others we have not included.

I hope this was useful, next we will dive deeper into the different Types Of Prototypes (coming soon) to share how prototypes can help answer the right questions throughout different stages of the design process.

About the Author

I am Alejandro Castillejo, the Engineering Lead at Propelland based in San Francisco. You can write us at make@propelland.com — we would love to hear your opinions on prototyping and how it adds value to your process. You could also directly connect with me on LinkedIn.