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Six Myths About Prototyping

July 29, 2014 | By Jeff Lash

Why are organizations giving short shrift to the process of prototyping?

Prototyping – a key activity in the design stage of the SiriusDecisions Product Marketing and Management Tool – provides many benefits:

  • Allows more ideas to be generated more efficiently
  • Makes it easy for customers and internal stakeholders to evaluate ideas
  • Streamlines the product design and development process, and reduces the cost of rework later in development
  • Improves interlock between functions around an offering’s capabilities and design
  • Increases the likelihood of creating an offering that meets customer needs and succeeds in the market (when used in concept testing and with other research methods)

PrototypingHowever, many organizations do not regularly prototype new offerings before beginning development, and many have never created a single prototype.

One reason prototyping is not done more frequently is based on traditional views on what businesspeople and product managers should know and do. Prototyping requires us to admit that there are some things we don’t know and that our ideas are sometimes not the best (and sometimes we’re just plain wrong). Although the belief that we should be right all the time persists in some organizations, this is changing, especially in product management.

Several myths about prototyping persist among product management leaders and product managers:

Myth #1: Prototyping takes too much time and effort.

Reality: Many people have a narrow definition of prototypes and believe they must be lifelike. However, you can design a simple prototype in less time than it takes to read this blog post. Sure, you can invest days, weeks or even months developing a complex, high-fidelity prototype that looks and acts like the finished product, but it doesn’t need to be that involved. Simple prototypes often precede complex ones. The first prototype for the Palm Pilot was a piece of wood with a form factor that matched the eventual product, along with a wooden stylus and a mockup screenshot attached to the front. How long do you think that took to make?

Myth #2: Prototyping requires technical skills.

Reality: Low-fidelity prototypes – think pen and paper, markers on a dry erase board, or scrap materials – can be created by children (who, by the way, are naturally GREAT at prototyping ideas). More robust prototypes can be created using standard software that nearly everyone knows (e.g. clickable PowerPoint prototypes to replicate a Web application, Excel-based prototypes of dashboards or interactive tools). In the past, programming knowledge was required to create a high-fidelity prototype. Now, Web- and tablet-based tools are available that allow anyone to create interactive prototypes without any knowledge of coding or design.

Myth #3: Prototyping is too expensive.

Reality: Most materials or tools needed for a simple prototype are already in your office or on your computer (e.g. pen and paper, tape, scissors, cardboard, software). For more complex prototypes, specialized software or apps can be purchased for next to nothing. While there is some cost in terms of time and resources, the time is minimal and specialized resources are seldom required.

Myth #4: Prototypes are unnecessary when you’re lean/agile.

Reality: No matter how quickly and inexpensively you can develop a product, it is quicker and less expensive to develop a prototype. Widespread adoption of agile and lean startup principles has had some unintended side effects, with organizations forgoing prototypes in favor of quick development. This is a mistake, as it removes the benefits of prototyping. First, when building an actual product, designers and developers try to get it right the first time, and are afraid to test ideas or make changes when something isn’t working. Second, customers are more likely to provide feedback on a rough sample they know is in development vs. a fine-tuned product.

Myth #5: Prototypes are only for certain types of products or offerings.

Reality: Web-, computer- and mobile-based products are great candidates for prototypes, as are tangible manufactured products. But services can also be prototyped (e.g. a one-page written description of the service and a short, narrated video description). A prototype can be created for any offering – I challenge you to try to stump me with an exception. While some types of prototype work better for specific purposes, many work for any type of product, solution or service (e.g. product description, paper prototype, functional prototype).

Myth #6: There’s no value in prototyping.

Reality: Prototyping creates better products more economically and more efficiently. But if you’re still unsure of the benefits, answer some of these questions:

  • Do you believe that the best possible idea is the one idea selected after meetings and discussion?
  • Do you believe that the selected idea is so good that it cannot be improved upon?
  • Do your internal stakeholders completely agree on what to build and how it will function?
  • Do you believe that through words alone, you’ve captured all the details needed to build the offering?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you could benefit from prototyping.

If you’ve never prototyped before, I hope that by addressing these myths, I’ve shown its importance in the innovation and go-to-market process. If you don’t prototype consistently, I hope I’ve convinced you to do it more often and to get more leverage out of your prototypes.

I’m interested in hearing from readers, so please post a comment. How are you utilizing prototyping? What benefits have you seen? And if you’re still not prototyping, why not?

Jeff Lash

Jeff Lash is Vice President and Group Director of Go-to-Market at SiriusDecisions, where he leads the Product Management and Portfolio Marketing Research and Advisory Services. A recognized thought leader in product management, he has over 15 years of experience in product management, product development, product marketing, and user experience design. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflash.

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