The development of models and prototypes are a core element of business design. Prototypes are used to test hypothesis and to explore first market offerings. Depending on the hypothesis, form and function of the prototype as well as the best tools for it need to be selected.
Some hypothesis target a better understanding of customer needs others create an understanding of technological feasibility or prove the economic foundation of a business model.
The reason to develop a prototype or a model to test a hypothesis varies. So why should you prototype?
* Fail early and inexpensively – Real innovation always includes a risk of failure. Thomas Edison once joked, “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.” By building a prototype, you can quickly weed out the approaches that don’t work to focus on the ones that do.
* Gather more accurate requirements – Almost half of all project costs are attributed to rework due to inadequate requirements. Traditional requirements gathering techniques such as interviews and focus groups can fall short because many people find it difficult to conceptualize a product before they see it. By developing a working prototype, you can demonstrate the functionality to help solidify requirements for the final design.
* Technically understand the problem – Have you ever thought, “If I could go back in time, I would change … ”? By developing a functional prototype, you are forced to address both the foreseen and the unforeseen technical challenges of a product’s design. Then, you can apply those solutions to a more elegant system design when you move to the final deployed solution.
* Resolve conflicts – The best engineers have strong opinions about how a given feature should be implemented. Inevitably, differences of opinion result in conflicts, and these conflicts can be difficult to resolve because both sides have only opinions, experience, and conjecture to refer to as evidence. By taking advantage of a prototyping platform, you can quickly conduct several different implementations of the feature and benchmark the resulting performance to analyse the trade-offs of each approach. This can save time, but it also ensures that you make the correct design decisions.
* Rally financial support – In the years since the dot-com bubble burst, investors such as venture capitalists have grown more risk-adverse when investing in start-ups. Even within larger companies, internal projects face similar scrutiny from executives looking to maximize revenue. By developing a prototype to demonstrate the feasibility of your idea, you lower the risk of investment and therefore increase the probability that your idea will be funded.
A prototype should not be limited to products. You can use prototypes to interact with potential customers, users and also employees. Our definition of prototypes include tools for interaction. We call them “social prototypes”. A role play or a thorough user observation can be as effective to refine a business model or prove a hypothesis as a physical prototype to define a product or service offering.
In reality it often is not easy to decide what the best tool to build a model or prototype is. A list of easy to use and readily available tools is a first step. The below tools have proven to be valuable in some of our projects.
* Storyboard That (http://www.storyboardthat.com/) : Create storyboards, even if you lack drawing skills
* eMachineShop.com (http://www.emachineshop.com/) : Order CNC machine custom parts online (waterjet, plasma, laser cutting, etc.)
* MakerBot Industries (https://www.makerbot.com/) : Desktop 3D printing
* Ponoko.com (https://www.ponoko.com/) : Design, make and build your own custom products
* Phidgets.com (http://www.phidgets.com/) : Plug & play building blocks for low cost USB sensing and control
* NI LabView (http://www.ni.com/labview/) : Visual development environment for electronic systems
* Protoshare.com (http://www.protoshare.com/) : Website wireframing / prototyping
* Balsamiq.com (https://balsamiq.com/) : Rapid wireframing and mockups for websites & mobile apps
* Axure.com (http://www.axure.com/) : Interactive HTML prototypes
* Microsoft Visio (https://products.office.com/en-au/visio/flowchart-software) : Clickable web demos
* DjangoProject.com (https://www.djangoproject.com/) : Web framework to build functional web platforms
* Node.js.org (https://nodejs.org/en/) : Event-driven I/O system to build scalable server software
* jQuery.com (http://jquery.com/) : UI library for web applications
* UserVoice.com (https://www.uservoice.com/) : Online user feedback system
* Lego.com (https://www.lego.com/en-us/seriousplay) : Lego Serious play – Visualisation of business model, customer interactions, processes, etc..
* Pen and Paper: Our all time favorite
Let’s hope the US president elect Mr. Donald Trump will use prototyping including social prototyping to optimize his effectiveness and inclusiveness in the years to come.