Prototyping – Do It Wrong The First Time

2003 Product Development Management Column

Computers allow us to do many wonderful things today but, in many cases, our thinking about how to use this tool wisely hasn’t caught up with rapid advances being made in the technology. It’s like the horseless carriages of a century ago: they still looked like, and were operated much like, horse-drawn carriages!

A similar thing could be said about prototyping, a vital tool of product development. Prototyping has received more attention lately, in part from Professor Stefan Thomke of Harvard Business School (See “Enlightened Experimentation: The New Imperative for Innovation” in the February 2001 Harvard Business Review). He and others are finding that the new prototyping tools available today can only be exploited by rebuilding our product development process – and our mindset – to take advantage of what modern prototyping can do.

Getting the most out of modern prototyping tools requires rebuilding our product development process.

For example, using modern computer technology, you can “do it right the first time” by completing a great deal of design, analysis, simulation, and checking of a new part on the computer. This means that the first time you actually make the part, it is “right,” at least in an engineering sense. As the engineers are going down this route to perfection, however, the design is hidden from customers, partners in the distribution channel, suppliers who will have to make it, and even the test engineers who must design a test for it. Engineers – all of us, actually – prefer this approach because it comfortably shields us from criticism of our half-baked ideas.

Do It Wrong The First Time

What Thomke, et al., are discovering is that it is actually faster, and more accurate, to do it wrong the first time. Get something – almost anything – out there and let others react to it and tell you what is wrong with it before you go down a path that won’t delight them. Expose your ignorance, but do it quickly so that you can then move forward more surely. Furthermore, this line of thinking suggests that you keep exposing your ignorance as you go, continually drawing in others whom you will eventually have to satisfy.

Unfortunately, developers of computerized prototyping tools are mostly pursuing other objectives. Rather than rapid, cheap prototypes that allow you to expose your ignorance early, they are developing prototyping tools that will build an elegant, expensive, “perfect” part later. There are some important exceptions to this trend, but you will have to search to find them, and you will have to be clear about what you’re seeking.

How To Reimagine Product Development

What is more difficult is that you and others in your organization will have to think about product development and “failure” quite differently in order to take advantage of modern prototyping capabilities. It is useful to think of product development as a series of decisions or forks in the road. Prototypes and experiments help you navigate these forks. The trick is to design the prototype or experiment that gives you clear guidance at each fork so that you can get past it, and on to the next one, quickly and accurately. Whereas, in the past, prototyping technology was generally too expensive to make a prototype at every fork, today there are affordable technologies that enable developers to do just this. The figure illustrates the difference between making a few elegant, expensive prototypes versus numerous expendable ones.

Using this mode of operation, each prototype is aimed at answering only one question, and it is only good enough to answer this question. When the question is answered, you toss the prototype and move on the next one. To do this effectively, you will also have to be sensitive to building consensus and commitment as you go. If you have traveled a great distance in your journey, and an executive who hasn’t been involved wants to revisit a much earlier fork in the road, you will have lost much of the advantage of this approach to prototyping.

Be Careful

One warning. This “do it wrong” approach is not the best method in all cases. For example, if you are designing a memory chip, the requirements can be laid out objectively at the outset, without further customer involvement, while the cost of making a mistake is very high. In such cases, it pays to get it right the first time. However, most product development projects will benefit from a more interactive approach, and cheap, quick prototypes are perfect for this.


(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.