Creating a Prototype

by Oct 27, 2021

At this point in our startup help series, if you’ve been following the steps we recommend, you’re probably chomping at the bit to start making and selling your solution. Before you do that, however, you still need to create and test a prototype (or two!). This is the next stage in de-risking your startup. Prototyping is not just about “playing it safe.” Whether your product is simple or complex, you build prototypes to test your assumptions with customers and get feedback. And then you act on that feedback to improve your product. On a deeper level, you’re building a habit of putting customers at the center of your business.

What Is a Prototype?

The good news is, prototyping shouldn’t hold you back from moving quickly. So what is a prototype? A prototype is any­thing a customer can interact with that gives you useful data and helps you design a better business and/or product. In earlier stages of discovery, you explained what your product is. Now you’re showing what it is and how it will work. You’ll get a different kind of feedback when your customer can literally see what you’re talking about.

A prototype is not an MVP (minimum viable product). It’s a mock-up only. If your product is a SaaS, the prototype might be a PowerPoint showing what a few screens might look like and what the user’s choices are. The MVP would be an actual working website with clickable links. If your product is physical, such as a gift box of six jams, the prototype might be a shoebox with six small empty jars with flavors written on tape. The MVP would be the actual branded box with real jams you could taste.

Don’t get hung up on creating a perfect prototype! Make it quickly, and embrace the imperfections. Build a prototype that you’re willing and even expecting to throw away later. Then test it out with customers. The best prototypes are not the ones that work flawlessly, but rather the ones that teach you something. In effect, the prototype is an artifact to elicit feedback, not a way to validate what you’ve built. Though you may discover some validation, the feedback is more important at this stage.

Learning from Prototyping

Why go through the trouble of creating a prototype? The final product or service must meet the identified needs of your target market.  Through prototyping and testing you learn what that product or service needs to look like.

In our SaaS example, users might tell you that they don’t understand the path you’ve shown in the PowerPoint, or that they want other kinds of information you haven’t included. In our jam example, you can elicit important feedback by showing people the shoebox and asking questions. “If you could only have three of these six flavors, what would they be?” “Is there anything else you would want in the box besides jam?” “What do you think about the size of the jars?” “Who would you buy this box of jam for?”

In short, you’re gathering more information before you pay to build a functioning website or make the jam or what have you. The focus of prototyping is learning. If your concept is very abstract or difficult, your prototype might only test one piece of it. For example, for a hotel on the moon, you might strap weights onto shoes to simulate the difficulty of movement in space and test how off-putting that will be.

Whatever your product is, ask yourself: “What are the bare minimum questions that I need answered before I move forward with an MVP?”

3 Types of Prototypes

You can make several kinds of prototypes, from mock-ups to models to role-playing. The goal is to make something tangible that conveys what you are testing. You need to get it in the hands of your target market and see what they make of it. The more feedback you get, the more you can iterate and adjust, and the quicker you can get to something that looks like a product or service you can launch. Consider these prototype variations:

  • Looks like — These prototypes express the look, feel, and interactions of a product or service. They’re good for testing different aesthetic approaches.
  • Works like — These use mechanisms (like a PowerPoint mockup of the user flow for a SaaS) to demonstrate the feasibility of the underlying approach, regardless of the final appearance of the product.
  • Feels like — These are experience prototypes that allow testers to understand what it would be like to be a user of the final product or service, especially around critical areas requiring the user to change their behavior.

Sometimes, in order to test a specific element of the product, you’ll need to build a prototype that looks nothing like the final product. That’s okay! Remember, this is a prototype, not an actual product or MVP.

Guidelines for Creating a Prototype

To sum up our advice, when you prototype:

  • Embrace imperfect prototypes in order to get feedback and reduce your attachment to unproven products
  • Build them quickly with available tools, in order to make lots of prototypes to explore different directions without increasing your costs
  • Use them to test the critical elements of your product
  • Test them to learn more about the desirability of your product, to see if you can convert the identified need into demand for the product

Once you get the hang of prototyping, you can prototype anything—not just your product, but also your marketing and sales tools and mechanisms. In our next entry, we’ll dig into how to prepare to earn revenue.

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