On Prototyping

“How do you understand how to manage risks and place small bets? You teach people how to prototype.” – Jeanne Liedtka

If you are an inventor developing a product, service, or system for consumers or for other businesses, then you need to embrace and engage in the practice of iterative prototyping.

You’ll want to start with low-resolution prototypes so that you can figure out the features that you want to test. For this, you’ll need a list of possible features.Your feature list is a list of assumptions based on research and analysis of your customers and competition: What must have features does your competition deliver? What performance benefits and delighters can you develop to differentiate your product from the competition so much so that their customers switch over to you?

These early prototypes that you build for yourself or with your team, they are rough simulations that illustrate the features that you want to test with customers. They look like this:

  • hand-drawn sketches and diagrams on paper
  • rough “sketch models” that you can hold in your hand
  • quick breadboard simulations of how you want your product to behave
  • whiteboard wireframes if there is a screen component to your product
  • user experience (UX) maps that tell the story of how your customer’s life has changed now that your product is in it

Then once you use these prototypes to figure out what you need to build, you can increase fidelity, but not too much too soon. You still need to confirm your assumptions with customers. And prototypes are a great tool for doing that. Listening to what customers say will get you far, but only so far. Watching what they do will tell you the real story. And putting a prototype in their hands is an effective method for watching and understanding what they do.

With your early-stage prototypes, you’ll want to put them in customers hands for five minutes to an hour and chat and observe. Later on, let your customers use your prototype overnight or for a week. But how will you watch what they do? Easy. With today’s IoT technology, you can build features into your product that will gather real-time data on customer behavior when you’re not in the room with them. Just like tracking clicks on a website. It’s amazing.

Yet, for some designers and engineers, building prototypes before you know what your product needs to deliver can feel too risky. And that 20th century way of thinking about risk is deep in our psyches. So part of your work as a 21st-century inventor is to get over that mindset. Yes, it used to be really expensive to design and build a prototype and you needed to get it right the first time or you were toast. But the rules have changed. The cost of prototyping is cheap. Your initial prototypes will be “wrong” in that you’ll discover that some of the assumptions you made about your customers were wrong. And that’s a good thing. Because even when you are wrong, especially when you are wrong, you can be happy and assured that you are doing it right.


further reading

Jeanne Liedtka

Types of Prototypes, IDSA

The Kano Model

Dan Olsen, twitter







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