Why Build Prototypes? - 4 Ways to Test Your Ideas
When designing a new product, the tendency is to design/engineer the perfect product the first time around. When you are finished with your design, you go straight to production and your new product will look, work, and behave exactly like you planned and everyone in the world will buy one. You'll be rich! Or you'll get a promotion and a raise! Except it never happens that way....unless you build prototypes!
Building prototypes is a good business strategy, reduces risk, and is part of the creative process. Prototypes are about learning and creating new knowledge.
If you are building something new that is novel or innovative, no one has done it before. The best engineers and designers in the world get in the shop and build prototypes to learn and explore new ideas. The sooner you start building, the better! If you or your team don't do it, someone else will and they will gain the valuable experience that you missed, which could lead to an important breakthrough, a new idea, or a better way to think about the problem. And before you ask, just one prototype is not enough...there is much to learn from building different types of prototypes throughout the development process!
What can I learn from building a prototype? There are four kinds of prototypes
that we use that serve different purposes. Many more exist, but the ones we often use are the Looks Like, Works Like, Looks Like-Works Like, and Beta. At some point, they all end up being made before starting production and provide unique value to the product design process.
The Looks Like
When building a "looks like" or appearance prototype you learn how your product looks and feels in 3D physical space. Car companies often create concept cars to test consumer reaction purely on the visual appearance of the vehicle. Many concept cars are made out of clay and don't even have an engine. This allows them to examine the form in full scale and tweak the design or proportions before hitting mass production. It might look just right in sketches or on the computer but the first time you build it, the scale could be way off. Context matters!
You can test the physical user experience too. Do people know what to interact with or what to touch first, second, or third...? If you designed it, you can't trust yourself to be an unbiased reviewer. You already know the answers because you made them up! It can be extraordinarily valuable to get feedback from someone who hasn't seen the product before, and this prototype is a great way to get out early in the development process and learn directly from your user.
The Works Like
When building a "works like" or functional prototype you learn about the way different parts interact, how the device functions, and what needs to be improved or changed. These prototypes are made to function, but they will not be the final aesthetic. These can be made simultaneously along with "looks like" prototypes.
In addition, this prototype offers the option to test the functionality of your product with your target market. Is the device providing the function they need? Does it live up to expectations? Are they interested enough in it's current state to inquire to buy one?
The Works Like-Looks Like
A "works like-looks like" prototype is one that both functions and has the intended aesthetic although the parts are not made through the end manufacturing processes. These are great for broader market studies, they help validate the parts in a semi-realistic manner, they can be used to test fit components, and they are useful for investor pitches and executive meetings to rally support for taking the product to market. This type of prototype can be expensive to make, but it's value to your business is second to none. It can be used to create a Kickstarter campaign, show or debut at a industry trade show, and to begin accepting preorders from early adopters.
A beta prototype is typically made out of parts from production tooling and one-off production equivalent parts. These are used primarily for tolerance optimization, regulatory testing, and quality control. This is an important step to verify that the expensive tooling you are creating to build your product is going to produce parts that meet your expectations. These samples can also be sent to a few of your early adopters for in-field quality testing before opening up sales to the broader market.
These are four types of prototypes that are essential to developing a well thought through product and low risk new product launch. There are many options in-between, before, and after these types of prototypes. It is possible and sometimes needed to build more in order to learn more specific things for your project. No two projects have the same required learning so no two prototypes will be the same!
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures. Remember to build and learn...and then build again!