The Future of Prototyping Is Now Live
March 21, 2014 Editor 0
Those tasked with developing new products and experiences have long valued prototyping as a way to fuel creativity, explore options, and test assumptions. By making concepts real, we can more intimately understand the underlying mechanics and make informed judgments. There are two main ways that organizations prototype new products and services: rapid prototyping and piloting. However, we’ve discovered the need for an approach that falls somewhere between the two—to explore the customer value proposition and market appeal of a concept in the more turbulent and distracting context of the live market, but without full investment in a pilot. We call this approach “live prototyping.”
To better understand the value of live prototyping, it’s helpful to put it in the context of the two dominant types of prototyping. Rapid prototyping aims for quantity over quality. Dozens of sketches, wireframes, enacted service scenarios, and Play-Doh models are created quickly to get a feel for ideas. On the other end of the spectrum are pilots and technical prototypes, which generally aim to get as close to the “right” answer as possible and therefore cut few corners in delivering on the full experience. Pilots are used to prove economic viability, while technical prototypes are sometimes built to prove technical feasibility and to evaluate the merits of different technical approaches. They require a high degree of investment and are expected to be very close to the final version, because they’re generally precursors to launching at scale.
Live prototyping replaces techniques like surveys, bases testing, and focus groups. It involves releasing still-rough concepts into the context where consumers would eventually encounter them during the course of their daily routines—for example, on a store shelf, at a hotel check-in counter, or in an app store—with all the associated distractions and competing choices. Like all good market research, live prototyping is ideally both qualitative and quantitative in nature. We start by observing behavior naturally unfold before conducting intercepts and interviews with consumers to probe deeper. We also make sure to have enough consumer engagement to observe quantitative patterns with pre-selected metrics.
The table below explains where live prototyping lies within the process of bringing an idea to market.
We’ve used live prototyping in a variety of contexts and industries. We’ve used it to explore new brands for major food and beverage companies and start-ups like Koudai, an internet retailer in China; to gauge customer interest in workplace solutions for Steelcase; to test the waters for enterprise software packages for Salesforce; and even to explore ways to engage the live crowds at the “TODAY” show.
Of course, live prototyping has advantages and disadvantages, which you should understand before you add it to your product-development toolkit. Among its advantages, live prototyping:
- Conserves capital: By “cutting corners” relative to a full pilot, we can evaluate market appeal without the capital investment that a pilot requires. Usually, we can do several iterations of live prototyping for the price of a single pilot.
- Considers context: Since live prototyping occurs in context, it helps generate an understanding of how environmental and situational factors affect the appeal or visibility of a solution. In this way, live prototyping allows us to observe what people do, not just what they say they’ll do.
- Improves forecasting: Forecasting sales for new-to-the-world solutions is exceedingly difficult and predicting consumer uptake is often the most arbitrary part of the exercise. Seeing a solution succeed next to the competition, before it is formally launched can make forecasting much less of a guessing game.
- Provides qualitative and quantitative feedback: Live prototyping allows us to capture many different types of feedback, including consumer behavior data, rich qualitative observations and insights from consumer interviews, which help us unpack choices and behavior. Taken in aggregate, this basket of feedback allows us to better iterate our solutions.
Live prototyping has three main areas of disadvantage:
- Longitudinal feedback: Since live prototyping usually addresses the resonance of a value proposition in context, we generally invest more on the fidelity of initial packaging and associated marketing materials, and less on the features that deliver value over time. Hence, it is usually more difficult to use live prototyping to evaluate retention and engagement over time. While we have done this in the past, the effort to do so gets close to that of a pilot, and so the speed benefits of live prototyping are not as easily realized.
- Exploring broad options: Since it takes significant effort to build a channel-specific solution during live prototyping—arranging testing locations, building displays, for example—it can be challenging to explore a diverse set of concepts. For example, live prototyping can work well to test a number of different food brand options, even across different retailers, but if some concepts require completely different channels, for example vending machines, then the process becomes unwieldy.
- Cultural norms: While American consumers have shown a hunger to co-create solutions with companies and tend to celebrate brands that embrace experimentation and that are “always in beta”, this is not always true in global markets. It’s important to calibrate what degree of “roughness” is going to be acceptable based on the market in which you’re operating.
Consistently using live prototyping as part of a product-development process helps negate risks associated with the messiness and unpredictability of the market. For example, it reduces the chances of getting blindsided because people behave differently than they stated they would in a survey, or that a product that popped in a focus group gets lost in the retail environment, or that a new value proposition was just a bit too complex for consumers to learn about on a busy shopping trip. Ultimately, by testing more ideas in market, with lower investment, and only piloting the most promising ideas, a company can radically improve its return on invested capital for new products and experiences.
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