Conducted in late 1972, the Apollo 17 mission is one of NASA’s greatest achievements. Not only was it the last manned mission to the moon, but it was also an astutely built lander that broke records for the longest manned lunar landing flight (and the longest time in lunar orbit). The lander was undoubtedly an engineering feat. The federal government had given NASA just a few short years to build, test, launch, and successfully return a lander to orbit. Lives were on the line, and with the shrinking NASA budget, the team didn’t have the time or resources to build something that would fail.
The team’s toughest challenge? Its own preconceived assumptions. Given how they assumed the craft should operate, NASA’s engineers couldn’t figure out how to shed enough weight for the flight: Should they lighten the frame? Shrink the fuel tank? The breakthrough came when one engineer built a cardboard model of the craft’s control panel and had an epiphany: The astronauts didn’t need to sit. By removing the lander’s seats, the team could save hundreds of crucial pounds. After prototyping, NASA’s engineers built a seatless, 10,800-pound spacecraft with walls just 0.012 inches thick — about the same as a sheet of paper — that allowed it to fly safely and for a maximal duration.
Prototyping, however, isn’t just for NASA. All industries can reap the benefits from prototyping because they typically don’t have the time to deal with large-scale failures in functionality or market fit. Prototypes allow companies to solve and test problems before they become bigger, more expensive ones.
Prototyping the Right Way
A business leader’s first obstacle to prototyping is not knowing what problem he or she wants to solve. When this is the case, the solution is simple — go back and review project objectives until you understand precisely what you want to test. The second challenge is not understanding whose problem the product solves. The greatest invention with a poor market fit might be a revolutionary discovery, but it will flop at release. Get the prototype in front of the people who will eventually purchase the final design. If you don’t know who that is, start generally and narrow your sights until you find a niche clamoring for your product.
Yeti helps companies discover their target audiences and problem statements, but the more research a company does into the problem statement and its target audience prior to meeting with a product development company, the better the final result will be. When a customer asks us to build a product, we usually suggest building a test model prior to full development. Spending a few thousand on a prototype is always cheaper than investing hundreds of thousands into a product that isn’t precisely what customers need.
For example, say a company wants to develop an app with conferencing features. Yeti spends the first few days working on the system, develops a prototype on the fourth day, spends the fifth day gathering feedback from prospective users and employees at the client company, and then uses the sixth day to incorporate that feedback. In most cases, Yeti discovers some project components work while others don’t. This enables us to make small tweaks to the product as we go, ensuring we’re always building the product that fits client needs and customer desires. Almost no idea is perfect for the market without research and revision, so prototyping saves companies money and ultimately creates better products.
The 7 Ways to Ensure Prototype Success
Don’t end up with a failed product that could have succeeded. Follow these strategies to work through your prototype procedure the right way:
1. Identify your riskiest assumption.
When building a product from scratch, the riskiest assumption you can make is that your target audience is actually experiencing the problem you’re seeking to solve. If they aren’t, your product has no market. Base your prototype on concrete knowledge and focused problem-solving. Many similar products have entirely different audiences, so ask, “What am I solving, who am I solving it for, and do they actually need my solution?”
2. Don’t commit to one solution.
Part of your prototype’s job is to solicit audience feedback. If you’re committed to one solution, you’ll look for any way to justify it. It’s not easy to change this mindset: I’ve had to train myself to transition from solution-creating to problem-solving. Be open to feedback, and focus on solving the problem — not creating your solution.
3. Don’t get lost in the details; simplicity is key.
I’ve seen many companies attempt to prototype an entire product and get lost in details and features that don’t need to be solved for another six months. Prototype the core of the product, identify what you need to revisit, and then expand outward, knowing you’ve built a solid foundation.
4. Utilize everything at your disposal.
Know what you can do, and seek tools that help do it faster. If you can find a shortcut to make prototype creation simpler, move production faster, or build it better, take it — even if that means removing functionality from your prototype to solve your problem. Do not, however, take shortcuts on core functionality that will cheat you of the knowledge you’re trying to gain.
5. Be willing to throw it away.
If you can’t crumple up your prototype at any point in the process and throw it away, you’re not building a true prototype. Thomas Edison learned hundreds of ways not to build a lightbulb before he found a method that actually worked. When we worked on Tiny Eye, our team avoided getting stuck by getting rid of concepts that didn’t work. If we had stubbornly continued after our misfires, the project never would have succeeded. Instead, we allowed ourselves to scrap our initial prototype, learn from our mistakes, and develop a new idea that actually created the solution to the problem we set out to solve.
6. ‘Iterate’ can’t be reiterated enough.
At Yeti, we use design sprints to rapidly prototype and challenge our riskiest assumptions with target users. Based on their feedback, we test, modify, and re-test without the overhead costs of redeveloping the product. Design sprints break down the creation process, making it easy to pursue the ultimate destination without losing sight of the small steps required to reach it.
7. Give every side a voice.
Involve the product owner, designers, developers, strategists, facilitators, customer advocates, and salespeople. Everyone associated with this product’s life cycle should be engaged in the early stages to help the group discover any potential oversights. Limit contributors to seven or eight people, but bring in as many diverse viewpoints as possible. When done the right way, prototyping saves money, clarifies product-market fit, and builds better products. Don’t forgo your prototype stage only to regret your hastiness later — remove the guesswork, and work with Yeti to create something better!
Tim Shipman is a Yeti Alum. Tim is an avid cyclist who enjoys exploring new, creative ways to apply technology to suit clients’ needs. When he's not in the Yeti cave, Tim can be found in front of a TV giving an in-depth analysis of the San Francisco 49ers to his Great Dane, Big.