Building prototypes to test out ideas and innovations, whether big or small, creates a culture of learning, experimentation, and leads to an efficient research and development process.
I have two basic reasons for prototyping. The first is to test a simple idea out that, on its own, may not be a product but is interesting and I can imagine ways in which it would be useful. These prototypes get stored away and form a knowledge base that is far more accessible than a pile of notebooks – you can tinker with these, cobble them together, and continually improve upon them. I fit these in whenever I can between larger projects – I find it a great way to take a mental break from a long project cycle so I make an effort to set aside time for doing it regardless of what is on the go.
The second reason is the more classic and involves testing out a conceptual design for a system/product/widget – whatever you want to call it. The purpose here is not to provide the first revision of a product but rather to cobble together the basic functionality that proves the problem can be solved. By doing this you can quickly identify the parts of the design that are barriers to optimizing the solution. For example, you may come up with a design that achieves the fundamental goal but in doing so realize that your solution can’t be implemented in a power-efficient way. Perhaps a few tweaks to the approach will get you there or maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. In either case, this was learned early in the process and subsequent iterations at this level can be quick and targeted. One of my favorite ways to do this when it comes to electronics is to string together development boards and hand-built circuits. Nearly all semiconductor manufacturers have these for sale and it is amazing how quickly you can get something up and running. An added benefit is that the development kits can be used on other prototypes in the future. You can also get a sense of how robust your design is – if it works when it looks like a “ball of yarn” it should be rock solid when you spin a proper board! We have other team members that can turn a seemingly useless pile of junk into a cool prototype – so there are many ways to approach this. The key is to surround yourself with as much stuff as you can so prototyping can be spontaneous and efficient.
Prototyping early will drive developments forward quickly and efficiently. Learning what doesn’t work is as important as learning what does. In my experience, the resources burned through prototyping activities, even with several iterations, pay back many times over in time savings in getting products to market and building up a knowledge-base that can save time in future research and development activities. Among all the reasons I can think of, perhaps the most important is learning that something isn’t feasible early on so you can kill a project quickly and move onto the next big idea.
A prototype acts as a starting point for interacting with the marketing team as they work to define the product and its positioning in the market. It becomes a shared entity that is a touchstone for what the current thinking is. Giving form to the team’s ideas, and bringing the innovation to life, starts the ball rolling and the subsequent momentum can be incredible – a small tweak here, a small tweak there, and next thing you know it quickly begins to look like THE solution.
Ideas evolve and grow into solutions through constant nurturing from the design team. For all innovations, the seed is the prototype. It’s an added bonus that it’s also fun to do!
Submitted by Chad Murphy, Chief Engineer – thanks for reading!
When you have a highly innovative design team like we do at Quark, coming up with good ideas is never a problem, deciding on which ones to pursue and in what order can be!
After perusing the net looking for a strategy or scoring system we could use to vet new ideas, I came up quite short. There were some great articles, including one by Eric Ries at Lessons Learned, that discussed how to efficiently and cost-effectively assess the market validity of a product and features once you had an idea selected. However, I didn’t find much on how a young, lean startup should vet new product ideas to make an initial selection as to which one to pursue. Sure, there are lots of books on product development, Stage Gates, etc…, but most of these are geared toward larger organizations. For us, we needed a quick, easy way to rank our ideas – these are the five criteria we came up with:
Development Costs – Thumb-in-the-wind, how much will it cost for us to develop this product idea? Cheap scores high, expensive scores low.
Intellectual Property – does the idea inherently have intellectual property (IP) in it so that it provides a barrier to entry for future competitors and can’t be knocked-off easily by others? Strong IP scores high, weak or no IP scores low.
Existing vs. New Market – Steve Blank highlights this issue very well. Selling a new product into an existing market is always easier/faster/cheaper than selling a new product into a NEW market (new products into new markets requires a lot of customer educating!). Existing market scores high, new market scores low.
Existing vs. New Customers – pretty simple, can we sell the new idea to existing customers (and get to $ that much faster!) rather than having to find new customers for the new product? Existing customer base scores high, new customers scores low.
Lean Operation – is it a product that we can launch with a lean team and low overhead or does it require extensive overhead to manufacture, sell, distribute, etc? Lean scores high, high overhead scores low.
We score new ideas against these factors and can quickly decide which one to pursue next. Of course, one major final deciding factor is fun, because if the product isn’t fun to develop why would you even bother?
Submitted by Tim Burke, President – follow him on Twitter @tburke_quark – thanks for reading!