Monday, August 29, 2016

Rapid prototyping: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes

How rapid is rapid prototyping? This question evokes different timelines in peoples’ minds. And it is not uncommon to see that many of my workshop participants are thinking in terms of months. That makes sense if you are building high fidelity prototypes of complex solutions. However, that is not necessarily a good place to start. Hence, I suggest we think in terms of: 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes. Here is a brief description of each of these types:

Before we get into how to build these prototypes, it helps to clarify what I mean by a prototype. I like the Wikipedia definition of a prototype: A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. In the early phase of an idea, the primary purpose of a prototype is learning – which assumptions make sense, which ones don’t.  

There are three types of prototypes: looks-like (user interface), feels-like (experience sample) and works like (working model). Each type of prototype has a 1-hr, 1-day and 1-week version. Let’s see in brief below.

1-hour prototypes: One of the simplest types of prototype is a before-and-after storyboard. It is a feels-like prototype. This storyboard is similar in spirit with the before-and-after ads on weight-loss or hair-gain programs – one picture of “before” and one picture of “after” scenario. A before-and-after storyboard depicts a scenario before the idea is implemented and a scenario after the idea is implemented. I have seen that once a storyboard is created with sufficient details, it creates a lot of discussion. People have a lot more things to say about your idea by seeing a storyboard than reading just a few lines of text. I have seen companies like Intuit have studios where storyboards are put up on the walls and you can take a walk around to see what you like.

Apart from a storyboard, we can also create wireframes – “looks-like” prototypes – in an hour. These wireframes can be created using paper and pen or even on PowerPoint. When built using cardboard or thermacol, they can also give a feeling of holding a phone in hand.

A works-like prototype may not be always possible to build in an hour. However, the skill here is to identify a small part of the solution and see if it can be built using basic / used components. For example, if your idea is to start a fresh menu fast-food restaurant, then going to kitchen and making a plate using fresh food items could be a 1-hour prototype. For an automation idea, it may be writing a rudimentary script that shows how a manual task can be automated. If your idea is to give Uber like experience for local buses e.g. BMTC or BEST then you can show the Uber App and explain that you might use a similar technology (tools, algorithms) for buses. The important thing for works-like prototype is some knowledge of the working of the solution.

1-day prototype:  “How long do you think it would take to make the first working version of Google Glass experience?” asks Tom Chi in this TED talk video. The answer is – 1 day. It had used components like a coat hanger, a netbook, a pico projector. It was a feels-like prototype but also involved bits-and-pieces of working models.

A feels-like prototype can also be created by doing a 2-act skit which shows before-and-after scenario for your idea. Looks-like prototype can include wireframes made through PowerPoint or using your favourite wireframe tool. In 1-day you can make multiple wireframes – each corresponding to a key scenario. 

The picture above shows an ice-cream scoop made by Prof. Karl Ulrich using a used baseball bat and it was made in a few hours (see this article for more details). The 1-day works-like prototype shown above is a games-room designed in a student hostel at IIM in order to help students relieve their stress.

Note that Gmail’s AdSense prototype was built overnight and even James Watt built the first working prototype of his steam engine in 3 days.

1-week prototype: Prof. Ulrich who designed 2-3 sample ice-cream scoops in 1-day, got one of them 3-D printed in a week’s time (see picture above). You can create a short video depicting the experience of your solution within 1 week.

The picture above shows a scooter modified using tent-wires to give protection from rain for the rider. This was done as a student project in less than a week.

In short, rapid prototyping can happen as rapidly as an hour. Of course, a lab or a studio / workshop helps speed up prototyping.