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How To Avoid The 4 Big Problems With Prototyping

Yes, there’s a problem and here it is: People expect to use products that ‘just work’ out of the gate.

As a startup, you’re not going to have one of these. You’re going to have version one. It’ll be a hack. It will be a brave first step for which you should be congratulated.

But there are four reasons why you’re not going to get the feedback you want (or need) with this first version or the next one.

1. Threshold expectation

Try comparing the laptops, handsets, operating systems and apps that we used a decade ago to what we obsess over today. Millions of hours have been spent in refining how to welcome you into a new experience, where buttons appear and how they act, and how quickly you can become connected.

Today we expect an app or service to just work and this learned behaviour has decreased our patience to explore further or empathise with the maker’s intent. What happens next is simple: If it doesn’t ‘work’ people delete the app or service in the same time it took to download.

2. People generally don’t know what to do with a prototype

Friends, family and colleagues are usually the first group of people who are ‘invited’ to experience initial prototypes. It’s a safe play but those people will often struggle to provide candid feedback for fear of hurting your feelings. Of course it’s also helpful to introduce prototypes to people who are likely to habitually use your product.

In both cases these people won’t have the background or context that inspired the prototype in the first place. Even if you invest significant effort in videos and emails to explain everything the likelihood of the intent being well understood is very small.

As a consequence your prototype will be downloaded/opened, used and then closed.

Now what?

Testers might click on that link to email you their thoughts. They might even call you but will they be able to describe their experience sufficiently to be useful in product development…

3. Time is more valuable than you think

It might only take a few minutes to set-up or login to a prototype but even people who volunteer to be your testers usually over estimate their availability.

4. What people do is different to what they say

When you ask for product feedback not only are you asking someone to recall their experience, you’re asking them to articulate how they felt AND package their thoughts in a way which is useful and constructive.

This is tricky because people generally believe their memory and recall is sharper than it is. The bigger problem here is that articulating an emotion (like disappointment which is easily seen on someone’s face) is really tough.

This means that despite best intents, any response to feedback is going to sanitised and this can affect product development decisions.

How significant is the impact of these problems?

The short answer is ‘very’.

The reality in many cases is that there will be a very, very small amount of people who show interest in (and know how to examine) a prototype. Their limited feedback will be captured over a longer than expected timeframe and then used as an important input to validate a product hypothesis.

That sounds harsh but this is an unfortunate reality of prototyping in a startup.

And I say this as someone who believes deeply in prototyping as the only way to make products that create habits and change people’s lives.

Building a crack team of prototype testers is the answer

Innovation is messy. And that’s why in early product development you need to get the first five versions of your product into the hands of people who know how to handle and work with prototypes.

The ideal team is four people (two females and two males) who agree to connect to discuss each prototype version.

In addition to having a strong emotional tie to the problem you’re solving, each team member will be characterised by at least one or more of the following:

  1. They have studied engineering or science — these disciplines teach and value trade offs; or
  2. They have formal design training; or
  3. They work at or are alumni from firms like IDEO; or
  4. They have backed at least five Kickstarter projects — so they are familiar with how long product development actually takes; or
  5. They have built and shipped products at ventures; or
  6. They are founders.

A cross-functional team with this experience will not only bring patience and empathy to product design, they will ask right questions and be able to articulate detailed observations while respecting that time is your most precious resource.

So where are these people?

If you’re wondering where to find these people, start with your network on LinkedIn and ask your relationships for an introduction to potential candidates.

In my experience, people are generous with their time and flattered to be approached. And how should you reward each team member? They might like a bragging-rights title (like ‘Advisor’), permission to use their time with you as a case-study or well, pizza. There’s no set model at such an early stage so just ask them!

Prototyping will help you validate your hypothesis but remember that time is your most valuable asset.

Build a team that helps you capture insight quickly so you can build a product changes people’s lives or move on to the next business model that will!

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I write about what I see building companies. Currently growing

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