Lauren Macpherson
March 8, 2022

Only prototyping at the start of a project? You’re doing it wrong.

It’s a tale of our times. You’re working on a project - an app that will solve a problem for potentially thousands of users. You set to work, maybe hiring a bit of help along the way. The product is ready in a few months. You release it into the market. And it flops.

The feedback is not what you expected and users abandon the app. Now it’s in the real world, you realise all the things you overlooked. And fixing it will mean almost an entire rebuild of the app and huge release delays. Time and money wasted, more to be spent. You are tired, frustrated and morale is low.

We hear similar stories all the time. The world is full of good ideas and the two easiest traps to fall into are to assume that a good idea alone is enough to be successful or simply getting swept up in the work and neglecting to stop and evaluate. So when someone comes to us with an idea (and sometimes even a working prototype), we always recommend the same thing - stop, validate, prototype, evaluate, and test test test.

The thing is, most people stop after the release date. The project is finished, right? However,  even if your idea is still proven to be one that users like, that doesn’t guarantee success. They may get bored of it in a month, or not be willing to pay for it long-term. It may not get enough traction in the market, or you might lose out to competitors. The only way to avoid most of these post-launch issues is to never ever stop getting consistent and constant feedback from real users, which means you never stop giving them new prototypes to test. Whether that is of a full product, a new feature, or even a small design change. 

As long as fickle humans are your customers, your product is never going to be finished. After you launch, you’re not building your idea anymore, your focus is on evolving it into a sustainable business product. Which is a very different beast.

Prototyping ideas

Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it”. This is a pretty good mantra to live by when you’re working on products. You need to dig deep into the problem you are trying to solve and the people that you want to become your users. Now I’ll admit, this is the start of the project and I promised to argue for more prototyping later in projects. But it is a moment where people forget to examine, criticise and put pressure on their ideas and assumptions.

One of the best frameworks for this I’ve used was created by Jelmer Pé. He explains it in this article: What I learned building 20+ startups in 5 years. While he uses ‘critical’ customer pains as a starting point for a product idea, he then also dives into the users ‘jobs to be done’. Their goals, aspirations and challenges. You want to know why people are buying pretzels in a mall - do they love the taste, are they just hungry, or are they trying to pass the time? As Jelmer points out, these observations will impact how you position and market your product. Oftentimes. even how you create it in the first place. And finally, he looks at ‘zeitgeist’ or the ‘spirit of the time’. This part deals more with behaviours, attitudes and peoples sense of identity. The most simple form of this are trends - people buying because something is popular and gives them status. In this case, you’re actually creating your problem for your customers - we have made this popular thing and you don’t have it. The life and psychology of a consumer that will pay €495 for a designer shirt is different to one who will pay €125 for a shirt from a sustainable brand, which is then different to a person that will buy a €5 shirt.

And this proves exactly what I was saying about humans being fickle and your product never being finished. Because trends are a thing, needs change, and people are different. So revalidating your idea and updating your understanding of your target market is critical to success. You should always be prototyping new ideas to improve your product, or even completely new products based on the information you’re getting from your users.

Traditional prototypes

This is usually where most people begin. They have their idea and then they create prototypes. If you’ve already worked through several iterations of your original idea as we just discussed, you’ll have a huge head start at this point. With this advantage, you will already be saving yourself time and energy by only working on refined ideas.

Traditional software prototypes usually begin with simple sketches and paper wireframes, followed by simple wireframes and low-fidelity designs, and finishing up with a clickable prototype. The benefit at this point is that you have something to show to stakeholders and/or potential investors. Early backing is hugely valuable to them and to you.

Minimum viable products

The sole purpose of an MVP is to gather evidence that proves your product will succeed in the real world. And you are doing that with the minimum viable version of your product. I tell the Zalando story all the time but when the founders of that site wanted to prove a website dedicated to shoes would be popular, they simply went to a store, took pictures of shoes, uploaded them to a simple webshop, went back to the store purchased the order for the customer, and posted orders themselves. Once the webshop took off, their idea was proven to be commercially viable and the company grew.

Prototyping post-launch

When you look at Zalando now, they sell much more than just shoes. They kept testing new things and monitoring customer feedback. The same is true for Uber, who launched their idea in London before gradually extending their business to other cities around the world. Or the infamous Airbnb story, where they first tested their idea on Craigslist.

One of the big mistakes we come across is too much time and money invested too early when it comes to software. We’ve genuinely had people come to us with a near fully built (and completely untested) first-version. Ideally, you want to start off with only the most necessary of features and work out incrementally from there. Partly for the obvious cost implications but also because testing a big, complex product with lots of features won’t give you clear feedback or user data.

When you think about how much the most popular apps like Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, Instagram, and Citymapper have all evolved over time you see the same pattern. Sustainable innovation driven by user feedback. And at the heart of every new addition, improvement and update are the prototypes that help us to formulate the most successful route for the business.

Lauren Macpherson
I'm an avid sharer of the latest news, tools, and tricks relating to all aspects of product development. My main aim is to stay true to our Explain-Like-I'm-5 roots: keeping things simple and easy to understand. My other is to find any excuse to talk about gaming.

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