Early prototypes help companies to iterate, innovate and succeed

David Griffin from 42 Technology explains why it’s vital to get a working product prototype into the hands of key stakeholders as early as possible. And it can make all the difference between market success or failure.

Numerous personality types exist within organisations, fulfilling different roles. But when a new product is being developed, innovation is needed and many key stakeholders are just not natural innovators.

They may be analytical, detail-orientated or results-focused, but not creative. But, how they engage with the process has a huge impact on its outcome.

It’s said that a designer can imagine something that doesn’t yet exist. Conversely, non-designers find it difficult to discuss or even conceptualise abstract future systems.

If an analytical person is asked “what other features should we include?”, they are being asked to innovate. But if they are asked to review a list of possible features then that requires a different skillset.

Often the best and fastest way to get input for a requirements specification is to write a first draft and get it out there for criticism.

Some requirements will immediately be shot down at first review. But that’s fine because the person who shoots them down has to replace it with something better, and everyone is now engaged in the process too.

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Create something to be knocked down

This first document used to be known as an ‘Aunt Sally’ – named after an old-fashioned fairground skittles game. The sooner the first draft is discussed the better because it will highlight the differences in understanding between designers and end-users.

The number of people who can write a good requirements specification is small, but the number who can spot improvements to a draft is much greater. So, if you want to solicit input from as many stakeholders as possible, give them something to critique early.

When it comes to developing new products, engineers typically focus on de-risking some key performance or functionality challenges early. This often results in a technology demonstration that looks nothing like a prototype, and to the lay stakeholder this may appear unimpressive. But getting buy-in at this stage is vital, so there is real value in taking the extra step to make something look a bit more like the real thing.

This may involve adding a non-functional GUI or making a 3D-printed case. It may not strictly represent technical de-risking, but giving stakeholders something tangible can often bring hidden requirements or constraints to the fore. It also allows non-creatives to give input throughout the process, and could be where someone volunteers new information or details that they assumed everyone knew.

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Fail fast, fail often

There’s a popular expression: ‘fail fast, fail often’. Meaning, test your ideas in the marketplace as soon as possible, learn lessons as quickly as practicable, and be prepared to throw away what doesn’t work.

Though currently fashionable, it’s not how every organisation operates. Some prefer extensive market research, focus groups and internal product testing before taking the idea public, and in some circumstances this is appropriate, especially when commercially sensitive.

But there are certainly times when the information you learn from getting something (even a non-functional model) in front of a customer quickly saves far greater expense down the line.

This may require making a working version of the minimum viable product that incorporates decisions you may not feel sufficiently informed to make yet. In this case, it’s necessary to choose something – your best informed guess. And then accept that being wrong is not catastrophic.

R&D is about learning, and every day you sit behind closed doors refining a product that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, you’re not learning as fast as you could be.

It’s been said that in the old world, the large ate the small. In today’s world, the fast eat the slow.

There are a couple of key requirements for being able to ‘fail fast, fail often’. You must be able to generate a passable working prototype quickly, cost effectively and be able to live with throwing away the failures.

So that first prototype may not be made the same way as the final product, perhaps using standard components, off-the-shelf modules and rapid prototyping.

Getting the organisation right is also important

Knowing vendors who can turn models into parts overnight using additive manufacturing is only one part of what’s required. It’s also necessary to support this with appropriate internal systems and infrastructure.

Build an organisation that facilitates failing fast without employees needing to resort to ‘skunkworks’ behaviour. Finally, there’s another good reason for the ‘Aunt Sally’. It gets the process started.

Most writers know their first draft is probably going to be discarded. But it’s better to write something than to stare at an empty page. And it’s better to build something than to keep refining the specification!

If you’d like to contact David please email answers@42T.com or visit 42T.com to see some of the company’s latest product and process developments for its clients.

About David Griffin

David is a principal consultant at 42T and an industry-experienced mechanical engineer who has spent a decade developing bespoke test and assembly automation, in diverse fields ranging from motor winding to asthma inhaler manufacture; and several years developing and optimising solvent removal technology and continuous chemistry systems. He also spent a period in industrial inkjet printing system development.