What we’re talking about

A prototype is an early draft version of a product or service. It incorporates the core qualities and functionality of the final offering, but is produced in a much more crude way and at a much smaller scale (sometimes just one) – and is used for internal testing and analysis only. While prototypes often bring to mind physical products, they’re useful in pretty much any sector and the digital realm, too. 

A critical step in product development, this is about moving your idea out of the hypothetical (eg, drawings, sketches and written lists) and into something a bit more tangible. It allows you to see what works and what doesn’t – with many of the benefits and few of the risks of jumping straight into proper production or building. 

Why it’s important 

A prototype can help you detect any issues with how your product or service functions (such as manufacturing difficulties or faulty features); get customer feedback that you can quickly and easily act on; and prove to investors that you’re serious about your business and have thought through potential drawbacks. 

Ultimately, it minimizes the chances of things going wrong, validates assumptions you’ve made and separates what works on paper but not in real life. For those reasons, it’ll not only massively improve your offering, but it’ll also save you money, despite potential upfront costs. Global management consultant McKinsey’s Design Index found ‘a strong correlation’ between successful companies and companies that didn’t cut spending on prototyping or concept generation when cutting costs.

Things to note 

Prototyping looks different for physical and virtual businesses. All small businesses – whether hardware or software, product or service – can make prototypes. But making tangible and intangible prototypes obviously involve different tools, techniques and demands. Prototyping a physical product might include making DIY models from basic materials; prototyping software could look like making a basic version of your app that people can interact with, or a wireframe (basically a functional sketch) for your website. A service business prototype might involve storyboarding, role play and running mock sessions or video demos. 

Know your prototype from your POC and MVP. There are two other key concepts to know: proof of concept (POC) and minimum viable product (MVP). A POC is used internally to make sure that individual aspects of your idea make sense. An MVP, meanwhile, involves putting a ‘bare minimum’ version straight on the market. Theoretically, this means you can start generating returns straight away – while confirming that, at its core, your product or service is something people actually need. When you’re thinking about why you need a prototype, you should also consider opting for an MVP and POC instead of or alongside it. The standard route is POC > prototype > MVP, but this isn’t set in stone.

Involve the customer. One big thing prototyping has on creating an MVP or POC is the kind of feedback you can solicit from customers. If you ask the right people the right questions, you can get actionable insights and build them in before you launch. That said, according to the McKinsey study above, many overlook this: 60% of companies admitted they only use prototypes for internal testing – rather than sharing early prototypes with curious customers. Remember that a key part of prototyping is getting beyond the biases of your team. 

Don’t drag it out. If your resources are scant, you don’t want to linger too long on this rudimentary version of your product. Make the prototype, use it as needed, incorporate changes, repeat this as required, then get started as soon as possible on formulating your real product or service. 

How to prototype a product or service 

Get clear on the purpose. What questions do you need to answer during the prototyping process? That could be checking that what you’re providing fits together, is used by customers as intended, meets regulations, or is in demand. Draw up a list of questions and goals for the prototyping stage – grouping these around the functionality of your product or service, your ability to present it to investors and customer feedback benchmarks that are important to you. 

Understand your constraints. As a rule, you want to rattle through prototypes as fast as possible. Be aware of your barriers: whether that’s budget, brand values, industry rules and regulations, time frame, or the ways customers will try out your product or service. Get clear on any relevant numbers, dates and details so you don’t end up missing your launch deadline or bankrupting your business before getting to market. 

Find the right level for you. Develop a vision of the kind of prototype you want. A rough distinction can be made between high-fidelity and low-fidelity prototypes. High fidelity means more refined – a higher attention to detail and design, interactivity and similarity to the final offering. Low fidelity is something simpler and more crude. Naturally, if you’re hoping to bring in investment you’ll need your product to be as sophisticated as possible – but this is about finding your sweet spot. 

Protect your intellectual property. If your idea is particularly unique or ground-breaking, showing it to others pre-launch can be risky. When making things internally, you don’t need to worry as much, but if you’re commissioning an external manufacturer, recruit an IP lawyer, apply for a patent, or at least ask people to sign NDAs. While you’re doing all this, check to see that you’re not infringing on anyone else’s IP (via your lawyer or a patent search). This will save you legal trouble and lost sales. 

Do it yourself. Building a prototype yourself will generally lead to something of lower fidelity if your product is physical. Many start here – producing something rough they can show to internal team members and manufacturers – before progressing to a tighter version. What might DIY prototyping involve? Making story or mood boards on paper, creating digital sketches via Framer or Adobe XD, and interactive versions via Proto.io or Justinmind. Plus, you could make 3D models from basic materials. If your small business makes software and you can code proficiently, you should be able to put out something that focuses on the core functions without external help. 

Or get someone else to build it. If you lack expertise in design, engineering, production or coding, you’ll need to outsource the prototyping process. Whoever you’re speaking to, ask for quotes and case studies to get a clear view on costs, quality and time frame. For physical products, you’ll need to outline key details like number of units and materials. Speak to previous customers if you can, or search for reviews. Also look into whether you could get your prototype made (cheaper but slower) by a university department or even a local tradesperson. 

Gather feedback. Once you have your prototype in your hands, on your screen, or (if you’re going to be trialing a service) planned out, turn to prospective customers. Interview groups and individuals. You may also want to put it in front of industry experts or display it at events. Don’t give too much context, ask open questions and allow for anonymous feedback so people tell you the truth. 

Rinse and repeat. Use the feedback you’ve gathered to make changes. Keep your attention on what you do and how you do it, focusing less on aesthetic matters. Repeat the prototyping process as many times as you need to – soon it’ll be time to go to an MVP, or launch a full production run or build.  

Key takeaways 

• Prototyping is an essential step in the product development journey – and will save you months of redesign further down the line. 

• Shake off your role as founder and be a neutral observer. Listen to what the research is telling you on how your product or service functions. 

• Try to move rapidly through the build > learn > change > repeat cycle. You’ll probably have to make a lot of mistakes to get to the best version of your product or service. 

Learn more 

Perspective. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, uses a wild west analogy to define his ideal ‘prototype mindset’ in this Medium piece

Example. This Masterclass explains how Sara Blakely created the prototype for Spanx – and features her tips on building your own.

Tool. Here are some helpful lists of prototyping software for small businesses, for products and for services.

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