Supercharging innovation through rapid prototyping

July 14, 2019
Written by
Steve Coppola
Senior Strategist, Customer Experience and UX

Whether you're an entrepreneur seeking to disrupt a product category or an established organization in the midst of digital transformation, the goal is the same: innovation. It's about solving problems and developing ideas that address the needs of our customers and that are fundamentally different from the methods traditionally used to meet those needs.

One of the key pillars of design thinking is about adopting an iterative approach to product design, whereby the goal is to ideate and build a minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible. This goes against much of what we may be used to, what we might have been taught or the processes our businesses may have followed in the past: spending months, even years in "planning" before anything tangible was even considered. The assumption here was that the more time we spent researching, brainstorming, and analyzing potential solutions, the greater the chance the product would have to succeed.

Speed matters

The rapid prototyping and iterative design process challenge this process. If we are truly looking to innovate - whether the motivation is to introduce a new product or to stay ahead of our competitors - the speed at which we do so is absolutely crucial. The traditional method of investing in up-front planning may seem like a more calculated, risk-mitigating approach to product design, it's anything but fast.

Rapid prototyping allows us to get our product in front of users as soon as possible - allowing us to immediately starting learning how users are interacting with the solution, how well it meets their needs, and identifying opportunities for refinement. It may also expose new challenges that may not have been considered, and in some cases move us back to rethinking the solution itself. And that's a good thing.

In the traditional model, an organization may invest two years of research and development into one potential solution, releasing a product to market only to receive a lackluster response. The immediate response would be "How can we improve this solution?" where the actual question may very well be, "Is this even the right solution?". Given the size of investment the organization has made at this point, the inclination will almost always be to throw money at resources in attempting to "fix" the solution instead of moving backward to explore fundamentally new ones.

This is where the solution ceases to be viable innovation, but instead a product that will constantly need to justify its existence. It's not a great place to be.

Mitigating long-term risk

Throughout my career, I've worked with countless clients (and colleagues) who advocate for the measure three times, cut once philosophy, investing heavily in up-front planning and research before taking any tangible steps forward to test the waters around a product or service. In some cases, this even extends to instituting organizational changes, corporate culture realignment, and overhauling business processes - all before the product or service is proven to achieve meaningful change for the customer. It's an approach that's heavy in risk and that rarely results in the best possible outcome for users.

Design thinking in the context of product design and digital transformation is about rapidly moving from divergent ideation into minimum viable product prototyping and to immediately begin testing it with your audiences. As a business, we must be prepared to face one of two outcomes:

  1. The proposed solution achieves the intended result but must be further built out and refined to address user feedback, or;
  2. The proposed solution does not achieve the desired results. New ideas and solutions should be explored.

And here's the thing - both scenarios are a win for your customer. At its worst, we're spared the agony of attempting to reshape a product to somehow alignment with an incorrect hypothesis. And at its best, we have validation that our solution is on the right track and can build upon it.

In my recent experience working with Silicon Valley startups, it's been a refreshing change to collaborate with teams already on board with this type of thinking. The willingness to fail with an appetite to learn. To work with curiosity and to expect change. But above all, an acknowledgment that the status quo is merely a starting point - one of the countless potential solutions, and that the investment in exploring alternatives is always worthwhile. This is truly how innovative solutions are born.

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