Five Questions for a Successful Prototype

If you’re developing a new product, you’re going to need a prototype (or a few!).  In our last post, we showed how rapid prototyping can speed up product development, but also comes with challenges. How do you make sure you take advantage of the positives, and minimize the negatives, in prototyping?  We have 5 questions below to help you do that.

Prototype single axis drone in front of a whiteboard with the drone drawn on it
Prototyping is a critical part of the design process. Pictured is a prototype that was created using 3D printing, off-the-shelf parts, and custom parts.

1. Do you fully understand the problem being solved, and the requirements for success?

When you have an idea, it’s tempting to jump right into prototyping so you can see the idea come to life.  But if the problem is ill-defined and misunderstood, you’ll waste time and money.

Take the time before jumping in to ensure that the problem is well defined. Ensure that you know your target market and their expectations:

  • How much customer discovery have you done?
  • Have you talked to others to ensure that the problem exists in the context that you believe it does?
  • Are requirements defined to solve the problem, and do potential customers believe in those requirements?

2. What level of fidelity do you need?

The product development process requires iteration and multiple levels of prototyping. If you’re early in the process, a low fidelity product mock-up may be all that is required to begin that iteration. Conversely, if you’re far along and getting ready to show the prototype off to investors or customers, you may want a high fidelity fully functional prototype.

The cost of a low fidelity mock-up and a high fidelity fully functional prototype will be very different. Make sure you don’t waste your money on a more detailed prototype than you need at the time. We like to build prototypes to their purpose. Early in a project the prototype might be used to help test a high-risk technical item, in this case we focus only on prototyping to the level needed for testing.

Prototyping is an iterative process. On the right is an earlier version of the same rail on the left. The prototype and its parts got more advanced as the design progressed.

3. What technical challenges do you want to validate with the prototype?

There are different prototyping techniques for validating different elements. If the goal of the prototype is to test a product fit and size, a simple mock-up or scale 3-D print may be the best option instead of a full fabrication for some parts. If you’re testing the inner electrical elements, then a full housing may not yet be required. When we prototype, we try to use off the shelf components early in the design process to get to a prototype faster and begin testing as quickly as possible to allow for quick iteration and development.

It is also important to keep track of any previous prototypes and how they have performed. How can this prototype build on past performance? Keep in mind that you will likely go through a series of prototypes throughout the process. Each prototype along the way will have different goals and objectives.

4. How will you use the prototype, and the end product?

Determine how your prototype will be evaluated and what characteristics it should have to meet expectations. Will it only need to survive for a single demonstration or test, or should it be able to hold up to repeated testing? Will the prototype be used for internal demonstrations, or will it be shown off externally to potential customers or investors? These decisions will impact the quality, and cost, of your prototype.

It’s important to think about the end product as well. If the end-product is a one-off, or only a few will be made, the prototype will be different from an end-product which will go into mass production with millions created each year. Sometimes our early prototypes often look like “Frankensteins” since they are made to test components quickly with rapid changes.  Other times we are prototyping to with the intention of looking at the finished product to put in front of potential customers or investors, which requires a different approach.

5. Do you have the capabilities you need on your team?

Do you have the time, knowledge, and resources to build the prototype? If not, then choosing the right partner is critical.

When choosing a product development partner, determine if they have the expertise, capability, and flexibility to fit your needs. Ask about their past performance and experience in prototyping. Ensure that your timeline fits with them. Our post from June has more on this topic.

The product development process is exciting (if managed well!), and seeing your idea come to life in a prototype is incredibly satisfying.

Want to talk through any of these questions for a prototype you’re considering?  We love what we do and are always happy to talk about how to approach new ideas.