A Better Innovation Prototyping Process
- If you want to deliver breakthrough products or services to the marketplace, you must create breakthrough prototypes.
- Creating successful prototypes is best done with a closed loop prototyping process that applies simulation workshops, multimedia design, iteration rhythm, holistic measurement, knowledge management and a clear definition of done.
- Multimedia iterations invite the most inquiry, improvisation and feedback which leads to the most successful prototypes. An innovation best practice is to begin with low fidelity concepts and advance to richer designs pursuant to a continuum model.
Your innovation methodology or framework is only as good as your prototype process.
A well-defined, fast-paced and high-velocity process is needed to efficiently cross the innovation chasm from concept to commercialization. The Johnny Grow Prototyping Framework has been developed and enhanced over many years. It includes essential steps to iterate in continuously faster cycles and achieve breakthrough products without wandering, stalls or delays.
It's an agile-based progression composed of time-boxed activities for simulation workshops, multimedia design, iteration rhythm, market and customer acceptance measurement, knowledge management and the definition of done.
The innovation prototyping process can be thought of as a production process to convert a raw material into a finished good. In this case, the production line is a series of inquisitive collaborations and improvisations where each session either terminates the concept or produces a successive iteration.
The raw materials are the short-listed ideas from a Design Thinking workshop. The Design Thinking process will have prioritized the highest impact objectives (aka Hills). The prototyping process must then efficiently discard those ideas that are not feasible or financially rewarding, or advance those ideas that may convert a novel idea into a unique product, service or experience that delivers significant value.
Breakthrough products or services are the result of concept designs run through a maturation process. Well before these products or services are embraced by the market, they are simulated with mock-ups that undergo continuous inquisition and incremental advancement.
There are no short cuts. Breakthrough products and services are the result of an evolutionary simulation process that progressively transforms an idea or design into a finished product.
Effective prototyping sessions are not presentations. They are working sessions that thrive on collaboration, dialogue and even constructive tension. Instead of inviting confirmation or buy-in, they seek input, feedback, interplay, criticism, controversy, and even absurd ideas to evolve archetypes in unexpected ways.
The simulation cycle is designed to confirm assumptions, identify choices, negotiate trade-offs and demonstrate how products perform under varying conditions. They should also enable measurement for market acceptance, cost to manufacture and sales projections.
The best sessions are more like social gatherings among trusted friends. They feel like ideation shindigs where team members look forward to social interaction and the building upon creative ideas.
Participants feel safe to express any idea. They know they will not be challenged, chastised or judged for unpopular, ludicrous or nonsensical ideas. Everyone recognizes that the process first benefits from the divergence of many ideas and will later benefit from a convergence that filters down to the best ideas.
Team collaborations don't end with the workshop. Between iterative sessions, members role-play the mock-ups. They put them through use cases or customer scenarios. They vet them with peers and customers. They individually score them. And then they bring feedback and suggestions from their role-plays to the next workshop.
One thing most good prototyping sessions don't do is confirm a hypotheses. This is a common mistake because of its desire to confirm or reject something. The first critical flaw with this method is that it assumes all assumptions are known and valid.
That is seldom the case. It also stifles creative thought and fails to recognize that workshops often reveal unexpected and counterintuitive findings that completely change the mock-ups value, viability or direction.
Limiting a working session to a hypothesis confirmation or binary result does not invite surprise, insight or revelation that often delivers an ah-ha moment or breakthrough advancement. In fact, if your prototypes don't deliver surprises, you are likely too conservative in your thinking and creativity.
Product archetypes use digital or physical media and sometimes multi-media to simulate, visualize and encourage interplay.
Most innovation concepts start with two dimensional sketches or simple wireframes. In fact, starting with more refined concepts is generally a mistake. Low fidelity designs invite more questions, suggestions and alterations.
Early concepts may then evolve into computer models or malleable objects created with foamware or similar easy to form sculpting substances. 3D printers, stereolithography and laser sintering can fabricate three dimensional objects at a lower cost than model shops and in a fraction of the time.
The concepts illustrated in simple two-dimensional renderings evolve into software design illustrations, computer-aided models or three-dimensional objects. They then invite new and different inquisitions, questions and suggestions. However, a caution, as the archetype becomes more fixed, so does conformance thinking. Even among experienced innovation teams, as the mockup stabilizes so does the team.
Better simulation, modeling and prototyping tools simplify the creation and advancement of concepts. They also lower the cost of media production and accelerate iteration rhythm which itself enables more iterations per cycle.
Velocity & Rhythm
Delivering breakthrough products that delight customers does not happen in a single step, so an iterative process is needed. However, iterations can quickly hit a point of diminishing return. To counteract that slowdown in progress, working sessions should be broken into discrete, time-boxed workshops with clear goals and fixed durations.
A rapid-prototyping rhythm of shorter iteration cycles that produce more artifacts per interval will accelerate progress and result in a more tested, refined and mature innovation.
Agile methods are well suited for innovation frameworks as they promote rapid-iterations, adaptive planning, continuous incremental deliveries and outcomes that are embraced by customers.
And just as an agile sprint begins with a sprint objective and backlog, a prototype iteration can begin with a Story and Design Thinking Hill. For consumer-based industries, the iteration story generally describes the customer experience (CX) to be achieved. That CX is an emotional goal and is seldom described as product value, benefits or utility. Instead, a successful CX is expressed in consumer satisfaction or emotional goals such as achieving a memorable or rewarding experience that makes the consumer's life easier, more productive or more enjoyable.
Consumer value is not well expressed in quantitative terms. Instead use emotional descriptors such as engaged, delighted, satisfied, rewarded and memorable to better illustrate the intended outcomes. Techniques such as Design Thinking are an alternative method of problem solving that consider how to achieve a human-focused emotional or behavioral goal often expressed in the form of a better future situation for consumers. Benefits should be measured in people terms, not in product terms.
Each agile iteration will end with a demonstration and retrospective. The retrospective is a team-based self-reflection. Like an agile retrospective, it should identify what went well, what could be improved and what the team will commit to improve in the next iteration. It's important that committed improvements are assigned owners for fulfillment and lessons learned are recorded in a way they are easily accessible for future reference.
This agile approach to rapid-prototyping creates a rhythm that results in more frequent sprint-based artifacts, measurements, stage gates and milestones. It also demonstrates more proof points during the journey and that increases the likelihood of enthusiastic customer adoption.
The most important prototype metrics are not related to iteration cycle time, speed or other internal performance measures. The most critical measures are customer measures. They should show how customers measure value when making purchase decisions. That's why buyer insights and customer intelligence are a pre-requisite to the process. And why your CRM system should also be your innovation system.
Customer value for prototypes varies by industry and audience. For consumer-based industries, break through products are generally not created from lower cost alternatives but delivering better and more rewarding customer experiences.
Unlike product features or benefits, customer experiences directly contribute to customer affinity, which is one of only four sustainable competitive advantages. Experience guru Stephen Andersen uses a pyramid to illustrate the continuum from task-based value to people-based emotional experiences.
To cross the product-to-experience chasm, state your Story goals in terms of emotional or behavioral adjectives. They should describe the desired customer experience using attributes such as delighted, memorable, rewarding, or a joy to use.
For business-to-business industries, the purchase decision criteria shift over multiple phases. Early in the process, customers look for capabilities to satisfy their needs, such as features, functions and capabilities. Once a group of products are shortlisted, the decision criteria becomes a comparison exercise.
Finally, once a preferred solution is decided upon, the decision criteria change again to price, payback (aka ROI) and risk reduction.
Each of these decision criteria must be individually considered and measured with each iteration. For example, an important measurement is customer time-to-value. Accelerating time to value reduces business interruption, lowers risk, minimizes operating cash flow, and demonstrates measurable success by showing financial impact.
Institutionalized knowledge is a powerful asset if recorded and made actionable.
Two types of innovation knowledge that often fail to be harnessed are iteration retrospectives and lessons learned. At touched upon earlier, retrospectives are performed at the end of each iteration cycle. In addition to capturing what worked and what didn't, the retrospection should capture the specific actions that contributed to measurable archetype advancement and the information or methods that closed open assumptions.
Experienced facilitators also track which participants are engaged and which may be declining in engagement. Non-engaged participants slow the evolution and increase the cost. If left unresolved they may also negatively impact other members. The facilitator must quickly invoke engagement techniques or consider staff rotation.
Changes in iteration reviews and goals have a way of being forgotten and returning in future iterations. A log is needed to document changes in goals, assumptions, decisions, and the reasons a mockup was modified. It's okay to revisit prior ideas, but some form of organizational memory is needed to prevent making the same misstep twice.
Definition of Done
One of the most common questions I get is when is a prototype finished?
The short answer is when assumptions (i.e., market size, competition, demand, etc.) have been verified, customer acceptance (i.e., acceptance rate, price elasticity) has been measured, the business model has been accurately projected (i.e., sales forecasts, cost of sale schedules, profit model, etc.) and the solution is ready for commercialization.
However, the more tactical question is when have we done enough iterations to advance the concept to commercialization?
The answer here is less precise, but I often suspend iterations when advancements hit a point of diminishing returns with each cycle, or when the financial model becomes insufficient to justify the investment.
You realize the point of diminishing returns when successive measurements improve at a declining rate from one iteration to the next. It takes conscience observation to recognize when conversations repeat themselves, group collaboration declines, recommendations are just reincarnations of previous recommendations and new thought is waning.
That said, it's also important to recognize that alterations, refinements and fixes are completed in a fraction of the time and cost during the prototyping cycle as compared to post-product release. Achieving a few refinements by completing an additional iteration or two is significantly less costly than incurring the same fixes postproduction.
Better design and automation tools enable faster and more realistic archetypes created with multiple media. But I've noticed they also bring a less recognized tendency to over-model or run more cycles than needed. And that decreases time to value.
New tools that simplify concept design or archetype creation, or trade manual for computer automated simulations create a new challenge of abundance. There's always an incremental improvement to be made, an assumption to challenged and another view to be considered. But there's also the reality that new products and services need to get out of the lab and into the hands of customers to get real-world feedback.
Just as perfection is the enemy of good, abundance can be the enemy of innovation realization. Abundance delays results and creates bloat.
To counter, I often recommend managing to forced scarcity. Iteration cycles should be time-boxed. Depending on the type of innovation, I may also recommend allocation of time-boxed phases, such as 15% of cycle time limited to ideation, 20% limited to the design concept and 65% limited to archetype evolution. These time boxes force measured progress, prevent Parkinson's Law (which states that work expands to fill the time available) and reject unclear or ill-defined concepts.
It is equally important to know when and how to discard unproductive propositions quickly and fairly. This is an easier determination and is realized when the concept fails to advance from iteration to iteration or demonstrate a value proposition necessary to achieve the minimum business viability model.
There is an unmistakable interconnection between successful prototypes and breakthrough products. One does not happen without the other.
Prototypes must go through a sequence to iteratively advance and ultimately bridge ideas into break-through products or services that are enthusiastically embraced by customers. Virtually every game changing product and marketplace innovation is the result of a persistent prototyping process.
The methods discussed herein are designed to reduce time, cost and waste, discard mediocre and ineffective ideas as soon as possible, and advance successful concepts to commercialization in a reasonable period.