By Exponentially with diagrams from Visualise.
When discussing the concept of pretotyping with someone new, we often get asked the question: “Wait . . don’t you mean ‘prototyping’?”
We get that it can be confusing, and so we’d like to clear it up.
To start, let us give you some definitions:
Prototype: A first or preliminary version of a device, product or vehicle from which other forms are developed.
“…the first, original, or typical form of something; an archetype”
Pretotype: A rapid experiment that aims to test ideas quickly, simply, and at low cost, gathering data in order to validate ideas before building a prototype.
Often run in a series, building on the learnings from each previous pretotype experiment to test each element of the proposed product.
A prototype asks the question: CAN we build it? The answer is yes, it’s 2021. We can build anything!
By comparison, a pretotype asks: SHOULD we build it? This question requires some deeper investigation, so let’s dive in.
As you can see from the definition above (taken from the Oxford English dictionary), a prototype is the first version of a product from which copies and following editions are made. The main objective of prototyping is to answer questions that arise around the building of a product. These include questions like:
Can we build it?
Will it work functionally?
How much will it cost to build it?
How much time will it take?
Whilst prototypes are an important and very necessary step in the product development process, they’re often created without any validated data to show whether or not anyone will even want the product once it has been built. They’re also often created based on Other People’s Data (OPD), which is something we believe should be avoided at all cost.
This is because what works for others may not work for you. You should only trust your own data, or YODA as we like to call it (yes, we’re obsessed with Star Wars, but who isn’t?) because it relates directly to your product and was collected by you. This also gives you visibility across every step of the process, providing specific insight about your customers based on exactly what you are trying to test.
To fill the gap created by jumping straight to a prototype and to answer the question of whether anyone will actually use it, pretotyping should be used before the prototype is created. While it might seem counterintuitive to pause the process and take valuable time to run rapid experiments at the start, we promise it’ll save you time, money and resources in the long run.
Unlike a prototype, a pretotype isn’t a thing so much as it is a mini-experiment, designed with the aim of testing an idea quickly, simply and at a very low cost. Pretotyping asks you to break your idea down to its smallest possible testable form and run an experiment to see if anyone will use the product. You can then use these learnings to run additional pretotypes until you have enough of Your Own (validated) DatA to prove it is worth it to build the thing.
Where prototyping focuses on questions relating to the construction of a product, pretotyping focuses on its appeal and usage, asking questions like:
Will people be interested in it?
Will they use it the way we expect?
Will it solve their problem?
Will they use it more than once?
One of the most famous examples of pretotyping is that of the Palm Pilot. When he had the idea for this product, the founder of Palm Computing, Jeff Hawkins, didn’t rush to build the device. He ran pretotypes to make sure that a) the product would work functionally and b) that people would actually want to buy and use them. He did this by mocking up a Palm Pilot using pieces of wood and paper, carrying it around for a few weeks and “using” it to see if it was valuable and to test other people’s interest in it.
Whilst he didn’t know it at the time (because Alberto Savoia hadn’t invented the name “Pretotyping” yet), Hawkins was demonstrating a perfect example of a pretotype – an experiment using the smallest possible investment of time and money to see if the product would actually work.
Pretotype + Prototype = 🏆
As we’ve mentioned above, pretotyping and prototyping are actually best placed when used together, one after the other. When you have an idea, pretotyping can be used to test each element of the proposed product, creating your own collectable data and letting you know if it’s even worth building in the first place. The process also allows you to test many different elements of the potential product; this means you will emerge with the best possible plan as well as considerable data that could be useful when it comes to creating the prototype.
Once the pretotypes have all been run, the data collected and analysed and the evidence-based decision made, then it’s time to build the prototype, which will be all the better for the time taken to pretotype it in the first place.