Why Prototyping Is One Step You Can't Skip in Product Development

We've all had ideas that sound great in theory or look great on paper. It's only when we try to execute those ideas that we discover the limitations — or realize that the "can't lose idea" is actually a dud.

When you spend your time and money on a new product, separating the good ideas from the bad is even more important. Not only do you have money on the line, but the reputation and success of your company rests on how well you develop the new product. You can't afford to be great in theory. You have to know, before it hits the market, that the product works, does what it promises, and meets customer needs. The best way to do that? Prototyping.

The Importance of Prototypes

Prototypes are nothing new in the world of product development. In fact, they are an important part of the process of Design Thinking, which requires designers to develop working prototypes and seek feedback, which they then refine before releasing the completed project.

The best thing about prototypes is that they don't have to be the final version of the product. While a prototype is usually a full scale and functional version of the product, it doesn't have to be perfect. The likelihood of it being perfect is actually quite slim, especially since the purpose is to discover what needs to be improved. In fact, one study of application prototypes found that the number of bugs in the finished product decreased by 25 percent simply by creating prototypes.

Identifying areas for improvement is just one reason that prototypes are important. Even when you want to expedite the development process, you need to prototype early because:

1. Prototypes allow you to fail on a smaller scale. No one likes to think about failure. But failure is always a possibility, and when you prototype an idea and it doesn't work, it's not devastating to your company. You won't lose millions of dollars or embarrass your company. You just make adjustments and try again.

2. Prototypes reveal technical limitations and problems. The further you get into the technical process of developing a product, the more difficult it is to go back and make changes. With a prototype, you can identify the technical challenges of the product's design early on and develop solutions that don't detract from the finished product. For example, perhaps you're creating what you hope to be an iPod killer and beat Apple to the punch and release a digital music player without a 3.5mm audio jack, but realize you still need to provide excellent sound, you might add a digital to analog converter to still allow wireless headphones and speakers to put out solid sound so that people actually want to give your product a try.

3. Prototypes allow you to identify design priorities. All too often products value form over function. With prototypes, you can test to function and then build the form around it, to ensure that it meets customer needs.

4. Prototypes save money. Again, prototypes allow you to fail inexpensively, saving money on the final project. However, it also saves money during the design and production phase as well, as the need for clarification on aspects of the design diminish, and estimates on the cost for production become more accurate.

5. Prototypes help secure funding. When you're trying to seek funding for your product, a prototype provides more information than a product description or spec sheet ever could. Not only can you describe your product more effectively, but bringing a prototype into a meeting shows investors that you're serious about your product and have a purpose in your business.

6. Prototypes help secure patents. Finally, creating a prototype can help your company secure a patent for a new product. Under current patent law, inventors are granted patents when they conceive of the technology and reduce it to practice, which basically means that in order to get a patent, you have to show that your idea works and how it will be used. With a prototype, the reduction to practice is clear, paving the way to a patent provided you meet all other requirements.

The process of prototyping your ideas may seem cumbersome and a means to delay progress, but in the long run, it actually saves time and money. Remember that prototypes don't need to be perfect — and that striving for perfection can actually stunt the creative development process — and that you're simply trying to figure out how, and whether, your ideas will work. When you do, you increase the likelihood that your product will be successful, and that your great ideas are the best they can be.