Prototyping and the power of seeing is believing

Prototyping represents the ability to manifest your idea into a form that other people can understand.  How do you convey your ideas?

Its one thing to have an idea.  Yet to find the confidence and convince others “this is going to work” is a very different business challenge.

What software developers call “prototypes” marketing people call “test marketing”.

As Philip Roth once said “Seeing is believing and believing is knowing and knowing beats unknowing and the unknown.”


No one wants to risk their reputation on an idea that might flop.  The business certainly doesn’t want to incur risk.  So how do ideas ever come to light without blind luck and lots of finger crossing.

Well prototypes allow you build your idea, at very little cost and a bit of time to mitigate risk and allow people see your idea in action.

This article explains the how of getting a prototype OF ANY IDEA up and running and how you can approach making your idea something tangible for others.

  • From idea to reality
  • Will it work?
  • Actual steps
  • Getting started


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From idea to reality

Why would you change anything

“The fourth approved approach for the problem of frontally attacking a guarded wormhole was to shoot the officer who suggested it.” Lois McMaster Bujold from the novel The Vor Game

I adore Father Ted and the genius comedic writing that it was.

In the episode called Speed 3, when faced with a challenge of disarming a bomb, the priests revert to tactics and approaches they know, as quite simply that’s all they know.

The comedy of the joke lies in the fact that you as the viewer know the approach isn’t going to solve the problem, so why would you do the same thing again and HOPE it’ll work this time around.


Coming up with ideas

  • “Zee said, grumpily, “Liebling, this is not a good idea.”
  • “Zee,” I told him, “I am completely out of good ideas and am doing my best with the bad ones I have left.”

wrote Patricia Briggs from the 2013 novel Frost Burned.

We have ideas primarily for one of two reasons.

Firstly its a spark of inspiration, something we would like to do or think would be great.

Alternately we have a problem or challenge that needs addressing that’s going to require a solution.

So we come up with a plan but we end up with a lingering question… is this going to work?


Is this a bad idea I’m having?

Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for being “non-productive.” As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”


However we’re not all built of the stuff that says… I can afford to fail.  We have families, a career path, we have the desire but the risk is too big.

As I have learned in my professional career, you don’t have to be “all in”.  There is a stepping stone to allow you make an informed decision.

Modern technology when used right allows us to build that stepping stone.


Prototyping is the process from which a prototype is build.  This model enables us to make more informed choices, rather than rely on big blind leaps.

Prototyping is sometimes considered a pipe dream, especially if you’ve never done it before.  It’s not that difficult at all.


Will it work?

Will you go on a date with me?

That question that fills millions of people with fear.  Will they say yes or no?  Some people employ tactics to find out.  Well is there a chance or not?

This is called market research.  Market research lets you with a bit of work and little investment get some metrics before you spend serious collateral.

Asking around their friends, do they like me? before going for the big question.

Practicing what you’re going to say with your friend before you try it out, is prototyping.


Yet there are only so many questions and the effect of whispers and it not coming directly from you can cause the message to change.

In my opinion the inventor of the idea needs to be involved in the process so the message isn’t lost.


Seeing the big picture

Not everyone can see the picture in your mind.

It often requires you at the very least to draw them the picture.

When a picture won’t do, then you need to give them something to play with.

Some people do get it but they are the exception, not the rule.


For the majority a working model helps you to move the vast majority to your way of thinking.

Prototyping a solution will give you metrics.  Actual numbers you can base decisions on, instead of gut feeling.

Test marketing is a tried and tested tool used by the companies to check the viability of their new product or a marketing campaign before it is being launched in the market on a large scale.


So with all of the discussion we have a few statements we can base our discussion on.

  1. You have an idea
  2. There is no guarantee it’s going to work
  3. No metrics or precedent exist to prove this will work.  You need some to base your decisions on.
  4. You’d love for it to work but the risk is high and you would like to reduce your risk
  5. There is an appreciation that an investment of time and a potentially limited amount of money is necessary but its far less than risking just going for the whole project.

Now… how do you make it happen.


Actual steps

Invest in a playpen

The first thing you need is a sandbox, somewhere to play.  If you don’t have one, go round and play in your friends one.

A protoype made of Lego, needs lego bricks.  Prototyping a process solution is invariably going to require IT of some sort.

Not the big polished expensive final production systems but a solution that allows you to change and experiment.

You need time and resources, albeit small, to experiment with your ideas.

I know one business that has a “Fab Lab” for exploring ideas.

Even Enterprise Ireland have grants to help fund research and development which is what this is.

Research: Is an idea going to work?  Development of that idea into revenue generation and potentially employment.


Some time

“Just because you’re doing a lot more doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot more done. Don’t confuse movement with progress.  You can run in place and never get anywhere.”

Set aside 2 hours a week, 1 hour a week to work on your idea.  It may not be much but if you put the time in, you may make yourself more productive saving far more hours in the future.

C. Northcote Parkinson gave us Parkinson’s Law “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”

So you have to push invention into your working schedule, as you would a meeting.  Create a schedule, consistency and you will see growth.


Prototyping. What one do I want?

Decide on what what approach to prototyping you need.  While all the following titles sound complicated, they actually are variations on a theme.

  • Proof-of-Principle Prototype build the really important bits only but does not have all the functionality of the final idea.
  • Working Prototype represents all or nearly all of the functionality of the final idea.
  • Visual Prototype is a photo.  It represents the size and appearance, but not the functionality, of the intended design. A Form Study Prototype is a first go type of visual prototype in which the shapes are emphasized, with less concern for color, texture, or other aspects of the final appearance.  They can be done in minutes.
  • User Experience Prototype lets you play with it.  Enough of the appearance and function of the product are built that people can play (user research).
  • Functional Prototype captures both function and appearance of the intended idea.  Though it may be created with different techniques, software, tools and even different scale from final design.
  • Paper Prototype is a printed or hand-drawn representation of the user interface of a software product.  As my friend Nick Wheeler calls this, the back of the fag packet design, as you come up with the idea whilst down the pub sketching on your cigarette packet.  You don’t even need a computer for this one!  I also don’t recommend you take up smoking either… use a napkin instead! 🙂

Which one best suits what you need to figure out if your idea is going to work?


Playing by yourself

Do you play well with others?  Sometimes when you’re working this out you’ll hole yourself up until your idea is built.

I personally adopt the User Experience Prototype approach for most of my projects.

When I’m prototyping, I’m lucky enough to have the skills to covert my ideas into something working.

However when it comes to design, I’ll chat to others who are better than me.  I’ll ask opinions.

Yet when I ask those opinions I have to be prepared for people to disagree.

I have to believe in my idea and all feedback helps, positive or negative.


You can also ask external experts who’ve been there, done that to help you build your ideas.  Their experience can greatly speed up solution development.

I’ve been asked to come up with solutions and approaches to further people’s ideas for the last 20 years.  I gotta admit… it’s fun!

So you don’t need to play by yourself.  It doesn’t cost anything to ask a question  Ask?!  Ask now! I’m on social media or you can get me here.

I might not have an answer, then again, I might.  You’ll never know unless you ask the question.


Getting started

So your process will be

  1. Identify Basic Requirements: Choose a prototyping approach and whats going to go into it.
  2. Initial Prototype Creation: Mock it up.
  3. Review: Choose carefully who will and won’t see your idea.  Then get their entire honest feedback.
  4. Revise and Improve the Prototype: Using the feedback change and improve accordingly. If changes are incorporated, a repeat of steps #3 and #4 may be required.

Ready when you are!

If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about you can contact me here or on social media.


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