How do large companies pursue radical innovation? You know, the kind of new product that changes or creates a market. In my first blog I summarized the 6Ps, a template that I believe could help to increase the output of game-changing innovation. The next blog covered PERSPECTIVE, followed by one on POTENTIAL. The third “P” is PROTOTYPES.
I came across a great quote recently from Tom Wujec - “Prototyping is having a conversation with your ideas”. Your great ideas have no value by themselves. They only accrue value once you are able to implement them in the marketplace. Prototyping allows you to gradually bring ideas to reality.
All companies, large and small, will prototype. The adoption of rapid 3D printing has enabled users to touch and understand product potential at an earlier stage, with reduced cost to the company. In this era of design thinking, prototypes can bring the power of design to reality in a series of steps, and provide in depth feedback for improvement on the journey to the final version. So what’s the big deal? Why will a smarter approach to prototypes help large companies deliver more radical innovation?
All companies face challenges with prototyping. For example, there is always a judgment to be made about how far development proceeds before releasing a version to test. It doesn’t make sense to fully develop a product before releasing it for testing. Equally, how much do you need to invest before you have enough functionality to test with users? Product development is not only expensive but also time-consuming. Many companies try to compensate for this by conducting in depth concept testing. This helps, but can’t replace the richness of users being able to experience some element of the product or service.
One difference between incremental and radical innovation is what you’re trying to test. With incremental, the challenge is usually to test product performance. With radical, it’s often more important to evaluate changes in behavior as much as how the product works. Attitudes and emotions will have a big influence on this, so it is crucial to find ways of evaluating the psychological impact as well as the functional. How will your potential product influence the heart as well as the head?
Consequently there are major implications for your product testing and market research technique. The standard methods that work very well for incremental innovation cannot just be applied unchanged to radical innovation. Therefore before each prototype test, ensure that the objectives, methods and assessment are all appropriate to something that could be the first of its kind in the market
It’s also crucial to manage expectations. Firstly with senior management, who hopefully are excited and impatient, as the developers will be. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get it right first time, so it’s important in this context to distinguish between “failure” and “learning” – more about this in a later blog. Secondly, users may reject or criticize the prototype because it will not work as well as the final product, and almost certainly will not bear the final design. It has to be explained very carefully what exactly is being tested and what users should evaluate.
The sequence below is the iterative approach. This way you learn by doing, not just by drawing. You may also run several different prototype tests in parallel; it doesn’t need to be a serial game.
Much of the writing about prototyping appears to relate to software development, about which I know very little. Correction – even less. However there is an approach to software prototyping that could be usefully transferred to other product areas when it comes to understanding why a particular prototype is being tested. These are the MUDS criteria, which I would rework as follows:
- Management – how does a prototype help management eventually judge the commercial viability of the project?
- Usability – how does a prototype give you information about the user experience, and potential behavior change or creation?
- Design – how can a prototype give you feedback on design features that are liked and those that need to be improved?
- Specification – will the prototype help you nail down aspects of the final product specification?
So, for each round of prototype testing, which part of MUDS are you evaluating? You don’t need to be purist, one particular prototype can tick several or even all of the boxes; just as long as you think about it in advance, and design both the prototype and the testing method accordingly.
Another principle worth considering comes from Lean Startup principles. The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) involves developing just what you need to get to market. I’d like to extend this by suggesting the Minimum Viable Prototype (MVPr). As the name suggests, this prototype will allow you to test the bare minimum functionality. There is a potential trap in that an MVPr in totality, especially early on, could be horrible if it tries to do everything. It’s better to apply the MVPr principle to each parameter you wish the prototype to explore, using the MUDS criteria.
The prototyping principles don’t just apply to the testing of products. Test markets provide a fundamental tool to evaluate the potential of radical innovation. They can test product acceptance, route to market, price point, improvement potential, repeat purchase etc etc. It’s important that they are well designed and executed. There’s nothing worse than getting ambiguous results from a poorly executed test market.
In summary, prototypes can help large companies execute more radical innovation through:
- Using a cycle of rapid iterative testing;
- Understanding the difference between failure and learning;
- Using the MUDS and MVPr criteria for design and testing;
- Looking for potential behavior change;
In the next blog, I’ll discuss why partitioning the radical innovation units from the rest of the organization makes sense.