Sunday, February 5, 2012

Design Thinking Series #3: Rapid Prototyping

"Fail fast to succeed sooner" - the essential paradox of Design Thinking

What's the easiest way, then, to "fail fast" - that is, quickly learn about what's working and what isn't? By making an idea tangible - something that your customers can touch, experience, and provide feedback on. In this final post in the Design Thinking Series, inspired by a lecture by Jeanne Liedtka and her book "Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers", I'll detail what Lietdka calls "one of the most tangible differences between business thinking and design thinking" - the process of Rapid Prototyping.

First, a little about prototypes. The intent of building a prototype is to create a visual and sometimes experiential manifestation of an intangible concept - taking what has until this point just been words on a page and turning into something somewhat real. Rapid Prototyping involves an iterative set of activities that happen very quickly, as the concepts generated in the ideation phase gain detail, form, and nuance. They are brought to life.

Often, prototypes are "low-fidelity". That is, they are in just good enough of a state to be able to share with those whose opinions matter. As Liedtka puts it, "It’s easier to use an eraser on the drafting table than a wrecking ball on the building site" - and so low-fidelity prototypes aim to reduce the amount of effort that is required to learn. Often crude and unfinished in appearance, prototypes are supposed to look like works in progress, taking the form of storyboards, user scenarios, illustrations, or even working models that provide people with an experience.

Remember, we build prototypes in order to learn, not to test a theoretically finished product. By creating a compelling story that feels real to your audience of collaborators, you gain the ability to invite them into the conversation in an active, hands-on way. In a way, you've engaged them to become a part of the design process. By doing this, it ultimately allows you to make mistakes faster and identify areas that can be improved. Sooner is better than later!

Here's a quick run-down on how to get the most out of Rapid Prototyping:

(1) Start small and simple: the most successful growth projects prototype early and often. It leaves little room for interpretation and invites the user to contribute to it and complete it along with you.
(2) Figure out the story you want to tell: visualize the concept in pictures, using as few words as possible. Add complexity as appropriate as you go.
(3) Show, don’t tell: make the prototype feel real through mock imagery, artifacts, and experiences.
(4) Visualize multiple options: Create some choices to be made by your audience.
(5) Play with your prototypes, don’t defend them: let other validate them - not the people who created it.

“There’s something magical about low-fidelity ways of trying something out. It automatically allows people to feel like they can put their fingerprint on it. The more polished, the more done up it is, the more people feel like it’s already done. They feel like you’re not looking for feedback--you are looking for agreement.” - Christi Zuber of Kaiser Permanente

One of the aspects that often surprises business people the most is the idea of Customer Co-Creation - that is, involving your customers in the design process as early as possible. Yes, it can sometimes seem like it would be embarrassing to show something unfinished to your customers - you may even feel the need to apologize for it. Don't. Customer Co-Creation is an extremely powerful way of designing new things and both you and your customers will get a lot out of it.

To practise it, you'll have to invite your customers into the process of designing. Remember - innovation is about learning, and it's your customers who can provide you with the most to learn. The sooner you can put something in front of them to gauge their reactions and impressions, the sooner you'll get to a solution that adds value to their lives. Finally, Customer Co-Creation is actually very good for business, because it mitigates risk - they will tell you very quickly if there is something crucially wrong with what you're proposing.

Here's a run-down on some of the key things to think about when practising Customer Co-Creation:

(1) Enroll customers who care bout you. These are sometimes called the Early Adopters, or Brand Loyalists. You need customers you trust, people who are hungry for a solution and who are motivated to respond honestly.
(2) Choose a diverse group of people. Remember, even non-target customers may be just as helpful in providing feedback on what you are testing out.
(3) This is a no-selling zone: you're not selling them anything, and your customers should do most of the talking!
(4) Engage one customer at a time: aim for deep, qualitative feedback, rather than quantitative feedback that is light on detail. It's not about gaining statistically significant answers, but rather a deep understanding.
(5) Offer a menu of choices: presenting a single concept defies the purpose of co-creation, because there's no other solutions that your customers see. Give them options and explore the ones they’re most drawn to.
(6) Don’t make it too polished! People want to feel like they are free to help finish the experience.
(7) Respond fast: show them that you've used their input to refine the prototype, and gather more feedback still.

The final phase of Rapid Prototyping is the learning launch. This requires an advanced, high-fidelity version of the prototype that is suitable for testing in the live marketplace. This activity forms the bridge between Customer Co-Creation and the full roll-out of the new solution.

Remember, it's still not about how much you sell, but how much you learn. The data that you'll be gathering will be based on your customers' response to the prototype through actual behaviour, preferably over an extended period of time. Do people value it? Do they use it in the way that they said they would? Is there anything surprising about their behaviour?

Although still technically part of the Rapid Prototyping test, learning launches should still feel real to all participants. It needs to be tightly constrained in its execution, in space, time, and its audience. At the same time, it should still be open to major changes at the end as a result of what happened during the test. In the end, learning launches are still about testing some of the key assumptions that are tied to the new solution. Learning launches will inform you of which features to improve, which customer segments to focus on, and everything else that will be involved in the development of a new solution.

There you have it! After reading through the Design Thinking Series, you've hopefully learned a fair bit about what makes design very different than business, about the qualities of the designer and some of the core tenets of design, and about a key element of the design process, Rapid Prototyping. The only thought that I can leave you with: strive to think about how you can apply Design Thinking to different aspects of your business - whether it's how you develop your presentations, how you approach the development of a new idea, or even how your business itself is organized. But most of all, have fun!

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