How rapid prototyping can unlock innovation in large companies

Learning from startups to demystify and derisk new product development

New digital experiences don’t just happen. Having the design and technical ability to create digital experiences is one thing, but doing so in a customer centric way that actually solves your end user’s pains, whilst also providing a genuine business benefit, requires a new way of thinking. ‘The challenge for traditional firms,’ KPMG reports, ‘is to decide not only which technologies and where they should be deployed, but also how to get them to market quickly and in a customer-ready way.’

How do you increase speed to market without sacrificing quality of experience?

How do you decrease the risk of innovation and limit the impact of failure?

How do you know which ideas to prioritise, and which are just distractions?

The rapid prototyping framework allows product teams to test, validate and refine digital experiences at pace to unlock innovation, prioritise product development, and improve customer experience.

TL;DR

Short on time? Here’s the headlines.

  • The cost of innovation can be high, but the cost of not innovating can be even higher — especially for legacy businesses and incumbents.
  • Rapid prototyping provides a framework to generate ideas, test concepts, and challenge or validate assumptions.
  • It provides a structured approach to innovation that is lower-risk, lower-cost, lower-commitment, and helps to justify and prioritise product development initiatives.
  • We follow a four step process adapted from Google Design Sprints: ideation, fast track sprint, prototype sprint, and agile product sprints.
  • Everything should start with the customer — think about their goals, challenges, anxieties and motivations, not your own wish list or backlog.
  • Each step of the process should be time and resource limited (that’s where the rapid bit comes in…). Constraints will help focus the team and prevent too many distractions or digressions.
  • A prototype is specifically not a fully-fledged product or service. It should be just good enough that your end users can understand the concept and help you establish a business case for further development.
  • You might end up throwing everything away at the end of the rapid prototyping process. This is still a completely valid and valuable output.

An introduction to rapid prototyping

Rapid prototyping has its roots in manufacturing. It’s a way for designers and engineers to create scale models and prototypes based on computer-aided design data, then test and refine those products on an iterative basis.

For digital product teams, the rapid prototyping approach follows the same principles, based on generating and developing ideas, gathering user feedback, and then iterating based on those insights.

At 383, our rapid prototyping framework starts with gathering customer insights, identifying user pains and frictions, and ideating solutions to those problems. From there, we move into rounds of design sprints to develop ideas further and design prototypes. At every stage, we test and gather user feedback to clarify and refine the solution.

All of this happens within short, defined windows of time which helps to focus the team, avoid overthinking, and produce tangible outputs during a fixed period.

Trust me, I’m a product designer

Rapid prototyping is a simple enough approach that can deliver real business and customer value. It’s a framework that’s been employed by some of the most innovative technology companies — Google, Spotify, AirBnB, Slack have all talked about their use of design sprints to develop experiences.

For large, legacy companies, used to moving slowly and methodically, it can be a much harder sell. The concept of developing unfinished, unrefined solutions within the space of a few weeks required a whole new way of thinking. It’s a frightening thing for a board that isn’t familiar with the principles of design thinking. But it’s a lot less frightening that the ramifications of standing still.

McKinsey research on why digital strategies fail highlights how, in the past, large companies have often been able to wait for others to innovate and rely on out-executing the competition. ‘A perfectly rational strategic response was to observe for a little while, letting others incur the costs of experimentation and then moving as the dust settled,’ they explain. That response is no longer enough in a digital marketplace:

It is first movers and very fast followers that gain a huge advantage over their competitors. The three-year revenue growth for the fleetest was nearly twice that of companies playing it safe with average reactions to digital competition.

McKinsey , Why digital strategies fail

In fact, the research goes on to highlight that incumbents who are bold enough to move quickly pose as big a risk to traditional players as nimble digital disruptors; ‘It’s often incumbents’ moves that push an industry to the tipping point. That’s when the ranks of slow movers get exposed to life-threatening competition.’

Rapid prototyping provides a safe, controlled sandbox for risk-averse companies to prove the case for innovation. It unlocks the potential to challenge, validate and justify ideas, without allocating huge amounts of time, resource and investment to new product development. That helps product leaders to more easily navigate the internal red tape, sign off and approval processes so often encountered when trying to launch new propositions. Rapid prototyping allows digital product teams to win — and fail — fast, identifying which features and functionality should be prioritised for further development.

Rapid prototyping | 383 Project

Prototypes are also a valuable way to bring an idea to life and provide a tangible artefact to illustrate a proposition to the rest of the business – if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings, as Ideo purportedly put it. Even a lo-fidelity prototype, supported with user testing and feedback, can go a long way towards convincing the cynical of the validity of an idea and help to justify future investment. ‘Understanding a product happens much more immediately when it’s in a stakeholder’s hand, especially when compared to digesting a deck,’ our senior designer Sam says, a process he’s experienced first hand working on award winning products with The AA.

Prototypes help both internal and B2B product teams sell-in new ideas to their budget holders and prospects, generating excitement and anticipation around what could be delivered... Large organisations are notorious for moving slowly, but people migrate around smart and interesting ideas to create the momentum that gets things delivered.

Sam Town , Senior Designer at 383

Recruiting the A-team

While there’s no hard and fast rules about who or what should make up a rapid prototyping team, there’s a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Firstly, it’s important that the team is cross-functional. A room full of product designers are likely to have similar experiences, skills, and thought patterns. Bringing different perspectives from across the user journey is vital. Build a team that spans sales, marketing, IT and customer success, as well as product, to get a breadth of insights.

Look for T-shapes with a growth mindset — those who have a depth of knowledge as well as a desire to learn, who embrace change, who are highly motivated and quick to suggest ideas. Attitude is just as important as skill when it comes to facilitating this approach.

Keeping this core team small will also help to ensure that you can be agile and make decisions quickly. We follow the two pizza concept made popular by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — make sure that when the team comes together, two pizzas are enough to feed everyone.

Ideation workshops | 383 Project

Finally, every team needs a captain; somebody who can make executive decisions, take on board the input from the rest of the team, be the customer champion and succinctly communicate back to the rest of the business. If you’re reading this guide, this is probably you. In this role, you’ll be the Chief Product Officer, helping to make logical and reasoned decisions. Some of these will be based on the data and information you have in front of you, some based on a gut feeling, and others based on what your customers or the business demands of you — even if that’s not necessarily what you’d want to do. Your most important trait will be the ability to balance all of these things.

You may also want to consider engaging a digital product studio, in an ever-so-subtle-and-oh-so-modest hat tip to our own skill set… 👀 An external partner can help guide the sessions, keep the room on course, and bring a new perspective and fresh pair of eyes to your rapid prototyping. Our design and strategy teams have a breadth of knowledge from different industries, projects and roles that can look at your user experience from a new angle.

Four step rapid prototyping process

So, you’ve proved the case to the board. You’ve assembled a dream team of design thinkers. Time to put some prototyping into action!

At 383, we have a four step rapid prototyping flow that covers ideation, service design, prototyping and ongoing product development. The framework is designed to be flexible, depending on the starting point and work that has been done to date. It’s best suited to creating, launching and scaling digital products and services, although the same approach can be used to solve many other business problems.

We’ll run through an overview of our process here, but if you want to get into the detail, drop us a line with your number and we’ll be happy to talk your ear off… 🦜

Rapid prototyping framework | 383 Project

Step 1: Ideation

The ideation phase is all about surfacing insights by understanding customer motivations and uncovering pain points and frictions in their journey. Everything should start with what the customer needs — it sounds simple, but the temptation is often to start with your product, thinking about features and functionality, rather than establishing the problems to solve that would be most valuable to the end user.

We use the Jobs to be Done methodology to identify user needs and areas of focus. It’s a good way to keep the team focused on the customer experience when you start to generate ideas. There are a whole range of idea generation techniques that can be used — expect to go through a decent amount of sharpies and post-it notes — and it’s important not to limit ideas at this stage. Start big, bold and broad, and then you can edit and narrow your focus as you go.

The biggest technology red herrings are the ones that are not founded upon problem solving for users. If you have adopted a system or a capability that isn't born out of a need of your customers or your business, it's probably just a bad investment.

Martyn Reding , Head of Digital Experience at Virgin Atlantic

In the final part of the session, the team reviews all of the ideas generated based on various criteria such as potential impact, technological requirements, regulatory considerations, commercial return. The purpose isn’t to completely discount an idea, but to identify gaps in the solution that would need more focus in order to make it a success.

The team then ranks and prioritises all the potential solutions to create an ideation backlog, ready to fuel the first design sprint.

Step 2: Fast track sprint

Adapted from the Google design sprint, the fast track design sprint is about developing, iterating and testing an idea in just five days. The reason that we use five days is simple — it provides laser focus and removes the inevitable tendency to ‘go down a rabbit hole’.

This sprint is not about building a fully-fledged product or a high-fidelity prototype, but about clarifying ideas and translating them into propositions. Concepts are created and put in front of users to test and validate them, with further iterations and developments if required. Your concepts don’t need to be perfect, just good enough to communicate the idea clearly.

At the end of the fast track sprint, the output is a partially validated proposition. We can only speak to a limited number of users within the week to get feedback on a low fidelity prototype that tests the core of the idea, so there are likely to be a number of assumptions that still need to be fully tested. It should be just enough to either to get further investment from within the business, or to move straight into the prototyping phase.

Step 3: Prototype sprint

The prototype sprint is designed to get broader user feedback and insight by creating a version of a digital product or service that allows us to articulate the vision of the full product, and learn enough about our biggest assumptions.

There are a number of things to consider when creating a prototype, and it’s essential that these are focused around learning something that isn’t already known prior to developing the prototype. The number one output of a prototype sprint is simple: can we assert that customers want what we are offering them?

It’s easy to get caught up in making this prototype ‘perfect’, so it’s important to remember a few ground rules.

  1. This isn’t the only opportunity to build the product.
  2. It isn’t possible to answer everything or include every feature.
  3. The experience doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be good enough that users will actively engage and understand it.
  4. A feature is critical if it accurately answers an assumption.
  5. You might end up throwing away all of the development when the full version is created — that’s okay.
  6. Failure is fine, provided we’re learning.
  7. It’s okay to pivot an idea, or even kill it completely. It’s not okay to get caught up in ‘sunk cost syndrome’, feeling like you need to stick with an idea because of the time you have already invested in it.

We limit this design sprint to a two week duration, specifically to add a time and resource constraint to help make sure we’re adhering to the guidelines. We deploy a cross-functional team of designers, engineers and analysts to create a prototype and design a plan to drive engagement and gather learnings.

Design sprints | 383 Project

After developing an initial prototype, it may be necessary to iterate through a number of key messages and CTAs, which means it’s important to track user engagement metrics and insights. We use tools such as Optimizely and Mixpanel for this.

At the end of this fast track sprint, you should be confident enough to articulate the full vision for your product or service. This might be based on the original assumption or a pivot as a result of the insights you’ve gained.

Step 4: Product sprints

Once you have more certainty around the future direction of the product, it’s time to move into full product development. There will still be some uncertainty around the exact fidelity of every feature, so it’s important that this is still an iterative approach that involves learning and the possibility of change of requirements.

We’ve found that using the agile approach with scrum teams works best here. Each of our product sprints lasts two weeks and consists of the same team as our prototype sprints. Gaining real user feedback throughout the development of the product is critical and essential to ensure that the right features are being developed, at the right time.

We recommend that you continue to develop in design sprints for as long as value is being added for the customer and a commercial return is being generated. You may find that you have multiple products in development at the same time — appointing a Product Owner to each will help to ensure the long-term success of each of them.

It’s also worth noting that this phase might not be necessary. You may find, through the fast track and prototyping sprints, that there isn’t a strong argument for continuing product development. Maybe there isn’t a clear customer need, the assumptions you started from were invalid, or the solution doesn’t align to your business objectives. If that’s the case, there’s no point in continuing into product sprints.

This is a perfectly valid outcome, and just as valuable as identifying a clear product roadmap. It can be difficult to position a failed prototype as a win when you’re communicating back to the board, but it’s useful to consider the potential cost of building a fully-fledged product — and then finding out that there isn’t a market for it. Rapid prototyping, in this sense, is a cost-saving, preventing product teams from focusing time, resource and budget in the wrong places. It’s a way of eliminating bad options at an early stage, and it’s likely that, even if the prototype isn’t the right solution, the process has uncovered other ideas that could be.

What’s next?

Like the sound of rapid prototyping? If you’re thinking of trying it out, there’s a few next steps we can recommend.

  • Read Sprint by Jake Knapp. It’s a great introduction to this way of thinking, and often finds its way into our new starter welcome packs at 383.
  • Watch our webinar on Rapid prototyping in 30 minutes or less. Hear more about our four step process and how we’ve implemented it for clients such as the AA, National Express and Busy Bees nurseries.
  • Book an in-house talk. We’ll come to you and talk your team through rapid prototyping over lunch — talk to our Partnership Lead, Tom, to find out more.