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Prototyping: a different perspective 

By Karim Saleh

The startup scene around the world is growing at an unprecedented rate and more and more people want to grow their ideas into the next Unicorn. Yet many of these aspiring entrepreneurs are often overwhelmed by the “starting” process. In this blogpost I’m going to talk about an important part of this journey, namely the prototype development. We will dig into this subject by first defining this Holy Grail and then share with you some of our experience. We at Unicorn Labs have made the Prototype the bread and butter of our work.

The Minimal Viable Product and its Goals

When one talks about a prototype or Minimal Viable Product, one usually refers to the solution with just a sufficient number of features to solve a problem in the most efficient and simplest way possible. That is the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) today. With an MVP, concepts, processes and products can be tested quickly at low cost. In traditional manufacturing, prototypes are created to test the almost finished product before it is being produced on a large scale. In a more recent understanding of the term, however, prototyping is also a critical thinking tool in the creative process. At Unicorn Labs, creating MVPs is considered a mixture of "making" and "thinking". We don’t see a prototype as the pinnacle of innovation or a pure technical evaluation for the feasibility of a product. It is rather a fast and lean tool to challenge thoughts and hypotheses with a physical medium. This embodiment of the idea and the insights it generates even allow us to ask further questions and pivot. Effectively, it is no longer just the final step of an innovation, but is increasingly becoming the innovation itself.

The current crisis has proven to us that it is very hard to predict how the market will behave. User needs are changing at the same pace and validation must keep up to remain legitimate. So comes the importance of being lean, agile and fast in the validation process, all of which you can be achieved by embracing the prototyping process.

Being agile helps you minimize your losses if you are wrong. If you turn out to be wrong, would you rather have invested limited resources to develop a prototype or have spent a lot of time and money to build a mature product?

Another important learning we have acquired through working on different ideas and problems, is that a prototype isn’t just a translation of an idea to a physical product. It is also a trigger for ideation. A prototype enables you to think beyond the initial hypothesis.
As you tackle a problem hands on and translate the idea to a physical structure, you gain more insight into the problem and solution. The process enables you to come up with new ideas, features and use cases.

Innovation materializes during that interplay.

A lot of features we see today in the products we use daily emerged from the prototyping process, Facebook’s relationship status for one.

The Minimal Viable Product

The MVP we have built for Roll2Go

Our approach to build an MVP

Now that we have a clear understanding of the importance of prototyping let’s give you some insight on our approach. According to my emphasis on prototyping being a full creative process rather than just a technical task, we don’t start with a technical analysis of any sort but rather with ideation and Design Thinking. Since one of the main purposes of a prototype is to validate a specific hypothesis, it’s important to identify it correctly. When you validate a specific hypothesis, it is essential to choose the minimal number of features needed to do so. More features equal more work and complication. If you fail to identify this hypothesis correctly, you risk missing out on important features or focusing on non essential ones.

Our path to this might be a bit unorthodox, but yet very effective. We get a couple of guys and girls into a room and challenge them with the problem without revealing anything about a potential solution. Through various Design Thinking techniques and brainstorming we let them come up with potential solutions on their own, identifying the core hypothesis in the process. This unbiased in the room makes space for creativity and helps us investigate the problem from different viewpoints. Unbiased opinions help you come up with the best solution.

Establish the core hypothesis first.
Follow up with exploring the simplest course one could take to validate or revoke it, still without any consideration to the technical aspect at all. Technical challenges are not considered in this exploration.

When all that is done we can start looking into the technicals, and identify an approach to follow and set a clear road map.

And as you might already know, things rarely go as planned. To have a chance at success we go into the challenge with an open mind to iterate, pivot or totally change our approach if needed. Again being lean is key.

The Unicorn Labs team in action

The Unicorn Labs team in action

Common pitfalls we have seen while developing MVP’s

Prototyping is often a trial and error process where you are prone to make many mistakes. The biggest mistake you could do in this stage is misidentifying your core hypothesis, which would invalidate the entire process. Therefore always make sure to put enough thought into that task.

Another mistake one could easily fall for is not to have an open mind to iterate or pivot completely when needed.

Circumstances change, problems arise and you need to be ready to make adjustments, even if it means going back to the drawing board...

Learning from the MVP

Now that you have an MVP of your solution what comes next? You test it out, and it starts with you. Prototyping doesn't just enable you to test your solution but also gives you the chance to be the first user of your product. Previously it was just an idea only constrained by your imagination, now it’s embodied in a physical construction. If what you imagined was unrealistic now you can evaluate what is realistic. A new tool for the ideation process is now at your power. The outcome enables you to feel what you envisioned and work on it, receive feedback from test users, improve and if necessary iterate.

What comes after the MVP

Assuming you have successfully validated your hypothesis with your prototype, you can start to link the learnings to develop a more mature product. Since by now you have already successfully validated your need for such a solution, you have minimized your risk and made the time and effort you put in investing and developing this idea worthwhile. A further step you could take is to approach investors if you need external resources to develop the final product. Now that you have a physical display of your solution and have validated its need, your chances to score an investment have improved.

And if the testing resulted in the need to iterate: pivot and start again.
I hope now you can embrace the prototyping process as much we do.

If reading this piece aroused you and made you want to develop your own prototype but don’t know how or want help in doing so, then reach out to us at info@unicorn-labs.ch .