Build before you build: why prototyping is important

Jul 27 2015

To be honest, I struggle with the principle of not building the product during my time at Reese News Lab. Ideas change. The customer wants something valuable, not just something I think is cool. And building takes time and energy – I get it. But at times, I wish I were an excellent programmer, or even better: I wish I had Jarvis, Iron Man’s intelligent robot assistant who programs ideas into reality in a heartbeat.

Screen-Shot-2015-07-27-at-2.03.57-PM

Du and her team user test their game with teachers. Photo by Jonathan Morris.

Part of my frustration comes from the countless times that we have to clarify the details of our product with our potential customers. I wish I could just show them how it works. Our prototype can only do so much. Since we are building a game, an interactive experience, it gets difficult to stimulate or control people’s imagination and give them a better idea of our game. However, in the process, I find myself better at identifying the causes of confusion and thus , better at explaining our idea to the customer better the next time. I also realized that it’s more important for us to imagine what the customers want, what they see and what they value because they are the ones who will help us create a better product. I’ve learned to hold onto our product idea but hold it loosely and allow our customers to shape it in the direction they want.

Another part of my frustration comes from how much I care about other people’s impression of our product. Our prototype works, but it’s a hodgepodge of Adobe Illustrator files, a Vimeo video, a Google form and WordPress pages. I don’t want to give our user-testers the impression that our product in disjointed and incoherent. I don’t want to hand them a paper airplane when I’m building a real airplane. However, when the lab interns visited The Startup Factory in Durham a few weeks ago, the Managing Director, Chris Heivly, told us, “A startup is not a smaller version of a big company,” which I think applies to the relation between a prototype and a product as well. A prototype is not a smaller version of a fully functional product in its maturity. It needs improvements and transformations to become what eventually is the final product. Building it with whatever takes the least effort makes these changes happen quickly and cost-effectively.

I still think that jumping into building the actual product works sometimes; a lot of technological innovations have happened that way. And I’m not saying I don’t want Jarvis anymore, but simply, I see a little bit better the value of postponing the building process and working with prototypes. Plus, it’s more fun to play with ideas than program anyway.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *