Make sure you’re building the right it before you build it right – Alberto Savoia

As you read this, there will be millions of people across the world devoting time and money, hopes and dreams, into an idea. Most people fall in love with their idea and ultimately believe they are working on a winning product. But we know this can’t be true. It’s a harsh reality, but 99% of ideas fail when launched.
The idea of failing is daunting to both new innovators and those who are more experienced, but it’s an unavoidable part of the innovation process. However, some failures are much harder to take (and survive) than others. The key here is to fail quickly and cheaply.

Unfortunately, after an idea is born, many people launch straight into developing ‘proper prototypes’. This process is often difficult, expensive and time-consuming. It’s normal for some to invest weeks, months or years, and thousands of pounds to develop them.
The more innovators invest in something (whether it be time, money, energy or all three), the more difficult it is to let that something go and admit that maybe it was the wrong thing.
Once this prototype is up and working, it’s tempting to invest a little more time, or just a bit more money developing it even further. Before they know it, their product has flopped.

Whilst employed as Engineering Director and Innovation Agitator at Google, Alberto Savoia set out to determine the cause of these product failures. He discovered that most fail, not because of poor execution, but the fact that the the product idea was not the right ‘it’. Thus, the theory, practice and tools for pretotyping were born.

Pretotypes slot somewhere in between abstract ideas and ‘proper prototypes’. They act as a way to test an idea quickly and inexpensively by creating extremely simplified mocked or virtual versions of a product to validate the premise that “If we build it, they will use it”.

Pretotypes also help innovators to embrace failure as a powerful tool in order to learn about their customers. Building a partial mockup of an intended product helps them fail fast, recover fast and leaves them plenty of time, money, energy and enthusiasm to explore new tweaks or ideas until they hit on something that people actually want.

Aren’t preto- and proto-typing the same things?

Many people argue that there is no need to differentiate between pretotyping and prototyping as both practices are very similar in their approach. I believe there is a need. Aside from the monetary and timing differences, traditional prototypes cover a huge range of the spectrum, from an extremely basic, rough version of an idea, to the final product. They’re necessary and are an incredibly useful tool that can and should be used to answer many questions about a potential product such as:

  • Can we build it?
  • Will it work?
  • What will people use it for?
  • How much would it cost to produce?

Pre*totyping focuses on answering the one very basic and probably most important question: **Is this the right thing to build?* Once a ‘yes’ can be answered, it make sense to move from the pretotype to building a prototype.

It’s a fact, the odds are stacked against innovators. Most new products and services fail.
Therefore, before you start investing time/money/effort into developing a detailed prototype, first you must learn if you are building the right product, the right ‘it’.
Developing a pretotype validates the market appeal and actual usage of a potential new product objectively, with the smallest possible investment of time and money.
Then, if the new product or service fails, it does so fast and cheaply, leaving enough time, resources and energy to try something else – and keep trying until you have a hit.

Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras on Flickr

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