Using Pretend Prototypes to Validate Product-Market Fit on the Cheap.

“Make sure you are building the right it before you build it right.” – Alberto Savoia

In a competitive and global economy where consumer product choice is endless, it is critical for companies to validate product-market fit long before a product is launched. What makes this possible? “Pretotyping”. The term and concept of pretotyping was coined in 2009 by Alberto Savoia while working at Google as the Innovation Agitator and Engineering Director.

What is pretotyping?

Pretotyping (Pretend-Prototyping) is an unorthodox experimentation tool used to cheaply and quickly assist in validating product ideas and determine product-market fit. It enables developers to churn through ideas rapidly and effectively at a low cost and minimum time investment. It involves the creation of mock-ups/pretend prototypes (these can be virtual or physical) that are used to test and validate how a product idea could solve a user’s problem.

A great example that illustrates pretotyping is Jeff Hawkin’s journey before developing the Palm-Pilot – as described in an article by Time Magazine:

“Hawkins, 40, Palm’s chief technologist and Pilot’s creator, designed one of the first handheld computers, the GRiDPad, a decade ago. It was an engineering marvel but a market failure because he says, it was still too big. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, he had a ready answer when his colleagues asked him how small their new device should be: “Let’s try the shirt pocket.”

Retreating to his garage, he cut a block of wood to fit his shirt pocket. Then he carried it around for months, pretending it was a computer. Was he free for lunch on Wednesday? Hawkins would haul out the block and tap on it as if he were checking his schedule. If he needed a phone number, he would pretend to look it up on the wood. Occasionally he would try out different design faces with various button configurations, using paper printouts glued to the block.”

This approach of testing theories by way of quick and dirty pretotoypes helps you determine if you’re building the right product first, before investing significant amounts of resource. Pretotyping does not guarantee product-market fit; it instead assists in the construction of a stronger business case of whether your product idea is worth pursuing or if it should be put to rest.

What are the benefits of prototyping?

When you understand the costs involved with developing a new product you understand that capital investment increases exponentially the further along the development path you get. An engineer from Dyson recently revealed that the company invested $100 million in getting their new hair dryer into the market. Although a success, with this amount of investment it is critical to pretotype and hence validate early to avoid failure due to an unreceptive market.

Failure due to an unreceptive market is illustrated in Rob Adam’s book – “If You Build It Will They Come?”. In it, he outlines the 1990’s story of failed satellite communications company Iridium. In an attempt to disrupt the copper communications sector, Iridium spent $5 billion building a satellite phone system that it believed the market would adopt, which as you might have guessed – it didn’t. Adam’s outline shows that the company ignored thorough market validation methods (including pretotyping) in its haste to overcome stimulating technical challenges.

A benefit of pretotyping is shown by an example from IBM. Some 30+ years ago IBM implemented an experiment to validate whether users would adopt a speech recognition product:

In Savoia’s words “IBM put potential customers of the speech-to-text system, people who said they’d definitely buy it, in a room with a computer box, a screen and a microphone – but no keyboard. They told them they had built a working speech-to-text machine and wanted to test it to see if people liked using it. When the test subjects started to speak into the microphone, their words appeared on the screen: almost immediately and with no mistakes! The users were impressed: it was too good to be true – which, as it turns out, it was.

What was actually happening, and what makes this such a clever experiment, is that there was no speech-to-text machine, not even a prototype. The computer box in the room was a dummy. In the room next door was a skilled typist listening to the user’s voice from the microphone and typing the spoken words and commands using a keyboard: the old-fashioned way. Whatever the typist entered on the keyboard showed up on the user’s screen; the setup convinced the user that what was appearing on the screen was the output of the speech-to-text machine.

After being initially impressed by the “technology”, most of the people who said they would buy and use a speech-to-text machine changed their mind after using the system for a few hours. Based on the results of this experiment, IBM continued to invest in speech-to-text technology but on a much smaller scale – they did not bet the company on it.”

Had IBM followed Iridium’s example, IBM could have spent 100’s of millions of dollars focusing R&D efforts on the technology, only to have it rejected by the market. Thinking about, or hearing about the benefits of a product pale in comparison to the experience of interacting with a pretotype. Pretotypes can produce a fairly sound prediction of what users are likely to experience from a complete prototype – this is what makes pretotyping such a valuable tool.

Why aren’t we pretotyping more often?

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn once said: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”.

Pretotyping is a tool that requires a level of humility to implement that we as designers/inventors often struggle to come to terms with. To deliberately choose to place a rough, unpolished pretotype in front of potential customers can be like running your nails down a chalkboard. “They won’t fully appreciate what the finished product could be”; “I might put them off as customers”; “they might steal the idea” are all common thoughts for anyone who’s developing a product.

If you’ve targeted a user market which has real pain, then users will likely appreciate what your idea could be even more than you. Understanding real user pain and experience is usually far more valuable than an outside perspective. Eliminate your blind spots and personal biases, always assume you only have half the story. Engaging customers early also creates valuable customer buy-in which usually makes shorter work of building market presence later.
As for letting someone steal your idea, Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup provides an amusing theoretical challenge.

“I have often given entrepreneurs fearful of this issue the following assignment: take one of your ideas (one of your lesser insights, perhaps), find the name of the relevant product manager at an established company who has responsibility for that area, and try to get that company to steal your idea. Call them up, write them a memo, send them a press release—go ahead, try it.

The truth is that most managers in most companies are already overwhelmed with good ideas. Their challenge lies in prioritisation and execution, and it is those challenges that give a startup hope of surviving. A head start is rarely large enough to matter, and time spent in stealth mode – away from customers – is unlikely to provide a head start. The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.”

And the fastest way to learn is by observing your customers while they interact with your pretotypes.

How to Design & Run a Pretotyping Experiment?

  • Define the user – a made up user profile is a good start, a real user is best.
  • Define the user’s pain points – what is the problem you are trying to solve for your customer?
  • Engage with the user as soon as possible – consider real interviews with real people. Talk through their experiences and problems.
  • Define the minimum number and type of features required to solve the user’s pain points.
  • Savoia states that the purpose of a pretotyping experiment is to answer the following three questions:

1 – Would I and others use it?
2 – Would other people buy it?
3 – If they buy it, would they actually use it (more than once or twice)?

Define the Pretotype Requirements

  • To prove the theories, does the experiment require a physical or virtual pretotype? For a physical pretotype – consider the most basic building blocks first and work your way up to the complexity you require. For example hand sketches/wireframes, paper, cardboard, foam, wood, Lego (nothing is out of the question), look-alike products (same shape/size/feel), basic fabricated parts, or 3D prints. Remember the Palm Pilot example – Hawkins used a chopstick for a stylus. 
  • For virtual pretotypes consider: Photoshopped images, Powerpoints/PDF’s acting like software/apps, or consider using apps like Invision which allow you to create clickable/interactive environments from static screens.
  • Define how many users you require to validate your theory?
  • Remember you want this to be as quick and as dirty as can be achieved – just enough to give you confidence that your theories have been proved/disproved.

Run the experiment

  • Get out there and get the pretotype in front of users.
  • Consider approaching users who you do not have a previous relationship with. I have heard it said that honest feedback is less expected from those who are closest to you.
  • Avoid impressing users. This is raw data collection; you want feedback, not praise.
  • Don’t take criticism personally – you are not your ideas.

Conclusions – To kill or not to kill?

  • Remember: the point of an experiment is not to prove that the theory is correct, it is to prove whether the theory is correct. Be as open to failure as you are to success. More companies are recognising and even rewarding failure as a necessary step to innovation – check out Google-X’s approach to failure and killing bad ideas in an article by FastCompany.
  • When assessing the results keep your ego out of the way. Product success can only be achieved by killing off disproved product theories. Do not become the gambler at the casino who thinks that one more roll of the dice will save them from financial ruin.
  • If your pretotype proves the theories you set out with are correct, great! You are now ready to take your product idea to the next level with greater confidence; if not, cut your losses and move on.

Pretotyping is a reminder to keep a lookout for a more simple approach. Next time you come upon a grand idea and are terrified someone else will beat you to the punch, first consider pretotyping. When validating your ideas ask yourself – Should I be looking at this differently or more simply? Get comfortable with quick and dirty pretotypes and expose your ‘ideas’ (not yourself), to feedback and public scrutiny. In the end, you will save yourself and your company a disproportionate amount of time, investment and resource.

You can read Savoia’s Second pretotype Edition by clicking here.


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Ryan Hayden

About Ryan Hayden

Product Design Engineer at Blender Design. A perfect mix of creative and structured - a lethal combination for creating awesome products.

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