5 Steps to Effective Prototyping

No successful product has ever been launched in its initial prototype form. So how can you ensure that your prototype will get to a level that will impress the market and better yet, actually sell? Think about the steps below, each is an integral part in coming to an effective and successful final product.

1. Sketch it out

In the early stages of a project it can sometimes be hard to visualize everything that your product will need to do; you’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to describe your idea to other people. A quick and relatively easy solution is to just get it down on paper. You don’t have to be the next Davinci to communicate your idea, just get a basic form drawn, and then try for some added detail after that. Challenge yourself to think about your product from as many angles as you can. What does the inside of this thing look like? You’ll come to find that as you sketch out your product you may stumble upon different design aspects that may seem to work better or may not work at all. Sketching is cheap and quick, keep your overhead low and pump out as many versions of your idea as you can.

2. Start off quick and dirty

So it’s time to start building this thing in 3-D space. Don’t waste precious money on early prototypes, find some materials that are cheap and easy to work with. A few good options are chipboard, foam, clay, foam core, muslin or anything from your local thrift store. All you’re going to need past that is a sharp knife, some glue and your own hands. In making a product for the first few times you will learn a lot about how it actually feels in your hand or looks in the real world. What kind of presence does your object hold? If you realize that something is completely wrong, just set it aside and start over again. The beauty of cheap materials plays into the next point here, iteration.

3. Iterate, iterate, iterate

This first prototype probably isn’t going to be a one-hit wonder, don’t get too attached to your first product. Many companies will go through hundreds of iterations to get their product exactly how they want it and how others think they want it. Every time you make your product from scratch you will learn something new and every time you step back and look at what you’ve made it will be better than the previous. However, don’t throw anything away quite yet. Often in the iteration process it is easy to get sucked down a rabbit hole – trying to make one particular feature may cause others to suffer. This is okay, just keep your past prototypes around for reference.

4. Recognize success

The iterative process is neverending, there is always something that could be done in a different way or produced in a different manner. Try to determine if a certain aspect of your product is successful or not by testing it out. This might mean stress-testing, seeing if your grandma can figure it out or leaving it on an empty table in public to see if anyone even wants to use it. Measuring in right and wrong can sometimes be difficult – instead, try to determine if your solution is successful. Does it do what it needs to do? Does it work in the environment you intended it to? Once you can answer with a “yep, it successfully does what it needs to do,” move on to your next challenge.

5. Don’t skimp on the final prototype

This final piece should almost be exactly like your final product. If you are manufacturing by yourself, try to make this prototype as well as you can using the tricks you’ve learned along the way in your iterative process. Good craft is king; even if you are sending off your prototype/tech pack to get manufactured by someone else, the level of initial quality they experience will inform them of the level of craft you expect. This is what people are going to perceive as your product, so it should be exactly how you want it. If you are having pieces manufactured, use your prototyping process to help establish some lines of production. Maybe try some different fabricators, builders, machines or processes to see if their deliverable is up to your standards. When your Kickstarter blows through the roof and you need to make a two-million-part order, will they be able to handle it?

All of the above steps are guidelines to effective prototyping; however, designing a product is always a collaborative effort. Listen to the feedback of your peers, the advice of your manufacturers and don’t be too pressured to get your product to market right away. A well thought-out and heavily prototyped product will have much more success in a market than something spat out quickly to simply make money. Continue to ask yourself and those around you if the product is successful and, if not, you know what to do.


About the Author:

Cameron Hooyer

Cameron Hooyer is a recent graduate from the Multi-Disciplinary Design program at the University of Utah. Him and his colleague, Taylor Dickinson, formed Situ – a design consultancy that is working towards establishing a new level of sustainability in the outdoor industry. Find their work and contact info here: situ-design.co. Learn more about the U’s design program at design.cap.utah.edu.


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