Rapid Prototyping & Entrepreneurship

Leaders and thinkers need to understand that they must fiddle more with a real, actionable prototype first than spending time planning and thinking about it.

Bhavana Dandu




Quite often in design related processes, from time to time we come across various terms such as prototypes, mockups, design thinking etc. Rapid prototyping is just another such concept that has been borrowed from the manufacturing industry, and appropriated into the UX community quite smoothly.

Concepts have been borrowed from the whole process of creating a mockup and continuous iteration of such prototypes, with feedback from all team members at the end of each iteration.

Well, but what essentially is Rapid Prototyping and how does it fit well into the sphere of entrepreneurship, along with UX design? That’s exactly what the focus of this article is going to be.

“Doing is the best type of thinking. Thinking is the worst way to think.” – Tom Chi

What is Rapid Prototyping?

Let’s start with understanding the two words separately, before merging them together. A Prototype is a “first, typical, or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied.” This is the standard definition one would give if they were coming from a manufacturing domain.

Kathryn McElroy, the author of Prototyping for Designers, defined it best as “a manifestation of an idea into a format that communicates the ideas to others or is tested with users, with the intention to improve that idea over time.” This definition is closer to the UX process that is followed in developing concepts today, which are then rapidly iterated over.

When we say Rapid, apart from the usual meaning of the word, there is some significance to it attached to the simple question of “Is this design truly of service?” without struggling with the idea / analysis clashes between the team members. It demands a visual or haptic manifestation of a form or an idea. It forces one to stick to focus on bettering the prototype according to the needs than the likes and dislikes of one.

As mentioned before, rapid prototyping as a concept evolved out of the manufacturing industry. Mock prototypes were quickly created and built, ready for validation along with constructive scrutiny provided by all the team members and stakeholders as well. This process was repeated until the final product got delivered.

We see a similar process in the world of UX design, where mockups and wireframes are quickly built and tested against the user needs and requirements, with continual iteration over and over again until a satisfactory prototype is produced that is approved by the lead designer and the client, to be taken to the next stage: the development of that product.

But beyond these two spheres, does Rapid Prototyping have anything to do with Entrepreneurship and Innovation? Let’s find out.

Rapid Prototyping and Entrepreneurship

The world of entrepreneurship is filled with uncertainties of all kinds. We never have enough information in our hands to take the next big decision, to approve the best process to be followed or to communicate the best steps of actions to team members.

Oftentimes this leads us to take a step back and wait, which is usually a good thing, but not for too long. We find that soon this leads to dangerous levels of inefficiency and counterproductivity, thereby disturbing the course of action of a whole team or an organization. Many entrepreneurs and organizations face this problem at different points of time.

When such a problem arises, it’s best to start doing instead of waiting for information to arrive or thinking till a big idea comes up. Tom Chi, the co-founder of GoogleX is a strong proponent for the Rapid Prototyping philosophy. He said: “As the first step of prototyping, doing is the best kind of thinking”. It goes along the lines of “what you know is enough, begin doing it”, followed by working on the prototype that gets built.

According to Chi, “Doing is the best type of thinking. Thinking is the worst way to think.” Leaders and thinkers need to understand that they must fiddle more with a real, actionable prototype first than spending time planning and thinking about it. So have an idea? Build a prototype in a day and figure out the next steps.

The key is in finding the quickest path of experiencing an idea: by building a prototype in a day based on existing knowledge, instead of spending months using traditional methods. Traditional methods often involve teams that are responsible for planning, developing, operating, testing etc, with their own silos of departments with limited communication among each other. While this is a topic for another article, the point that remains is that the traditional ways are not good enough for this modern era where time translates into cost, and that too, with a heavy price at times.

Practicing rapid prototyping forces a developer and a designer to sit together and spin out a functional prototype, while facing all kinds of non-negotiable feedback from users of various kinds. Putting everyone together right in the beginning brings out various concerns that mould the prototype over and over again.

This also makes room for one important aspect: constant flow of reinvention where required. Bringing everyone together this way removes the excessive attachment towards an idea that people might have towards one iteration of a project, creating space for new ideas.

Paving a Way for a Culture of Learning

Practicing rapid prototyping as an important part of your individual and collective mindset at both leadership and workforce level can build an environment and culture of learning.

The constant fear of being wrong when building something and rethinking or overthinking something is prevalent in most of us. To tackle that, a mindset of doing things fast and then figuring out solutions for all the problems in the iterative processes ensures that we bring fresh ideas to the table.

Most times, be it UX or a business, there can be anywhere from 3 to 15 ways to solve a problem. This might paralyze our decision making from moving forward. Instead, focusing on each area of a problem and solving it in iterations helps one move forward faster.

Instead of thinking “Is this the right way to do this?”, one would then be tasked with thinking “What have I learnt in this iteration? What can be changed in the next one?”. Essentially, one is solving the problem and also learning about key elements through each iteration.

How to implement this? Write down three big frontiers in your domain, where it is visible to everyone. Your team members should feel free to put down what they’ve learnt after every iteration, successful or not. Write down everything you think concerns the product or a business strategy in each iteration and take a decision for the next iteration.

This way, everyone at all levels constantly learns – be it managerial, leadership or design and engineering.