• Kate

Build to Learn

Prototyping Practices Part One of Ten


No matter how brilliant the mind, or simple the idea, successful products are not launched fully formed from concept into reality. The path from idea to final device is littered with prototypes, models, test jigs, sample swatches, mockups, and a whole load of other creative physical detritus. I have measured past projects not by design milestones or calendar dates, but by the number of storage bins required. There are many reasons why this is. We build objects to share the potential of an idea. We build to overcome communication challenges across a diverse team. For some, we build because holding an idea in the hand reassures us of its feasibility and worth along the long road to making it real. Prototypes can meet all kinds of creative, cognitive, and emotional needs. While those purposes are all valid, there is one focus that drives most of the items built when new products are being designed: Building to Learn.


Most people are blissfully unaware of the thousands of decisions that go into making the things we use everyday. I regularly give an hour long talk on manufacturing that involves me slowly dissecting a small electronic toy under a camera. I have my students document the number of parts, materials, surface treatments, joining methods and fabrication processes as I slowly break the toy down into its individual components. A $1.99 mechanical toy can easily produce 30-40 different items, each the result of someone’s long series of design decisions.

Sometimes these design decisions are straightforward, as when a new product is a variation of an existing one. Size, shape, weight, color may be confidently selected based on a long history of consumer data and well-established industry standards. However, when you are working on totally unique products, the most honest response (at least early on) to most of your questions will be “I don’t know”.


· How high can a pizza delivery drone fly and keep its contents hot?
· What color should you use for the background of a pediatric mental health screenings app?
· How big of a battery can you use for a GPS unit on a dog collar?

The more innovative you are striving to be, the farther you strike out into new markets or industries, the fewer assumptions you can make. Marc Randolph (Co-Founder of Netflix), has a great quote:


“I’ve become convinced how little I actually know and how universally errant my preconceptions are of what’s going to work. Which means I set myself up in advance to be extremely comfortable with being wrong.”

When you build with this mindset, your focus shifts from confirming what you have done right, to shining light on the places you are most ignorant. This is not easy. We tend to focus our building on confirming our assumptions, using techniques we have mastered, while struggling to build anything at all to answer our toughest questions. Both tendencies can be disastrous for new products.


Personally, I love to build things. No surprise there, I come from a long line of crafters and handy doers who could never have too many tools. This is a dangerous trait to have when it comes to building as an entrepreneur. The volume of answers needed, the minimal resources available, drive a completely different mind-set from those adopted by most craftspeople. To avoid building for the sake of building, I am ruthless when I sit down at a workbench. “What are you doing here?” I ask myself suspiciously, “Do you have to build this? Can you get your information faster another way, or with less?”. Instead of focusing on the elegance of what I build, it becomes an investment decision. What is the maximum return (information) I can get for the time and resources spent?


I have also collaborated with teams that struggled in the opposite direction, terrified of building something “real” that was not a finished product. We can become obsessed with our shiny rendered images, data models, and intricate CAD assemblies, all of which may hide very real problems once they are exposed to things like fabrication limits, human bodies, and gravity. I have sat in hours-long meetings debating a potential design feature that could have been resolved with 10 minutes in the lab. Some of this behavior is mind-set, some of it may simply be a function of modern workplaces. At a design workshop, I once asked a room full of senior engineers if they knew where they could find a screwdriver at their workplace. For most of them, it was in a different building. This disconnect often drives down the use of physical prototypes as a flexible learning tool, focusing instead on using them as summative objects that (again) merely confirm what is already known.


The goal of seeing building as a form of learning is not to have it replace other ways that we explore and think, but to encourage you to take the time and effort to make it a useful part of your toolbox. Just like learning to perform financial analyses, read scientific literature, or conduct patent searches, learning to answer questions efficiently with built objects makes for better innovators.


Reflection One of Ten

Think back on the physical objects that you or your team have used as part of a design project. What did you learn in making them? Was it something you already knew, or could have learned another way? If so, why did you build it? If you learned something from it, was there something you could have done when you first starting building it to make that learning more effective?


About this Series

This is the first installment of a 10 parts series on prototyping strategy. This is not about how to pick a 3D printer or get a nice finish on your painted parts, but a deeper reflective dive into the why and how we go about building the things that help us design better products. The points I focus on are not just to better align your project with some design "ideal", they are a way to manage the very real problem of every entrepreneur or program manager - build it fast, build it right, with as few resources as possible.





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