Rapid Prototyping: The Best Route to Happy Customers

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In June 2014, Jeff Bezos took the stage at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to announce its latest product: the Fire Phone. He had no idea he was announcing the biggest flop in the company’s history.

Demonstrating what appeared to be a total lack of understanding regarding smartphone users, Amazon had created a phone that was merely a conduit to buy things on the company’s website — not a fully functional smartphone. And, as it turned out, predictably enough, no one was interested.

How could one of the largest tech companies on the planet miss the mark so spectacularly? Why do HTC and Blackberry, too, so often build products that don’t connect? Even Google has nearly made a habit of creating products that fail to make their case to users.

The lesson of the Fire Phone and its ilk isn’t only for developers and designers. Entrepreneurs also should take notice of these case studies. If a company wants a product to succeed, it can’t be released just for the sake of trying something new. Products must have a clear audience and offer services that give users something they can’t already get from market competitors.

This requires business leaders to adopt a new outlook toward product development. If companies want to avoid such flops in the future, the product-development cycle can’t exist in isolation. It should instead be seen as an arm of the marketing division. Rapid prototyping is the weight set to make that arm as strong as it can be.

Service first, product second

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when giants such as Amazon and Google announce a launch. But customers don’t want a product because it’s new; they want a product because it can do something for them.

Even products that once were sure bets have ceased to draw customers like they used to. A new version of Windows or a new iPhone isn’t the show stopper it used to be. To win users, products must be more than cool. They must fulfill a need above and beyond the models already in consumers’ homes and hands.

In the abstract, it can be hard to determine those reasons. A product’s strengths and shortcomings rarely present themselves until that product actually is in use.

But that’s the magic of rapid prototyping. By creating a tangible prototype of a product or service and consulting real customers, entrepreneurs discover what consumers truly need — not what business owners think consumers need.

Rapid prototyping isn’t only for developers. Here are some ways this strategy can give your entire business an edge.

1. You gain a better understanding of your customers.

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume consumers want what you’re selling. If you’re not getting user feedback from prototypes and iterating upon it, you’re making an awfully risky bet.

Think of rapid prototyping as the super glue to permanently fix your feedback cycle — the periscope that lets you get a glimpse into people’s lives to determine whether they’re facing the problem you think they are.

Look at Snapchat’s Lenses. Hoping to broaden its reach to millennials, Snapchat prototyped a set of selfie filters, collected user feedback and discovered users were clamoring for the new feature. 

Lenses might seem like a small feature for multibillion-dollar Snapchat, but the company didn’t become a hit by guessing what its audience wanted. Rather than release a feature and hope for the best, it sought assurance; and that move may have saved the brand millions.

2. You can keep an open mind.

The beauty of a prototype is that nothing is set in stone. When you create something designed to be scrutinized, you’re free to experiment with concepts to find the real crowd-pleaser.

Just remember: The point isn’t to prove your idea is the right one. You need to find the best idea for your potential customers — whatever that might be. As long as you’re willing to check your ego at the door, implementing prototyping will lead you to new concepts and untapped sources of revenue that otherwise might remain undiscovered.

3. You can go through as many light bulbs as you need.

In the quest to develop the first viable light bulb, Thomas Edison’s team at Menlo Park tested more than 6,000 materials before landing on the right ones.

Trial and error is alive and well in modern tech. Our company scrapped countless concepts while crafting Tiny Eye, a seek-and-find virtual-reality app. It was worth it to find the perfect fit between tool set and hardware. If we’d stubbornly continued after our misfires, the product never would have succeeded.

Whatever your light bulb is, prototype it until it burns bright. Go through as many elements as it takes to hit on the right one for your customers.

4. You can act on feedback quickly and easily.

Rapid prototyping lets entrepreneurs try out a product with real users, change the offering in response to testers’ ideas and repeat the process again and again — all without the eye-popping costs of redeveloping a final product.

Facebook famously releases new features to select groups of users. The social-media powerhouse studies user interactions before it rolls out updates to the whole system. And Gimlet Media, thanks to rapid prototyping, decided not to build an app after all. Instead, Gimlet pursued other paid-content avenues, saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours building a fated-for-failure app.

At a time when even tech titans are coming up with duds, it’s essential for entrepreneurs to do their fieldwork. With rapid prototyping, companies can transform product development from a guessing game into the best market research money can buy.