When you’ve got a concept that you want to build and sell, you’ll hear talk of development phases, proofs of concept, various types of prototype or demo and alpha testing. For the uninitiated, this can be confusing; for the sceptical it may seem unnecessary. So what are these stages – and why do we go through them?
In this insight, we’ll take you through the most common types of prototype, in the order you’ll encounter them.
Why prototype at all?
Why not simply design the product, build it and sell it?
With completely new ideas, the chances of having to evolve the design are high. This could be due to physical performance issues, reassessment of what we can achieve for the price point, or because of a shift in the market.
The most obvious reasons to prototype are: to make sure the idea is useable, to make sure the design is effective, and to refine our work until it is as efficient as it can be. Even the greatest creative geniuses need to iterate their work to get it right: Leonardo da Vinci produced at least four versions of the Mona Lisa before he perfected it, and Leonard Cohen rewrote Hallelujah 180 times. Sometimes we have to try out different ideas and see what works best.
In short, prototyping enables us to produce a series of trial runs of a concept, each one optimised to gain different kinds of information about how best to proceed.
Proof of concept
Sometimes called a works-like prototype or a technology demonstrator, this is typically the first prototype you will build. It may have multiple solutions on a single board, but its typical purpose is to prove that a product’s key functions can feasibly work. It should use as many off-the-shelf parts as possible to accelerate the process, and should not be optimised for anything else. The metaphorical sledge-hammer to crack a nut is perfectly acceptable at this stage.
The purpose of the proof of concept is to make sure a technology can work, and to get buy-in from stakeholders.
The importance of this stage is largely dependent on the target market. The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry puts a lot of emphasis on the looks-like prototype, as people buying for their own use generally care deeply about appearances.
In theory, the looks-like prototype could simply be a 3D render, but 3D-printed models are more usual. It is unusual to use mechanical parts at first, such as the use of magnets, can help bring an extra level of interaction. In later stages, machined metals and plastics can provide greater realism, and these may include mechanisms, although these normally take advantage of unused space where the electronics would be.
While this seems pretty simple, a badly done looks-like prototype can derail a project. It is essential to strike a balance between overpromising on the one hand and underwhelming on the other. At BLS, we always ensure that any prototype we show a client is grounded in reality and can be achieved as a final product.
This stage should answer some questions on usability and consumer perception. It will define the importance of certain parameters, especially size, and help inform target pricing.
Sometimes known as the smoke-and-mirrors prototype, this combines the proof-of-concept and looks-like elements into an interactive demonstrator. To the user, the experience should be reasonably similar to the real device, but behind the scenes, things will be quite different.
Looks-like-works-like demonstrations are always done under supervision and are carefully managed, so as to maintain the illusion and get as much useful feedback as possible.
A typical prototype involves offboarding as much functionality as possible under the desk where the user cannot see it. An example of this would be shrinking the device by using a tiny battery that only lasts the duration of the interaction. The motivation here is not dishonesty, but to learn how the consumer will use the device. At this stage, that is more important than how well it works.
Heavy investment in tooling will not necessarily pay off at this stage: it is more important that we can easily adapt the product. The findings from this stage will inform the next round of prototypes.
The alpha stage is where we conduct consumer research and performance testing. A good alpha prototype will either turn out to be the device the customer wants or enable feedback on exactly what needs to change.
We may use several different prototypes at this point, depending on the client’s programme. These remove the illusionary aspect of the looks-like-works-like demo. Alpha prototypes may not have all the intended features of the final product, but they typically give a platform to build on and to understand what it would take to get there.
This type of prototype is not optimised for looks, cost or manufacturability. Typically, an alpha prototype will be as big as is acceptable, to allow the inclusion of as many desirable features as possible. The processes used to build the alpha are not suitable for volume manufacture, and we may have to accept low yield and high costs, but production volumes will be relatively low.
It is important at this stage to be clear about the product’s compliance requirements and how to meet them – we may do some preliminary testing to better understand the challenges specific to the design.
Beta prototypes propel us to the endgame. We will usually need to make compromises at this stage, and face up to any decisions that we have delayed.
So, what changes between alpha and beta? In a nutshell, optimisation. In FMCG this usually means cost-down. The $20 processor that let your alpha run every possible idea? Find a $5 part that supports the functions most consumers wanted. The beautiful mechanism that takes a Swiss watchmaker a week to build? Redesign it for fast assembly on a production line.
Alternatively, we might add cost where it will leverage more sales or add value. Examples include using metals for a premium feel, where a plastic would suffice from an engineering standpoint.
It is also essential to pass compliance at this point. ‘Nearly right’ is good enough during alpha, but issues with EMC, safety and compatibility all need to be addressed by the end of the beta stage.
The end-beta prototype should be very close what is going to market.
Typically, these are now in the hands of the contract manufacturer, but BLS can manage them on your behalf.
The major prototypes are preproduction prototypes, to check the process and bring the yield into line, and a pilot series: a short production run given to selected customers or used in a specific geography—for example Japan—where consumers are far more forgiving of teething issues.
To find out more about how Blue Lightning Solutions can help you with your prototyping needs, just get in touch.