When most people hear the word “prototype,” a range of thoughts come to mind.
On one end of the spectrum, you might think of something highly technical and Jimmy Neutron-esque, like this:
On the opposite end, you might think of something overly simplified and comically pathetic, almost resembling a Kindergartener’s art project, like this:
But regardless of where your imagination places you on the spectrum, the unifying factor is that these prototypes are all tangible, physical objects. I’m not exactly sure why or how our minds have been conditioned to think this way, but they have. Doing a quick Internet search on how to build a prototype will yield articles about the methods, skills, and materials to use for a physical prototype. Even its definition--“a preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied”--implies that a prototype must be a physical, working replica of the intended product.
But what about software? How can you build a prototype for a tech business without actually having to build software? How can you build a tech prototype that’s simple yet effective and functional yet inexpensive?
Here are a few ways other companies have done so:
1) Ooomf: Prototype Using a Blend of Other Products
The story of the freelance web design and development company, Ooomf, is one that started with a prototype completely dependent on other companies’ products. Ooomf is a service that connects web designers with those who need design help, but in a way that allows designers to work independently on the projects they are actually interested in.
However, Ooomf simply started as a combination of a MailChimp email and a Wufoo form. The founders distilled their concept into a series of simple steps:
- Find organizations that need web design projects done.
- Ask those organizations a standardized set of questions so designers have the info they need to submit quotes.
- Send those projects to a large group of talented designers. Give designers the freedom to choose the projects they’re most interested in.
- Connect the organizations with those designers to complete the work, and manage the transfer of payments and project deliverables for each project.
Having identified those steps, the Ooomf team had a good understanding of what their technology needed to do. Thus, they found a combination of existing products to complete those steps, and this framework functioned as their prototype .
Instead of spending a significant amount of time building their own custom solution, they used a Wufoo form to accept projects and a MailChimp email to send the projects out to their list of designers. Using these two services at first, Ooomf was able to get started and gain revenue without spending time and money developing its own tech platforms.
As the business grew, however, this process became too time-consuming and arduous, so Ooomf developed its own solutions based on the initial concept that used MailChimp and Wufoo. The story of Ooomf represents how a company can save valuable time and money by using other products, services, and resources to create a functional prototype to launch a business with. When a business is in its infancy stage, the processes and solutions should be simple, easy, and inexpensive. A business should not be spending thousands of dollars trying to code a payment or email system. Rather, a business should utilize its resources and develop its own solutions later on based on what works and what does not.
Key Takeaway: You don’t need to build your own product to test a market or to start making money. If you can identify the problem your customers have and solve it by any means necessary, they won’t care whether you built it or someone else did.
2) Product Hunt: Prototype Using an Email List
Product Hunt is a site for discovering all of the hottest tech products. It’s widely used by entrepreneurs to gain ideas and inspiration, by investors to find out about investment opportunities, and by “normal Joes” to discover the coolest new products that could be useful in daily life. Tech developers are able to submit their products to Product Hunt, and Product Hunt features a select group of those on its website. Users can upvote or downvote each idea they see, and a daily top 10 list is then formed.
Believe it or not, Product Hunt actually started as a Linkydink email list of a couple dozen of founder Ryan Hoover’s tech friends. Ryan has always remained current on the latest tech trends, and he often found himself keeping his friends up to date, too. Eventually, Ryan had the idea to compose an email list of these friends so that he wouldn’t have to constantly repeat his spiel on what he saw as the latest tech trends to those friends.
The email was initially sent to Ryan’s personal circle, but the network rapidly grew as Ryan’s friends forwarded the email to their friends, who then forwarded the email to their friends, who then… well, you get the point, and you can probably see the eventual outcome. People continued to subscribe to receive Ryan’s daily newsletter until it simply made sense to make a company out of it. Thus, we have Product Hunt.
Product Hunt’s story illustrates some especially important concepts about prototyping. The first lesson entrepreneurs can learn from Product Hunt is the importance of establishing a network and audience prior to launching. Product Hunt did this extremely well since Ryan had gained a large, loyal following of subscribers before he developed the actual Product Hunt website. Second, Product Hunt was able to confirm the interest in its concept before spending any money. By using a simple email list, Product Hunt was able to build a free prototype and gain a customer base. And finally, Product Hunt wasn’t afraid to use some “tried and true” methods by using familiar interface designs initially. Often, tech startups believe their interface has to be absolutely groundbreaking. While there is definitely a time and place for this riskiness, the time and place is usually not during the launch of a company. Rather, it’s wise to use your resources and make do with what you have.
Key Takeaway: A great way to build a company is to start by building an audience first, and a product second. When you have an audience, it’s easy to talk with them directly, understand their pains, and build a product that fixes their pain. It’s a lot harder to build a product before knowing a market exists for it.
3) Wireframing & Rapid Prototyping
For tech companies out there whose concepts are fundamentally dependent on the development of a website or app, easy and inexpensive solutions do exist. Rather than coding an entire app or website, wireframing and rapid prototyping allow tech companies to more or less map out their tech platforms.
Wireframing is the more basic and primitive of the two alternatives. Wireframes are similar to architectural drawings for buildings. They roughly show the components of a screen and the actions that will lead users from screen to screen. The components are usually thoroughly annotated so that developers know specifically what needs to be built. A typical wireframe might look something like this:
Common wireframing tools include: Balsamiq, Visio, Omnigraffle, InDesign, and Fireworks. Wireframes are great because they offer a simple way to visually depict the design of a tech platform without actually going through the effort of developing it. However, the major disadvantage of wireframes is that they aren’t interactive. Also, due to the advent of new technologies, it’s relatively easy to develop working code for functional prototypes via a process appropriately called rapid prototyping.
Developing rapid prototypes is made possible through a number of innovative services, including: Invision, Marvel, Proto.io, and Pixate. The major advantage of rapid prototypes is that they provide a functioning and interactive prototype of your product. Although this prototype won’t be complete in its content or coding, it still offers a better understanding of how a tech platform will actually function. The websites I mentioned above are great, inexpensive resources to use in order to rapidly prototype a tech platform.
Key Takeaway: It’s important to validate your idea as much as you can before building anything. These prototyping tools help you visualize your solution in a tangible way for potential customers, allowing them to give better feedback about whether you’re heading in the right direction or not.
The big takeaway from this blog post is this: the overall idea of prototyping, especially for tech products or products that require tech platforms, is changing. Before, prototyping was a process that was inherently expensive and time consuming. A prototype had to essentially be a working replica of a company’s proposed product, and, unless an entrepreneur had a unique skillset to develop a prototype, the work had to be outsourced. However, simple and inexpensive prototypes are becoming commonplace in the entrepreneurial world. Oomf began with a MailChimp template and a Wufoo form. Product Hunt started with just an email list. And most tech companies use wireframing or rapid prototyping prior to developing fully-functioning, coded models.
In the end, the best method of prototyping is different for every startup. But a simple, universal rule to abide by is that “less is more.” While it may seem impressive to spend lots of time and money on a polished, fully-functioning prototype to present to investors, this isn’t usually smart. Product Hunt established a customer base and refined its model before spending any money, and that’s precisely the mindset all entrepreneurs should take when creating a prototype.