Building a prototype is an essential part of any product development cycle and as an early stage start-up, getting the most out of your prototype is critical. In this post, I will provide suggestions on how to get the most out of prototyping, while staying on a budget. I’ll break it down into three categories; looks-like, works-like, and tests-like. By understanding these categories you will be able to set realistic goals for each prototype stage and in turn find cost-savings along the way.
With the looks-like, the main goal is to illustrate the overall size, shape, and key UX (user experience) aspects. The best way to save money in this early phase, when the product design is immature, is to utilize digital illustration tools. If you have a graphically-inclined teammate or friend, it should be easy to get your ideas across and save a lot of money on early looks-like models. This way of thinking can be applied to complex products as well. You have to remember that a looks-like prototype doesn’t even need to move (i.e. a wheel doesn’t need to turn on its axis), so spending lots of money on prototypes is usually a waste for a start-up on a tight budget. As well the looks are inevitably going to evolve between now and the final product so being budget-conscious is key. With all of that being said, sometimes the use of 3D prototypes is necessary, so using materials like cardboard, wood and clay can easily demonstrate the size, shape and UX factors that demand a physical model.
Once you have developed a looks-like prototype, it's time to make your product function. This doesn’t mean building everything into the end product right away, rather it means taking smaller development steps to piece together a working unit. By breaking down the elements of your product into smaller standalone units, you can drastically change how it can be prototyped and therefore impact how much it's going to cost. Analyze the key features of your product and ask if they can operate independent of other systems. If the answer is yes, then breaking it out can make a lot of sense. This is both for cost and simplicity. Creating simple prototypes that only focus on a singular aspect of the design will help in the development cycles when debugging is critical. If the prototype is independent from other systems, changes will only affect the singular system.
In the works-like phase it may be hard to avoid the use of more expensive processes or materials based on the product’s function. Development is an iterative process though and change is inevitable. The use of cheaper material and processes until the design is at a steady state is critical. Cheap 3D-printed materials, or even cardboard, can go a long way in terms of saving money.
Building a tests-like prototype is where it becomes the most challenging in terms of cost-savings, but it's still plausible if planned for well in advance. Planning for and knowing when and how to test is the real key to saving money during this phase. Many companies “test to test” and this is where a lot of money is wasted. Whether its a quality, life or a UX test, understanding the test goal is paramount. This is where understanding which key features can be independent from the main system comes back into play. Imagine you want to test a wheel bearing on a robotic system -- the entire robot is not needed for a life test. You only need to build the necessary components around the wheel bearing and create cheap analogues for the other parts that affect the bearing, like weight. By breaking out as many subsystems as possible and creating singular tests to debug for failures, it becomes easier and usually saves money.