On Seth and prototypes and storytelling

Seth Godin wrote an interesting post about prototypes today.  I disagree with where he went with this argument, but being of a Voltaire-ish world view, I’m really happy with him saying it.

Here’s how my email response to Seth went:

Hi Seth,

Part of the problem is that there are many, many levels of prototypes.   There are sketchy prototypes, rough prototypes, works-like prototypes, looks-like prototypes, works-looks-like prototypes, launched product prototypes (Gmail), you know what I’m talking about.

What I find is that prototype owners aren’t very good about setting context for their audiences.  They focus too much on the prototype and don’t tell enough of a story about it.  In fact, I’ve found the best way to get people to understand a prototype isn’t to show them the prototype on a table, but to shoot a video of someone using that prototype, or to use the prototype as a prop in a skit.  Then you can show how and why it creates value in someone’s life, which is the point of the whole exercise anyway.

So, I guess I disagree that prototypes need to be better than the real thing.  It’s the storytelling that needs to be better than reality.



So, kind metacool reader, what do YOU think?  Let’s have a comment fiesta below.

14 thoughts on “On Seth and prototypes and storytelling

  1. In some areas, I think Seth is right. Look at the auto industry- every concept car performs better and looks more outrageous than the final version will. It’s all about entertainment- catching someone’s eye and attention. On a separate plane, I’ve always viewed prototyping as an exercise in failure. You have to learn what works and doesn’t work on your product, and the prototype is the test. So there’s no way for it to be better than the final production, which is the sum of your learning.

  2. Are there cases where the prototype and the product are one and the same? I think that’s the case with hosted (also called ASP software). In that situation, the desires of the customer and creator are aligned – both want the thing to work, both only succeed if it works, therefore they can afford to treat it as a never-ending prototyping journey.

  3. When ever I’m in the middle of designing a product, I’ll only refer to the design as a “prototype” after it has come off the assembly line and has been through QA testing.
    Until it “does what its supposed to do” for the user, it is only a “model” Be it sketch model, CAD model, hard model, working model, bread board model, stress and strain model, foam model, appearance model etc. The word model is the default way to refer to a design that is not in its manufactured end user state.
    All leaps of immagination must be removed from the model in order for it to become a prototype. Design development people are skilled in using their immagination to “fill in the gaps” of a model that is not made from specified materials or is an inexpensive expression of a thought or idea. People who are not trained in design or development discipines need more descriptive distinctions in order for them to not only understand the design, but to make descisions that effect their schedule, budget and responsibilites towards the new products launch.
    I find myself using the the qualifier of “production prototype” when discussing the difference between a model I am presenting to a client and the actual behavior and appearance of the finished design. This helps me create the distinction in the minds of people who are not trained as desigers, engineers or developers. (i.e marketers, VC people, executives etc.) This way they understand better how close the design is to becoming a real product.

  4. Diego,
    As with most things in today’s fuzzy feel good world, you are both right, to a point. The point that Seth brings up regarding the fact that many times very smart people do not have the vision to fill in the gaps bears true in my team’s experience. I’m running the experience prototyping team at Synaptics now. The demand for higher quality prototypes is increasing almost exponentially from our marketing team and customers. Everybody wants a prototype they can put on a pedestal at CES. We work hard to provide them with that type of refined experience.
    What you mention is also true about the variety of prototypes, or as Bernie Roth ould call them, crap-ups. I believe you are taking the design point of view and Seth has adopted, appropriately enough, the marketing view. We produce all the variety of prototypes that you mentioned as we evolve concepts towards the ideal that Seth mentioned.
    Many times though, perfection is not enough. That is when we do as you suggested, we create a narrative around the prototype. A story to provide context and collateral for the experience. In the end, what we deliver to our internal and external customers is a complete prototype experience, where parts of the prototype are hardware, some are software, some are foamcore, and some are narrative elements to fill in the gaps and help in sharing the idea with our customers.
    We see our role as making our marketing team and their customers in the OEM’s and ODM’s look like Heros and Heroines. We’re like Homer of Greek fame rather than Simpson’s fame, focused more on the triumph than the tragedy.
    Oh, and we always, as part of our storytelling, have a happy ending, where they can take the costly piece of hardware, software, hot glue, and bondo they see in front of them and transform it into a manufacturable, viable product.
    All in a days work!

  5. I wrote a piece about protoyping a while back
    looking at experiences, and fidelity of prototypes (among other things)
    I think the best work on protyping – and the dimensons of ’em – would be by Stephanie Houde and Charlie Hill
    and they have a chapter “What do Prototypes
    Prototype?” in the Handbook of Human Computer Interaction, 2nd edition, 1997.
    Michael Schrage has written extensively on
    how organizations can and should create a “culture of prototyping.

  6. i think the idea of the ‘concept car’ is useful here -more towards what Seth is thinking of when he says ‘prototype’. Like John mentions above, and like I’ve seen at IDEO, sometime we create ‘concept cars’ for companies that are more aspirational in terms of the functionality than a marketable product would be.

  7. Thanks for the prototype thoughts, but my point is kind of like Lance Armstrong’s “it’s not about the bike” sentiment — it’s not about the prototype per se, it’s about what you do with it that matters.
    I think the Red Baron said something like that, too.

  8. Marketing Ideas Inside The Corporation

    I like the way that Diego Rodriguez thinks about prototypes, and his comments on a piece written by Seth Godin.
    Even when you are in the early creation phase of …

  9. Prototypes and the “Real World”

    This story made me prick up my ears … I agree with the idea that it is not the prototype that needs to be better, but the story … but, at the same time, we all have greater expectations of

  10. The ability to communicate and idea, whether for a product, process or organizational design is under emphasized in most design schools. Using a prototype is a perfectly justifiable way to communicate, demonstrate, sell, etc. Designers need a full range of methodologies to speak to early adopters, engineers and the MBA guys that will ultimately approve funding. Prototyping, in its 47 thousand varieties from sketch to binary models and clay toys are just some of the options.

  11. The quick typing intelligentia beat me to the discussion around prototype vs. concept car distinction, but I will build on Larry’s thought about the use of concept car as an aspirational object vs. a development prototype.
    Prototype feels more like a tool for designers on the road toward developing and realizing an object with the intent to get it out in the world for use.
    Seth’s post seems to imply a slick automotive design on a spinning dais in Detroit that will never see the road.
    Maybe the confusion stems from the cultural artifact of ‘experimental prototype’, which invokes, at least to me, an image an X-something spy plane wheeled out of a cloaked hangar in the desert.

  12. I think there are two conversations going on here. One is merely semantic — prototype vs model vs concept car vs mock-up, etc. Turns out that not everyone defines these terms identically, so great care should be taken that you don’t create a communication problem by assuming your audience uses your term just as you do.
    But the larger issue is Seth’s contention that “your prototype has to be better … than the finished product” vs. Diego’s desire to place prototypes in context. And I think the answer has to consider the intent and the audience.
    Sometimes it can be better to exceed reality. The Monsanto House of the Future is a good example from the past, and doubtless served as inspiration for many innovations, even if the full vision was never achieved. Similarly, “concept car” computers that combine fresh-from-the-lab technologies with forward-looking aesthetics are a great way to set the bar for future development.
    But *all* prototypes should be better? No way. For instance, Jeff Hawkins famously carried a piece of wood the size of a deck of cards as a way to convince himself that his idea of a simplified and pocketable computer was extremely useful. You can’t get much cruder than that, and if your prototype is meant to persuade thinking of a simple idea, a simple prototype might be best.
    Diego’s point about video is extremely important, because the video itself can be the prototype. Pretend a block of wood is a new communication tool and prototype the experience of using the “device” in a video — even bad acting with your coworkers can be compelling. It’s not the device that’s important, it’s the behavior the device enables. And it needn’t involve a physical product at all, if you use video to show how a new service could change the experience of, say, a visit to the doctor or a shoe store.
    So, they’re both right, but they both need to evangelize the power of prototypes even more.

  13. Another dimension not discussed here is the difference between sustaining and disruptive technology and products.
    When something is really new for the user (which it rather often is) it’s probably only waste of resources to make it so much better then it eventually will be. Why? Because you don’t even know how, or for what, your product will be used. Put in another way: you don’t know what the features are, that have to better.
    To me a concept car is something to show together with white smoke and nice ladies. A prototype tells us what job it can accomplish for the user.

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