What it Takes to Design Successful Services-Prototyping! (an excerpt from The Master, a Course Based on the Service Design Book of Knowledge)

Henry Ford, James Dyson and Steven Ausnit, among many others, only realized success with their innovations from prototyping.  What’s more, these innovators experimented with multiple prototypes, sometimes over decades, with perspiration and resilience thrown in, before bringing to market the Model T, the Dyson cyclonic vacuum, and the Ziplock bag.

Perhaps surprisingly, their efforts, and those of others, are either great Ideas (innovations) without a purpose—or the ultimate purpose is not in sight, and, sometimes the purpose ends up driving innovation.  But ultimately, getting ideas to market can require dozens, or even thousands, of prototypes over many years.

Prototyping refers to an early sample, model, or release of a product or service for testing. Prototypes, which take theoretical ideas and convert them into real or working systems, are used to test concepts, process, and design. Each prototype should answer a specific question, often requiring “Iterative” prototyping or “Requirement Relaxation” methods.

The most successful service providers foster a culture of prototyping, according to researchers. Best practices are prototyping products and services early and often; sharing prototypes with external stakeholders; and, celebrating nascent ideas, according to multiple academics contributing to design Prototyping Methods: State of the Art in Strategies, Techniques, and Guidelines. (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Frequent prototyping also reduces the time service designers would otherwise spend aiming for perfection—when early mock-ups will both improve design and speed projects forward.

For these reasons, service designers need to be familiar with prototyping, including some of the established methods and techniques. This article draws a light onto prototyping, yet the topic is quite extensive and covered in The Master, in much more detail.

Here are some fun facts from the aforementioned innovators:

  • Henry Ford explored at least nineteen models (some prototypes) prior to the launch of the iconic Model T design, which for nearly half a century thereafter held the record for most cars sold—and a once-in-a-time distinction, dating to 1914, when Model T made up nine out of ten cars owned.
  • Dyson’s bagless cyclonic vacuum came to market after 15 years and 5,127 prototypes. James Dyson’s biggest challenge was developing a highly efficient digital motor powered by a fuel cell. Ten engineers worked on it over three years, and still, their product is unfinished. Yet the insights led to one of the most highly efficient, compact digital motors, now found in its vacuums, bathroom hand dryers, among other products.At Dyson headquarters in Malmesbury, England, there’s what Mr. Dyson calls “the Dyson prototype archive,” a showcase with ideas yet to be launched to consumers.
  • Ziplock bags took 17 years from its idea of a re-sealable plastic bag to landing in grocery stores. The hang-up was due to licensing issues, design setbacks due to costs and functionality, and market testing, ultimately entering the market in 1968. In the early 1960s, the founder brought the idea to Columbia records as a way to seal the vinyl in album sleeves, only to find it was easier to rip the bag apart then find the plastic zipper.

Additionally, the barcode took almost 40 years to develop, from its conception in 1948 in Philadelphia, to almost thirty years later when the first item–a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was scanned into a check-out reader, and to Toyota’s conversion of the barcode into the QR code (Quick Response) in 1994 for auto manufacturing. In the meantime, the inventors sold their patent in 1952 for $15,000.

Seven Prototype Objectives

Below are some uses with prototyping:

  1. Gradually improve a design.
  2. Down-select various prototypes to arrive fewer or one candidates.
  3. Understand how a service performs under different environments.
  4. Re-evaluate failure
  5. Uncover user behavior (reactions).
  6. Reduce cost and time.