After developing an idea for a hardware product and validating it to make sure it’s something that people may actually want, the next step is to build a prototype of the device.
The main objective of making a prototype is of course to create a physical sample of your product that you can show to prospective customers and investors. In addition, the act of making a prototype also brings a number of other less-obvious benefits to your startup, including:
– Helping you clarify your vision for the product
– Helping you frame the problem you want to address
– Showing you what works and what doesn’t work
– Revealing possible future manufacturing problems
– Facilitating customer and investor feedback
Here are some tips on how to get the most out of prototyping.
Get your prototype in people’s hands as soon as possible
Experienced founders advise entrepreneurs to get out a prototype at the earliest possible opportunity. JD Albert, Director of Engineering at Bresslergroup, says that waiting until a product is “perfect” before rigorously testing it is a common mistake many startups make.
Putting a prototype out early for potential users to test drive delivers a host of benefits, some unexpected. Once people have a new object in their hands, the ways in which they try it out tells you how well or poorly your product has been designed. Is it robust enough to withstand inevitable wear and tear? Does it function as you imagined? Do people use it as you intended or are they using it in an unexpected way? Is it user-friendly? What is the verdict on its visual appearance?
The feedback you get will refine your ideas and challenge many of your assumptions. Assumptions are simply a result of our inability to see things from a wide range of perspectives. Drawing others into your experiment, helps you gain a broader perspective and that in the end leads to a better product.
Take advantage of crowdfunding
While exposure on Kickstarter or Indiegogo won’t necessarily validate your product for the mass market, they are superb platforms for feedback from early technology adopters. Here a product concept together with a working prototype will elicit valuable comment from a knowledgeable audience that can expedite your design and manufacturing process.
Build a simple prototype first, get feedback, and build again
While standards for prototypes are rising with the ease of 3D printing and the low cost of electronics prototyping with development boards, simple cardboard or similar facsimiles work well in the early stages to stimulate initial conversation and feedback.
Berlin-based hardware and software startup Senic YC S13 shared this experience with making their first product Nuimo. ”We learned that if you show people something developed, it’s a let-down because they expect too much. If you give them something that clearly doesn’t work it sparks their imagination to think freely about the possibilities, a key moment in this phase. Instead of focusing on what the prototype can’t do, the user will share their own ideas for the product and lead the conversation about the future they see.”
Founders that have been through the process warn that the road to a prototype that’s ready for manufacturing is paved with a seemingly endless number of preceding iterations. Bolt suggests building one prototype per week, meaning startups should try to improve at least one aspect of their prototype each time. It often takes many prototypes with different purposes before arriving at a final feasible one.
Celebrate early disappointment rather than regret late failure
It’s much easier and more cost effective to do something about problems that crop up in the prototyping and pilot stages than during actual production. Before manufacturing starts, every last detail must be sorted out. Return, repair, and retooling costs for fixing even the most seemingly minor problem can be enough to sink your startup.