PRODUCTHEAD: Exploring the solution space with prototyping
PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.
Focus your prototyping on the moments that matter most to users
Prototypes range in fidelity, but remain throwaway
Prototyping brings tangibility to intangible experiences
Be clear about what you want to learn, and what assumptions you want to test
Design simply to deliver early and learn quickly
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We are — or should be — continually learning. Every opportunity we have to test out something with our users can reveal a detail or insight we had previously missed.
Discovery and prototyping
Discovery is all about understanding the size and shape of the problem (or opportunity) space, as well as the context and needs of the people with that problem (or unmet need).
Prototyping — sometimes referred to as the alpha phase of a project — is what we do next. Once we have a good enough understanding of the problem space, we start exploring the possible ways we could solve that problem. And while testing out ways to solve a problem, we continue to learn more about the detail and nuance of the problem and the user.
A rusty Virago
Lovely Wife used to have a motorbike that she rescued from its resting spot in a hedge in Ealing (with the consent of the owner). It was a Yamaha Virago XV750 — an approximation of a chopper, with high handlebars and swept-forward footrests that made the riding position as comfortable as hugging a boulder in a headwind.
It had four cylinders in the engine, although one of them would occasionally decide it was too tired and stop working. The front tyre valve would let all its air out at random, seemingly for its own amusement. And about 30 seconds after the engine had sputtered and stalled, leaving me stranded in the middle of traffic, a little yellow light would come on to tell me I’d just run out of fuel. It was a glorious machine.
Unpacking the solution space
Were we to analyse my unmet needs as a rider, fairly high up the list would be, “I need to know I’m about to run out of fuel BEFORE I end up stuck and staring down a a disgruntled truck driver.”
The range of possibilities for a solution would be broad. We could design anything from an audible warning to a visual indicator. We could use ‘fuel remaining’ as a proxy for ‘time before the engine cuts out’, and design a traditional sweeping-arm fuel gauge or a digital readout. Or we could use ‘remaining range’ as a proxy instead.
We would need to narrow down the possibilities with the contextual understanding that the rider would be wearing a helmet and ear protection, would be mostly focusing their attention on the road, not the instrument panel, and would be riding both at day and night, in good and bad weather.
Testing our prototypes
To test out our ideas, we could make the educated guess that the notification would need to be noticeable while riding. We could simulate the experience of riding with a monitor and some pre-recorded dashcam footage. We could invite users to wear their usual helmet and ear protection while running the test. This would be our prototype.
We would look at different aspects of the solution in isolation rather than trying to solve the entire problem in one hit. We would not need to implement the notification for real on an actual motorbike until we were confident that it would be noticed — and understood — in typical riding conditions. Only then would we move on to worrying about how we would detect and trigger the notification from the engine and fuel tank or battery.
Every prototype test is run as an experiment, where we bet or reckon that it will solve a particular problem in a way we can measure reliably, by a certain amount. If our test fails to deliver the desired result, we figure out why so that we can improve the prototype for the next test. It’s more about learning than validating.
Eventually, we might bring together the best working ideas into a more complete prototype, to check that they work in concert. Then, satisfied that we had something that worked well, we would put our hastily-constructed prototypes to one side, and build it for real.
Rapid prototyping is the way to learn more quickly, cheaply and easily, both about possible solutions, and about the problem itself. An idea that does not solve a problem will fail regardless of how well we build it, so why waste the time and effort of building everything for real each time?
This week I have a bumper edition of great content for you about prototyping and learning. Go and play!
Speak to you soon,
P.S. There’s 20% off passes to PLA’s Product Ops Summit in March for PRODUCTHEAD subscribers this week – take a look below.
what to think about this week
Tom Chi has practiced rapid prototyping for over 15 years, on everything from software to hardware, organisational design to entrepreneurship. And a lot of the lessons he has learned in rapid prototyping are directly applicable to the discipline of product management.
[TOM CHI / MIND THE PRODUCT]
Prototypes of various forms have been around for as long as we’ve been doing software. However, many things have changed. Not the least of which is that the tools and techniques we have for developing prototypes and testing them have developed dramatically.
[MARTY CAGAN / SILICON VALLEY PRODUCT GROUP]
IDEO Managing Director Melanie Bell-Mayeda and IDEO U’s Coe Leta Stafford shared stories and tips about how to use service design to bring more meaningful experiences to customers and organizations.
[MELANIE BELL-MAYEDA / IDEO]
Service design includes all the intangible aspects of how an organization seeks to build a relationship over time with its customers. And one goal of prototyping these service design experiences is to bring tangibility to these intangible experiences. Prototyping is such a powerful tool because you’re organizing your service around the needs of the end consumer.
[ILYA PROKOPOFF / IDEO]
I’m a designer on the Cross-Government Service Data team. We have just finished our alpha. After doing a re-discovery based on the Performance Platform, we prototyped a new product with a more focused set of users and clearer user needs.
Here are a few things I’ve learned while designing in alpha.
[CHRIS BALLANTINE-THOMAS / GOVERNMENT DIGITAL SERVICE]
We’ve written before about things to consider when designing in alpha. One thing we have not talked about in detail is how important it is for designers to think – even at the alpha stage – about how the service they’re working on will be delivered.
[RALPH HAWKINS / GOVERNMENT DIGITAL SERVICE]
When you start out as a head of product (or product director or VP product), you’ll probably need to create a community of product people. In this latest entry for my series of 100 things I’ve learned about product management, I share my advice to help you get the ball rolling with your own community of practice.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
There’s an ongoing debate about generalist product managers versus emerging product manager specialisms (such as ‘growth product manager’). I think there is room in our profession for both. Let me explain.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
This is an updated version of an article I wrote over a decade ago.
All product managers will need to stand up and present to others at some point. Some people are less comfortable giving a presentation than others; that’s natural. Either way, you won’t be helping yourself (or your audience) if your slide deck is atrocious. So here are my 6 tips for presenting slides that don’t suck.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
upcoming talks and events
10th March 2022
The product ops party is back – and you’re invited 🎉
The third instalment of the Product Operations Summit has landed, so join us on March 10 to celebrate the unsung heroes of product management. 🏆
On the mic, we have:
🎙 Product Ops Specialist – Farfetch
🎙 Product Ops Lead – OLX Motors Europe
🎙 Global Head of Product – Shipstation
🎙 Head of Product Ops- Amplitude
🎙 Product Ops Manager – Auctane
🎙 Product Ops Lead – Sana Benefits
🎙 Product Ops Manager – Segment
🎙 CEO – Dragonboat
…plus loads more to come.
Get ready for juicy tips, tricks & insights from those pioneering product ops. 🤩
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The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management
by Jock Busuttil
“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”— Lyndsay Denton