Brian Gough


The risk of prototyping

It’s August 1896. Standing on a hill to the north west of Berlin is Otto Lilienthal, engineer and pioneering aviator. Throwing himself forward, Lilienthal lets his feet leave the ground. The wings of his glider lift and he is airborne. Now 50 feet above ground the famous ‘glider man’ can see a crowd of people watching his dissent. On normal occasions Lilienthal is able to correct the course of his craft by shifting his weight, but that day the nose of the glider is pulled upward and Lilienthal loses control. Both man and machine strike the ground. Before slipping into a coma he whispers to his brother — ‘Sacrifices must be made’. The following day Lilienthal is dead.

The story of Otto Lilienthal’s glider highlights the unspoken risk of prototyping. Prototypes, we’re told, help us to fail faster and failure helps us to learn new things about our products. This all sounds great if you’re working with big budgets but prototypes cost money and how many of us can actually afford to fail?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hyperbole coming from global tech centres but most of us are dealing with a different reality; one where time lines are finite and budgets run out. So why should we take unnecessary risks when we know the real answer is to plan well and execute fast? Right?

Kind of…

When we talk about the value of failure we’re not talking about big failure — the kind suffered by Otto Lilienthal — we’re talking about managed failure. When we manage failure we identify risks and eliminate bad options. And how can we manage failure well? Through prototyping.

Prototypes help us to ask questions about a proposed product or service: Will this product work? does it serve the user’s needs? will it achieve the right outcome? — and more fundamentally — are we headed in the right direction?

There is no one way to prototype, it’s better to say there’s a spectrum ranging from small to big, cheap to expensive. More importantly, prototyping is not a milestone; it’s an iterative process that helps you to engage real users, weed out problems and ship with confidence. This is what it looks like —

Quick n’ dirty

Low fidelity prototypes, like paper prototypes, are a good starting point. With some A4 paper and quick sketches, we can quickly see how an idea is working. These prototypes are quick and cheap to make and, importantly, disposable. This means we can test many ideas in a short space of time and throw out the bad ones. Also, applications like POP can help transform your paper prototypes into working digital ones.

High fidelity

Later in the process we might build a more finished prototype — a high fidelity prototype — using Invision, Principle or Framer. These prototypes look and feel like a final product and can be put in front of users for testing. High fidelity prototypes require more time and investment to build but help us see how the product is working before we go ahead and build it.

Ship n’ learn

These prototypes happen when a product is built and released in small, consistent cycles that are easily managed. If your organisation is setup up the right way, you can analyze data, identify problems and fix them as you go. Big bang releases on the other hand are high risk. By the time you find out something’s wrong with these products it’s often too late.

Here lies the ‘Lilienthal’ approach to testing — and it can be fatal.

I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks

December 1903. On the sandy flats of Kitty Hawk sits an aircraft built from canvas and wood. Inside the craft lying face down is its pilot, Orville Wright. To his side stands is his brother Wilbur Wright. The two men are about to make history with the first ever human flight. To arrive at this moment in time, the Wright brothers have engaged with a process of experimentation which has involved multiple hand flown kites, several unmanned gliders and almost 50 different models of wing types, each built to scale and tested in a purpose built wind tunnel. True, the Wright brothers have been willing to make sacrifices but not that of their own lives. Reflecting on this later Wilbur writes:

“We figured that Lilienthal in five years of time had spent only about five hours in actual gliding through the air. We thought that if some method could be found by which it would be possible to practice by the hour instead of by the second there would be hope of advancing [a] solution”

In all their time striving for human flight, Orville and Wilbur never took a leap of faith. Instead they worked incrementally, prototyping new ideas, testing them out and learning from them when they failed.

“In flying" Wilbur wrote “I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”

The biggest risk a company can make is to not prototype.

Illustration by Brian Gough

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