Prototyping for Impact: Hunt Zombies, Kill Your Darlings, and Prototype Like a Star
While I’m out on maternity leave, I’m excited to highlight the varied viewpoints of some of the amazing people that make up Cisco CHILL. I’m proud to work with this diverse and talented team. They hail from around the globe, and bring a rich set of experiences, skills, and passions to bear on everything they do. Today’s guest blogger is Justin Muller, Innovation Architect and Head of Prototyping for CHILL. He leads a team of prototyping engineers, experience designers, and innovation architects to help spark innovation for Cisco and its customers.
Silicon Valley is full of innovative ideas, most of which go nowhere. How do you know what’s going to spark the next big thing, and what should be buried and forgotten? In the corporate world, you may look to feasibility studies, focus groups and algorithms for help. But usually, the cheapest, fastest way to evaluate a new idea is simply to try it out. And that calls for a special kind of prototyping—a process I call “impact prototyping.”
Impact prototyping differs from traditional technical prototyping in several ways. For one, the aim of technical prototyping is to create a product that is very close to the final product. The main question it answers is, can we build this? As a technical prototype evolves, it adds features. At the end of the process, you have a fully featured product ready for market.
On the other hand, the aim of impact prototyping is to test assumptions. The main question we’re answering is not can we build this, but should we? Will this idea have the impact we think it will? Will it change anything in the world? So we might literally put something together with duct tape and give it to an end user to see if we should continue to develop an idea, or pivot to something else altogether.
I like to think of impact prototyping as hunting zombies, killing your darlings, and prototyping like a star.
Hunting zombies simply means identifying projects that should be dead, but aren’t. We might find a zombie project and put it in the grave for good—or we might wind up bringing it back to life. One way to identify a zombie is to look at the minutes of your weekly project status meetings; if they’re nearly identical three weeks in a row, that’s because you keep debating the same things over and over. Rather than an unending discussion of what end users will think, you can find out almost instantly by asking them with a prototype. Their answers may jolt the project back to new life, with a revived sense of direction.
“Kill your darlings” recognizes that there’s always an emotional component to an innovation project. If someone has an emotional attachment, they may stick with a project even in the face of direct logical feedback that it’s a bad idea. Just piling on more logic will not get you anywhere. You need to address the emotional component. Sometimes, seeing a user’s response can change the emotional equation. For example, in a Cisco CHILL Living Lab on improving the healthcare experience of cancer patients, one innovation group got into a heated discussion about a solution that would direct patients to a nearby emergency room under certain circumstances. Some members of the group felt this would lead to expensive over-use of ER facilities; others were passionate in their belief that it was the best and fastest way to provide needed care. When we presented the prototyped idea to an end user, her response was, “You don’t understand. I would rather die than go back to an ER.” This is what I mean by testing the impact of an idea. End of discussion.
Prototype like a star, specifically, a shooting star, which is fast, short-lived, and hot. A typical meteor blazes into our atmosphere at 45,000 miles per hour, which is how fast it feels like requirements change during a CHILL Living Lab! That’s why we call it rapid prototyping—putting together progressively higher fidelity prototypes every 60-90 minutes in order to get user feedback as quickly as possible. We can do this because, like a shooting star, an impact prototype is short-lived. Once we test an assumption, the prototype has served its purpose and can be thrown away. And finally, shooting stars are hot—about 3,000oF. You remember the children’s game of hot-and-cold? In it, one person is blindfolded and directed to a goal by calls of “hot!” or “cold” depending on how close they are to the goal. In prototyping, you want to be blazing hot—right on top of the goal. This concept helps prevent “feature creep,” which is the temptation to tweak the prototype just a little more to test just one more assumption—until you’ve forgotten entirely the original assumption you were trying to test. The solution is to stay on target by having a clear view of what assumption you are testing, and reject any change that takes you even a hair’s breadth away from that target.
I’ve honed these principles over the past few years in the crucible of Cisco CHILL’s Living Labs, but they hold true for any innovation initiative: You may have to have to hunt some zombies and kill a few darlings. But if your prototyping is fast, short, and hot, you’ll be a star.