Prototype Thinking: The Next Evolution in Lean Startup

What if one day, you came up with a brilliant idea for a new startup or product concept, and were able to get user feedback that day?

How quickly would you be able to know whether your product idea is a viable business concept, how you should best position it, and who your target market is and what they think of it?

If you currently have an idea for a product or are working on starting a startup, do you know yet who your target market is and what they think of your idea? Do you know whether they’ll buy it and if you’ll find product-market fit?

How long will you work on your product before you find any of that out?

I was chatting with a friend of mine over the holiday break. She mentioned she’s considering starting her own company in 2016. “Oooh, tell me more!” I exclaimed, excited for her.

“Well, I’m still in the planning phase, but we’re going to start small first and build an app.” She began by telling me a little bit about who it’s for, what it will allow them to do, with details about some of her ideal features. “I’ve got the first draft of a proposal written up, and now I just need to sit down with my engineer and work through some of the details.”

I wanted to scream, "no no no you'll waste all your money away!" but I felt a familiar understanding. This used to be my process for building products as well. Gather all the ideas, feature requests, target market data, then put together a spec, review with the devs for feasibility, then design, build… and then hopefully get some customer feedback.

The way we normally approach product creation. We invest a lot of time into our idea, specs, and building, before we get any feedback, which often has us going back to the drawing board. It's an inefficient process that can cost us lots of money and time.

The way we normally approach product creation. We invest a lot of time into our idea, specs, and building, before we get any feedback, which often has us going back to the drawing board. It's an inefficient process that can cost us lots of money and time.

Things are different now

Here's a quick analogy, for fun: Tell me which side of the table you’ve been on in this scenario… Three friends go out to dinner, split the check, and pay with their cards. As the three sign their slips, one friend, let’s call him Joe, gets out his calculator/phone to calculate the tip. The other two friends gawk at him incredulously. A calculator?

“I can’t believe you’re still using a calculator, dude,” one friend says.

“You just double the tax,” says the other.

Joe gives a blank stare.

“No, you just take the first number of the total and double it.”

Joe gives another blank stare, then goes back to his calculator.

To Joe’s friends, their methods of tip calculation are so simple, they can’t imagine why Joe would pull out a calculator. But to Joe, who hasn’t learned these methods, they’re just speaking gibberish. His calculator method works for him, so he’s sticking to it.

To me, going back to the “old ways” of creating a spec and building a product before getting any customer feedback is like using a calculator at a restaurant.

Actually, the analogy sort of breaks down, because, while using a calculator at a restaurant is slow and clunky, it reliably gets you a correct answer. The slow and clunky way of building a product before getting any customer interaction doesn’t even reliably result in a viable business — what’s the stat these days, something like 94% of all startups fail?

So we have all the Lean Startup folks telling us to “get out of the building” and get user feedback, and these folks are really like Joe’s friends at the restaurant. They throw down exact change and walk away, rounding up or down based on how much they liked the service, calculating this all without missing a beat in conversation. They say “just double this, and round that” and make it look so easy. But their methods might as well be voodoo as far as Joe’s concerned.

However, if someone sat Joe down and walked him through their method of tip calculation, and he got the chance to practice it a couple times, with a bit of coaching, Joe might quickly get to that level.

That’s exactly what I want to do for folks like my entrepreneur friend, before she invests all her hours and cash with a development team, building her unvalidated product concept.

Earlier this year I joined a fellowship at FactoryX. I began learning the Prototype Thinking methodology they use to quickly validate business concepts and understand their target market. I participated in the Academy workshop, an intensive program that teaches startup founders and teams to apply Prototype Thinking in their business.

I observed firsthand how this way of thinking, which is like Lean Startup but faster, cheaper, and more specific, helps companies make faster product decisions that result in way better products and user experiences.

This is a way of thinking that FactoryX founder Tom Chi perfected at GoogleX while working on hardware projects like Google Glass and self-driving cars. It is not limited to just high tech companies — Tom often speaks about working this way on projects in developing countries and in areas of social good.

Prototype Thinking helps us change our normal flow, from coming up with a business idea to formulating plans & specs to building, to instead go from coming up with a business idea straight to getting feedback from people in your target market. This helps inform our business plan, specs, and features before we invest any resources in building the wrong thing. This is an important shift from our default method of creating a business, because it helps us get to a better product and better user experience for our target market much faster.

With Prototype Thinking, we validate our idea before we invest resources into it, allowing us to iterate quickly until we get a valid concept. Then when we build, we know we’ve got a solid idea, so iterations tend to be smaller and quicker optimizations as well.

With Prototype Thinking, we validate our idea before we invest resources into it, allowing us to iterate quickly until we get a valid concept. Then when we build, we know we’ve got a solid idea, so iterations tend to be smaller and quicker optimizations as well.

I’m now working with the Academy team to bring Prototype Thinking to a wider audience. In the past few months, we’ve taught to design students at Stanford, 7th graders at a Civic Tech Challenge, and dozens of entrepreneurs and teams.

We want to teach anybody with a business idea how to test out their idea quickly and easily, so they can focus their time building a great business that will change the world.

If you have an idea for a world-changing business, and you want to learn some concrete steps for how you can test it — before you build it — I would love to work with you. Please schedule a phone or video chat conversation with me on my calendar. I would love to hear about your business idea and see if I can help you bring your product creation process into this new way of thinking.

Stop Misinterpreting Lean Product Design

I’ve never been one to hop on bandwagons, or speak in corporate buzzwords, but I looked around the other day and noticed, without even having read the book, that I was totally a proponent of Lean principles.

Not because it’s the latest trend, or because I’m a fan of any particular author or speaker, but because it just makes sense. I work with many first-time entrepreneurs as a UX consultant and innovation coach now, and I see so many of them with a mindset that Lean practitioners are trying to argue us out of.

Do we have "Do what you love" all wrong?

This was originally written on Medium in response to a woman who wrote, "I’m supposed to 'do what I love' — but what if I have no idea what that is?"

I think a lot about the “Do what you love” idea, from many angles. At first, I heard people arguing that “Do what you love” is terrible advice, based on the idea that passion projects are difficult to earn a living from. Then I heard people arguing to “Stop telling people to ‘do what you love’” because it devalues work and is only valid to those of privilege.

So I thought to myself, if we’re not supposed to do what we love, what are we supposed to do? Stay busy, punch in, punch out, pay the bills, watch TV, keep your talk small, blend in, get drunk to numb the boredom?

Once we reach a certain point of privilege, being able to meet our most basic needs, working our way up Maslow’s pyramid, it is in our nature to look for more. For some people, they know what that “more” is to them, and sometimes it’s more pressing for them to follow that urge than to meet even basic needs.

Others float a bit, looking for that passion, feeling like if they only knew what it was they wanted to do, they’d go do it…

I think the problem is that “do what you love” is misleading. It puts too much emphasis on the idea of self-gratification or hedonistic pleasure. Most of us look elsewhere when we think of a career path.

In thinking and writing about this, I realized when I hear “do what you love” I interpret and translate it in a subtle way. To me, it means “do something that matters.”

People who do what they love because it’s their passion are doing something that matters to them, deeply. Either because they feel the urge to create or do whatever it is they do from deep down in their gut, or because they have a vision for a better world that motivates them to chase after it and do whatever it takes to realize that vision.

People who hear “do what you love” as a message of self-gratification, who don’t happen to have that feeling in their gut motivating them to action, feel a bit lost with that advice.

So think about the things that drive you crazy about the world. There are so many problems to solve. What are things that really get under your skin, make you angry, or upset, or sad? That feeling can steer you towards your path. It’s not a question of “what do I love” — it’s “what do I care about” so deeply that I want to stand up and move away from my comfortable seat of privilege and do something about it.

When you find the answer, you find what you love.

How All Entrepreneurs Can Think Like UX Designers

You have a vision. What if you could make progress on your own towards making it a reality? What if you didn’t have to hire anyone to move forward?

I’m on a mission to help entrepreneurs learn to think more like UX designers. It’s why I even created a quick reference guide

When you’re just starting out, you need to tackle many of the challenges your business faces on your own. While a good designer will bring a lot of skills that take years to learn (typographycompositioncolor theory, etc.) there are a number of skills that other members of the team can learn fairly quickly.

What do companies mean when they say they want a UI/UX Designer?

I’m describing one process for how a UX professional might work toaccomplish business goals by following the customer journey. Hopefully this starts to show how broad UX can be. And did you notice a couple paragraphs ago how UI was one part of that?

In our hypothetical example above, creating a desirable interface was one of potentially many ways to accomplish the business goals.

What is UX Design?

Now you can look at a design and say, instead of “is it good?” ask “is the person using this having a good experience?” Now you have a whole host of things you can measure. Who is the person using this? What do they consider a good experience? Let’s ask them! Let’s empathize with them. Let’s document their experience so we can analyze the whole journey. Now what do we actually want their experience to be?

So that’s what UX design has become. A way of proactively creating a good experience, as defined by specific goals, for a defined set of users.

One might say that’s what good design is.

This is your life

This is your life

This is your life. Keep doing what you’re doing, even if you don’t like it. If you don’t like your job, that’s because it’s work, and nobody likes work but everyone has to do it. If you don’t have enough time, good job. Way to stay busy. Thank you for being a contributing member of society, now go watch some TV. Try not to think too much. Life is complicated, so just stuff your emotions inside, right under that bowl of ice cream. Go get drunk this weekend with your same group of friends like you always do. Gossip and talk about the weather, just be careful not to get into any emotional topics. Don’t talk about what you want to do, someone might tell you what they want to do, and you might start feeling inspired to do things together, or see a new business opportunity, and that gets complicated. You might want to travel, but that’s expensive, so forget about it. Stick to what’s familiar. Life is about doing the same thing all the time so you can have a predictable income and schedule and not have to worry or fear the unknown. Just keep going until you get old and die, and nobody will have any complaints about you.

How to Smack Down Political Bullshit in Prioritization Meetings

Before your team starts arguing and lobbying for which tasks to be done first, have them start listing out their tasks on individual post-its, and draw up the 2x2 matrix on the whiteboard. You’ll bring order and focus to the group, bringing everyone together in alignment with the company’s priorities and excited to get to work.