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The Power of Prototypes: Making It Real

Posted by mdf4u on January 13, 2010

If “a picture is worth a 1,000 words”, then a functioning, physical product prototype can be worth a million of them.  In my experience, there are few things that can jumpstart a new product initiative within an organization better than a working prototype. 

If you’re seeking to cultivate advocates within your organization, or seeking to enlist external resources to further a new initiatives, then a physical representation of the end product can be an excellent way to go.

Rick Ruffolo (now Senior Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Innovation at Yankee Candle Company), one of my colleagues at Bath and Body Works, has always been very effective at successfully generating interest and building consensus around new opportunities by quickly reducing his business building ideas to physical prototypes and showcasing these with peers and management. 

My company (bfs innovations) is currently representing the developer of a patented wash cloth.  This special cloth has a usage indicator that works like this: it has colorful images printed on it that can be transformed to display another image after the cloth has been washed/scrubbed by its user.  This innovation will allow (for instance) a young user to understand the concept of washing themselves to go from dirty-to-clean in a fun and visually interesting way.  Interest in this innovation has increased dramatically now that we’ve been able to demonstrate technical feasibility and have a compelling, physical prototypes to share.  Welcome, but not surprisingly, companies that had previously rejected the concept in the absence of a prototype have returned to the table to discuss it with us, and with a markedly higher level of enthusiasm for it.
It can be magical when people within an organization can come together behind a shared vision for a new opportunity.   That said, just as a well-executed prototype can motivate a group to action, a lousy prototype execution can kill just as easily.   With this in mind, one should move swiftly to prototype, but with a certain amount of care to ensure that a poor representation doesn’t turn off potential proponents. 
To be clear, I wish to distinguish between prototypes that offer technical proof of concept and those that may serve as product representations.   This distinction is important.  The former may not need to be “pretty”.  It may just need to demonstrate feasbility.  The latter may need to do double duty. 
Physical product prototypes can make a new initiative seem real in the eyes of the viewing audience, and therefore make them more inclined to support it.   Are you making proper use of product prototypes in your innovation endeavors?   

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