Quickest Path to Prototype

Sunil Paul
4 min readMar 26, 2019

I recently had the opportunity to do a workshop lead by Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X. He described the techniques he helped hone there to rapidly innovate on moonshot ideas. His stories are astounding:

— Project Loon, an audacious effort to bring cell service to remote parts of earth, was able to prototype and have 4 test sites up and operational within four months, using just five people and $70,000 in material costs

— The first prototype for Google Glass, the heads up computer display, was developed within hours after the brainstorming session where it began.

— The 1st meeting for Google X resulted in Google Glass, the diabetic sensing contact lens, and a new AI that is semi-supervised machine learning.

While there is much more to his method, it boils down to getting to something that can be put in front of stakeholders quickly and getting feedback. I call it “quickest path to prototype” or “QPP.” What distinguishes a QPP is speed and reliance on materials and tools at hand in order to getting ideas in front of customers, investors, or other people who have a stake in the outcome. It is also a way of getting decisions out of the conference room and in front of customers and other stakeholders.

The idea of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a good one. It is part of the ideas of lean startup developed by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. The MVP method says build the smallest portion of a product to get it out in to the hands of real users.

But let’s face it. Even an MVP takes considerable time, attention and money.

A QPP, meanwhile, can be created in a day. And once you have an initial QPP, the idea is to iterate and create another and another and another. Then, once you have something that is really resonating, only then do you commit resources to get to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

If you follow lean startup and pivot or persist every 3 months, you can only try 3–4 ideas before your run out of money. With this approach, you can try 3–4 ideas in a day. The key is to maximize the rate of learning and dramatically minimize the time to try things.

A prototype need not be a physical thing. Tom has a story of Schneider Electric, a large global company with a problem with executive turnover. They had several ideas to address the problem. At a retreat of the country CEOs (there are many), he asked for their best idea, which had taken two years to develop. He had them prototype it right away. The “prototype” was a role play of a typical situation that resulted in executive turnover — a meeting where a COO is told he will not get the CEO slot. The COO was played by one of the other CEOs, many of whom had been COOs in the past. Once they actually put themselves in the role through “prototyping” they found their favorite idea was a loser. He had them continue to brainstorm and prototype and eventually they found a solution that was sucessful.

Don’t Guess. Learn.

Don’t Fail. Learn.

-Tom Chi

Tom also has a structure for brainstorming that I like:

Ideally with 3–5 people

60 seconds — explain problem in detail

120 seconds — silently generate ideas on paper, then

60 seconds — share the craziest and most boring

30 seconds — select one to prototype

8 minutes — make a prototype … The time limit requires that the team divide and conquer; think with your hands; make the prototype situational like a movie set; the more detail the better, but quickly

There! In less than 15 minutes you have a prototype that can be put in front of people.

Evaluating a prototype also has some simple rules:

Find a person who is not part of the prototyping group

The prototyping team just sets the scene as if it is a movie set — Who is the evaluator playing, Where are they, What is their motivation

Do not direct action or defend what happens — after the scene starts, just observe

Someone should take written notes

Another should be ready to record with video or audio

Instructions for the evaluator:

  1. Behave as if it is taking place RIGHT NOW
  2. TALK OUT LOUD as you experience it

Worthwhile to run the prototype with a variety of people

  • consumer
  • investor
  • content creator
  • partner

The importance of intensity.

Tom points out that the worst reaction to a prototype is not “I hate it” but “Meh.” The brilliant insight is that a negative reaction is almost as good as a positive one. It is like the idea hate being closer to love than indifference. At least you care. He uses the language of the “bright spots” and finding them is the key, even if the idea / prototype is a failure.

At the end, video the 30–60 sec summary just of the bright spots (positive or negative)

Here is a video of Tom explaining the process for Google Glass and his vision of expanding the possibilities for humans to learn.

Originally published at siouxneil.com