For an industry obsessed by change it’s easy to think of prototyping as being a new thing, a fad, or a response to agile software development. It’s easy to overlook the benefits and advantages, to forget just how valuable prototyping is – in any business or environment.
I was reminded this on hearing of a new project which has just started with a three-month build based on a fixed specification. To think that such a clunky course of action could be considered – let alone acted upon – in 2016 is a sign that we need to be constantly reminded of the benefits of prototyping.
Here are my three favourite prototyping stories of all time, which highlight the need to be nimble, and to do the smallest thing you can to learn the most.
It’s 1936 and a truly brilliant aviation designer, RJ Mitchell, has created what was to become a legendary aircraft: the Spitfire. But this is not a story of how effective the plane was, or its capabilities against the more widely produced Hurricane. It’s about why the Hurricane was easier to produce, and how Spitfire manufacturer Supermarine tackled this head on.
In his quest for speed, Mitchell had created a plane with an innovative shape. But its speed also relied on the entire body being flush riveted. When rivets are ‘flush’ with the body of the plane, the surface is extremely smooth – vital for drag reduction at high speed. However, flush riveting was difficult, expensive and time-consuming on a production plane. The alternative was the simple round-headed rivet, but these stick out with a distinctive dome over each rivet, impeding air flow.
Speed is important, but the need to make as many planes as possible was possibly even more important. The Hurricane, with its simple construction and shape was quicker and cheaper to make.
Could Mitchell find a way of making his plane faster to produce, and therefore build more planes? Could some of the many rivets be made into pop rivets without losing speed?
Yes. Spitfire test pilot Jeffrey Quill recounts how they prototyped a ‘pop rivet’ Spitfire by sticking a split pea onto the the many thousands of flush-headed rivets that covered the plane. They then test flew the plane — now 22mph slower.
This was the brilliance. They had used the simplest technologies possible – split peas and some glue – to prototype the effects of different kinds of rivets. From here they were able to progressively scrape off lines of peas, retest, and identify the critical areas. Many unnecessary lines of flush riveting were eliminated over countless hours of testing and flying.
Brilliantly effective – both in performance and time. It saved countless production hours, enabling many more planes to be built. All at the cost of some spilt peas.
In the 1950s Bill Samuels, a fourth generation bourbon distiller, was fed up with the family’s 170-year-old recipe for Bourbon. Yes, it was successful, but he didn’t think it was all great. Plainly put, he felt he could do better. So he decided to stop making the family drink, burn the recipe, sell off the remaining stock and start again.
The problem is that the high-quality bourbon he wanted to make takes at least six to seven years to mature. And Bill didn’t want to spend six to seven years waiting for multiple test batches to mature, and only then to be able to go into production of a bourbon he wouldn’t be able to sell for ANOTHER six years.
So he did the ultimate prototyping. He baked loaves of bread using different proportions of bourbon ingredients (barley, corn and wheat). The bread that tasted the best was his recipe for what was to become Maker’s Mark.
Yes, he balanced the taste of bread with his lifetime experience of making bourbon. But he also relied on prototyping to test and learn what he should make, meaning he had a product on the shelves (and a great drink!) in half the time it could have taken him.
It’s amazing to think that the effects of prototyping can result in a 2,200 per cent increase in traffic. But that was exactly the result at ITV News, one of Made by Many’s clients.
Back in 2011 ITV News had a markedly small online audience share compared to big UK rivals such as the BBC, the Guardian and Daily Mail. There was a clear choice: try to copy the rivals and hope to do better with the same product, or to out-innovate the competition and create a new audience who wanted a new way to consume the news online.
Our suggestion was to completely reinvent the idea of a story – to open up the reporter’s notebook – and to consider the news as a live stream. It was such a revolutionary approach that nobody knew whether it would be successful, whether people would want it, or whether the news room could actually produce it. The only sensible way forward was prototyping.
Over the first five weeks of the project we created four working prototypes — iteratively increasing in fidelity and functionality. At each step of the way we worked with ITV’s journalists to create a prototype that not only tested desirability for the user, but also feasibility for the business. What features did the newsroom need to tell stories in this way, and did people want to consume news delivered in a stream?
It’s easy to underestimate the value of prototyping in this case. For a small investment at each stage, ITV were able to see the disruptive impact this new service would have on the industry, while learning how the service would work (without increasing newsroom headcount) and crucially, that there was real consumer demand.
We discovered these answers without building things that didn’t need to be built, and without spending money on complicated systems before knowing whether they were needed.
Split peas and scribbles for the digital world. When it comes to prototyping, genius is in the detail.