Turning Ideas Into Products: Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes Part 5: The Iterative Process
Throughout the previous installment, we discussed production prototypes and we talked about the fact that this is a very iterative process of refinement. Now it’s time to discuss the iterative process itself, how to use it to learn as much as possible and how it is used to achieve the final goal: the reference prototype.
One way to define the reference prototype is as an example that is “good enough,” or well enough resolved to allow the developer to confidently move forward with a product. This is where the rubber really meets the road. This is where an idea that started in the mind turns into something that exists in the real world—where speculation and theoretical claims are put aside for empirical fact. The creation of these prototypes is a vital tool in the refinement of a design for production. This is where all the aspects of a product can be tested, analyzed, modified and retested until ideal solutions are achieved.
During the development process that math is quite simple. With more iterations comes the opportunity for more refinements that can be made, ultimately resulting in a better final product. Many developers make the mistake of trying to minimize the number of prototypes they create in order to save money and time. This almost always backfires or results in a product that does not live up to its potential.
With the cost of prototyping dramatically reduced with the rise of low-cost 3-D printing, I strongly recommend making as many prototypes as necessary to get things “perfected”. If the product fails because it performs poorly, all the effort invested was wasted. You need to be very sure about what bar you need to reach to be “good enough.” It may not need to be “perfect”, but it can’t be disappointing.
Based on my experiences bringing 70+ products to market, I can tell you that you will typically need to create at least 3 production prototypes in order to fully develop a product. The first prototype will usually require several major (coarse) adjustments and numerous minor (fine) ones. The second prototype will usually see vast improvement, but still need one or two significant tweaks and a few minor ones. The third generation usually solves all the major issues and most of the minor ones. However, some items require not just coarse and fine adjustments, but due to their application or the nature of the device, require many iterations of trial and error to get right. We worked on a medical device that had to be inserted into the nose of almost anyone comfortably. It took thirteen iterations to dial this on in!
Of course, you can only get as close to “good enough” in your product prototype as your previous findings will allow. Learning through prototyping is where you will figure out all the aspects of your product. Trial and error is often the most efficient way to work out the correct solution to a design challenge. Sometimes you might go down a dead end and realize you need to try a different tactic. You can’t allow yourself to get frustrated. Don’t be afraid to fail and remember that product design is a nonlinear process.
You don’t always have to make a completely new prototype to move on to the next one. Oftentimes, you can modify an existing prototype, or at least salvage part of it. Eventually, you’ll want one final model that is perfect, but do as much learning as possible on existing models before starting another one from scratch. There will be times when you can design a single prototype to allow you to test numerous different options for certain aspects just by adjusting it slightly or changing one component. This type of test-bed prototype can save tons of resources if there is something that is going to require lots of trial and error to resolve.
ALERT: Sometimes, it can seem like you are close and maybe just a few tweaks will get you there, only to discover that no amount of tweaking will actually get you where you need to be with the function. Rabbit holes like this can get very costly if you make numerous doomed prototypes thinking you are almost there even though it is a mirage. Many times, a good result is just a few more tweaks away, so the skill that you need to develop here is to quickly identify whether or not you are on a dead-end path as soon as possible. On the flip side, you never want to give up too soon and abandon a good idea. One general approach I have found to be effective is that when it takes more than 2 rounds of tweaking and I still haven’t gotten close to the result I am looking for, I should back up and see if I can’t come up with some alternatives that may come together easier.
Now that we have examined how the iterative process works, we need to explore the process of how to analyze the prototypes that you create in order to learn as much as possible from them. The goal is to get to the end of the process as quickly as possible in order to minimize both time and expense. In the next installment, I will discuss the best methods for capturing as much value from your review of each prototype.
Part 1 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 1: Terminology
Part 2 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 2: Prototyping Methods
Part 3 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 3: Proof-of-Concept Prototypes
Part 4 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 4: Production Prototypes
Part 5 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 5: The Iterative Process
Part 6 - Expert Tips For Invention Prototypes - Part 6: Making A Million Dollar Product
Chris Hawker, Founder of Trident Design, LLC is an idea guy. Chris has spent the last 20 years inventing, developing and selling innovative consumer products in a variety of industries. Chris has brought numerous products to market through a variety of business models including licensing, private label manufacturing, marketing, distribution and more. To date, Chris is probably most well known for the PowerSquid, licensed to Philips—an innovative, award-winning, and commercially successful power strip.