One, two, three

Every prototyping project has its own rhythm, but there are patterns within these rhythms that one can see emerging over time — eternal constants in the process of creation. This week, as I iterate yet again on a prototype, I am noticing a pattern that I’ve seen before.

In particular, I notice that my process of prototyping is divided into three successive phases. Each phase, or “version” if you will, serves a distinctly different purpose.

The first version of the prototype says “This is just a rough sketch of what the result will look like”. In that first stage, the important thing is to quickly and efficiently throw something together which conveys an idea, with no attempt at robustness or reusability.

The second phase says “Watch this demo — it has many cool features, but it will break if anybody uses it except me”. This phase is a bit of a magic act. The idea is to show the full potential of the approach, but without the robustness of a real product. As long as I’m the only one using it, it looks wonderful. But if anybody else were to try to use it, they would quickly put their foot through a hole in the floor, and things would all fall apart pretty rapidly.

The third phase says “Go ahead, you use this.” This is a much harder thing to create, and it requires everything that was learned during the first two phases. It is the stage where you build something that can withstand being used by random people — people who aren’t trying to avoid the weak spots.

If you get that far, you may well be on your way to a usable product.

3 thoughts on “One, two, three”

  1. Phase four: “Here it is Internet, come ‘n get it!”

    Getting software to survive in the wild, across random configurations of hardware, system software, web browsers, etc. usually requires testing labs and professional QA staff to shake out the bugs before customers hit them.

    Then you get to phase five: Accepting payment.

  2. Yes, absolutely true. “On your way to a usable product” is certainly not the same as delivering a usable product.

    The level of effort required for real productization tends to want a multi-person team and a longer term time commitment, well beyond what is needed for phase three.

    Since I work in research, I often stop at phase three, because I am more interested in trying out lots of divergent ideas. If we want to go to phase four, we often form a spin-off company.

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