Ok, corporates understand they need to be agile. Most of them say they run agile teams or even departments. Well, at least they pretend to do so. And that is already a big step forward. However, the way decisions are made and products evolve is often far away from being agile. Rapid Product Prototyping is one important step to help and these are the four ingredients to get started with:
First, when doing rapid product prototyping, we stop pretending to ultimately know what the customer needs. Instead, we change to a hypothesis-driven product management. Building a prototype is the best way to validate these hypotheses. And we acknowledge that customers don’t know in advance whether they will enjoy a new technology, way of solving a problem or a certain interaction design. Only trying out will tell us. Learning about the user means observing them, talking to them, taking their user journey. Long-time design thinking front-runner IDEO might be the best inspiration here and their product portfolio is always worth a visit .
We all know how project costs tend to grow beyond all limits. We have all heard of these studies telling us that half of IT projects over $15 million run 45% over budget ; 70% of organisations suffer project failure every year ; and a third of projects are even cancelled for various reasons . Yet, there are few who are ready to adopt a stage-by-stage budget allocation process including a dedicated prototype and MVP (minimum viable product) stage.
This means that an idea, product feature or research proposal, when being pitched to management, only gets funding for an initial prototype phase. Thereafter, funding for the following MVP phase is only approved if the prototypes have “survived” extensive hypothesis testing with users and/or customers.
At 25th-floor we are convinced that prototyping and MVP building should be the first step to every successful product and one way we reflect this is by allowing contracts which can be terminated after each of these steps.
What is Silicon Valley’s chief mantra? Some say “Fail fast, fail often”, others “Fail fast, fail early”. The essence is, go as quick as possible! Google Glass took not years, months or weeks to develop from scratch a first prototype, but just one day. Well, yes, this first prototype consisted of a coat hanger, sheet projector, pico projector and a netbook . But it gave the team invaluable first insights. If corporates embody the organizational setup of small, cross-functional teams that can show up with quick prototypes, they will win faster feedback and eventually bring innovation to the markets ahead of competition. Allowing failures is key here, as Jim Yurchenco, the engineer of the original apple mouse, brings it on the spot: “Failure itself is not good, but being willing to fail is.” 
An example that went viral is Nordstrom’s iPad application for sunglasses where customers can find out which shades they like best. Nordstrom, an American fashion retailer with more than 300 stores, has set up a dedicated innovation lab and with about five people involved, it took them just one week to create, test and build this app. Not only was customer feedback collected immediately – even more, the development itself was done at one of Nordstrom’s flagship stores in a flash mob manner. Nordstrom went so far that when arriving in the shop for their week-long prototyping session, no features have yet been planned and no user stories have been written. 
Preparing boilerplates, setting up ready-to-use developer machines and mastering all facets of your programming language is only half the story. For many products, you also need hardware prototyping capabilities. 3D printing, laser cutting and the use of development boards are just a few ways of how hardware development can be sped up and contribute to a great prototype. Also, the hardware industry is currently in the process of getting more and more agile – according to their very particular needs.
All things being equal, if a company runs an innovation unit it should be their first task to set up real prototyping infrastructure and environment. Because “Doing is the best kind of thinking” and the quickest path to successful products.
But allow me to highlight a critical caveat: One does not simply start prototyping in the average company. Teams might quickly run into friction and conflict and the first tries might turn into nightmares. You need to set up the right environment, gain management support and foremost have a team that knows how to prototype. Making sure a core banking system never breaks is a totally different task from prototyping new online banking functionality. So either invest in your prototyping capabilities or hire a good external partner who helps you build great products.
At 25th-floor, we are delivering rapid product prototyping within our Product Innovations Team. This business unit is truly cross-functional: software and hardware development capabilities are paired with UX/UI know-how and big data expertise. The award-winning team is eager to share its experience from different industries, both within large corporates and the startup world.
Jakob Etzel is a trained mathematician and political educator as well as an experienced team leader and manager. In the past years, he has been working in corporate banking and IT including founding his own startup. He was also in a voluntary capacity leading political simulations for more than a thousand of young people all over Europe. His network in business, politics and society – especially among excelling young talents – and his rhetoric skills make him a sought-after project manager. At the moment, Jakob is exploring the bank of the future.