Test Ideas Faster With Pretotyping


We should want to fail, and we should want to fail as fast as possible. The sentiment is counterintuitive, but it gets at the core of what former Google executive and engineer Alberto Savoia calls Pretotyping (pronounced pree-tow-tie-ping). “Pretotyping,” says Savoia in his fascinating ebook, Pretotype It, “Is a way to test an idea quickly and inexpensively by creating extremely simplified, mocked or virtual versions of that product to help validate the premise that “If we build it, they will use it.””

The Right It

The premise of pretotyping is this – that every innovator or entrepreneur has an idea, an “it” as Savoia calls it, and the success or failure of this it is not only dependent on whether or not it’s a good idea, or even if it is well-built, well-designed, and well-marketed, but also, and most importantly on if those its are the right its. The goal of pretotyping is to change the question from, “Can we build it?” to, “If we build it, will they use it?”

Pretotyping is a way to find the right it while using the least amount of time, money, and effort as possible. The advantages are clear – if we can abandon bad ideas before all of the financial and human capital it would take to build a traditional prototype has been spent, we can use all the time and energy on our next it, and get one step closer to getting it right. In effect, what the practice of pretotyping gives people is an accelerated calendar. The design, development, production of a prototype often takes years (and millions of dollars), and as Savoia is quick to remind his audience – the rate of failure for these new products is a knee-buckling 90%. That means 9 out of every 10 of those hours, 9 out of every 10 dollars, was tied up in a failure, and they could have been saved with an effective pretotype.

The general concept of pretotyping is easy enough to gain a basic understanding of, indeed, the power of Savoia’s book is the beautiful simplicity of the idea. Why, then, did it take so long for someone to come along and spread the idea, and give it a name? The quick answer seems to be human nature coupled with the traditional, industrial American spirit. “I know that “Go for it!” and “Go for broke!” have great romantic and heroic appeal,” says Savoia. ““Jumping in with both feet,” [. . .] is how many legends are born – but it’s also how catastrophic failures arise.” He encourages readers to get over a fascination with, “premature perfection,” and embrace the inevitability, and ultimate value in failure. Nailing down the spirit of pretotypers, he writes, “We hunt it [failure] down and get it to show us its ugly face as soon as possible so we can determine if we are on the wrong track and make the necessary adjustments early on.”


Jeff Hawkins’ Hunk of Wood

IBM’s Hidden Room, and the Wooden Palm Pilot

Pretotype It is full of real life instances of pretotypes used to great effect, and imagined, demonstrative examples that do a good job illustrating how the concept can be applied. Two of the most resonant examples, of the real life variety, are the stories of IBM’s first foray into the speech-to-text space, and the development of the Palm Pilot by Jeff Hawkins.

Some of us may remember an era when the skill of typing was not ubiquitous, when even seasoned typists used two fingers, and stared at QWERTY like an indecipherable codex. It was within this environment that IBM had an idea, they came upon an it. With so many people unskilled and dispassionate about typing – why not develop a way to translate speech into text, eliminating the need for typing altogether? They developed a pretotype. The practice was yet unnamed, but it is precisely what they did. They invited volunteers into a room fixed with a microphone and a computer monitor – no keyboard – and asked them to speak into the microphone, and calmly allow their minds to be blown when they saw their words come up on screen. The volunteers were unaware, of course, of the experienced typist in the next room, typing out the speech as he/she heard it. Savoia does a great job telling this story in his ebook, truly a must-read, but the conclusion is that people didn’t really like it. They wore out their voices, they felt it would make for a loud office, and would certainly remove any chance for confidentiality. IBM tested out their it in the cheapest, fastest way possible, and were quickly rewarded with total failure. They did not have the right it.

Jeff Hawkins was a seasoned innovator, and before developing the Palm Pilot had worked on a similar device that had failed. He felt the failure had much to do with size, so he endeavored that his next creation fit into a shirt pocket. He made a pretotype. After gluing a piece of paper onto a piece of wood cut down to a desirable size, he went about his day, pulling out the piece of wood and pretending to use it how he might were it a functioning piece of tech. Dinner next Friday? He checked his schedule on the block. An old friend’s phone number? He checked his address book on the block. He delighted in the pretotype, and discovered that if he built this it, they would use this it. Jeff Hawkins had found the right it, and he changed the world. As with the IBM example, Savoia gives more fascinating details and examples in Pretotype It.

Layman and veterans of the tech world alike can imagine with ease the millions of dollars and thousands of hours IBM saved by making an effective use of pretotype. Likewise, one can see how Hawkins, by developing a pretotype before investing time and money into a functioning prototype, saved himself many months and dollars spent languishing in the land of if and was free to focus all his energy on the how.


Failing Great

We will fail. Our its will fail – 90% of the time. The practice of pretotyping endeavors to not only quicken the arrival of failure, but to make sure those failures are the best failures they can be. He explains many different techniques we can use to make pretotypes part of our next it, and even provides ways through some simple equations, to provide would-be innovators with hard data to help them better determine if their it is, in fact, right. He is a former Google man, after all, where they, “Say it with numbers.”

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