“Everything you can imagine is real”

– Pablo Picasso

At Goal Zero, we had this great product idea for a new battery charger. Over the course of a few weeks, an industrial designer mocked up some 3D images of the concept. Then, the team created a physical prototype on our 3D printer. It is cool to see a concept go from an idea to a physical prototype in just a few weeks. While the prototype wasn’t functional, we carried it around for a few days, to see how it fit in the pocket, how our phones could interact with it, and see how we reacted to the design. The prototype went a long way in helping us imagine the product, think through requirements and use cases, and get people fired up about the concept.

Prototypes and pilots bring to life the future of a product or service. When you’re creating a new product, process, or service, there are two things you can do, you can design & develop, or you can plan. Unfortunately, with too many development teams, there is too much planning, and not enough designing and developing. Rapid prototyping and piloting are how great design happens on budget and schedule. Think about it; you are building a product, process, or service to make someone’s life better, in some way. Doesn’t it just make sense that the more feedback you get from those potential users, throughout the design process, the better design?


What is prototyping & piloting?

Designing and developing a new product, process or service is like sculpting. You start with a bunch of stuff, and you start molding, carving, and shaping with ever-increasing degrees of specificity until you have a masterpiece. Prototyping and piloting are the business tools to help you mold, carve, and shape your ideas into final masterpieces. Prototyping and piloting are the act of creating a sample design to test ideas and concepts, solicit feedback, and refine the design. Prototyping is the term used in developing software, electronics, and physical products. Piloting is the term used in developing a new process, management system, or service.

In prototyping & piloting, there is the concept of fidelity, which is how close a prototype or pilot is to the final design. There is visual and functional fidelity.


Low fidelity

Low fidelity is when you start a design. It might be a product sketch, storyboard, rough model, etc.  At Goal Zero, once we turned an idea into a rough sketch of a product, the product became real to us and helped us start imagining the product’s future.


Medium fidelity

In the case of a physical product or software, medium-fidelity is an actual mockup of the product or software, while with a service or process, it is walking through an enactment of the new process or service. Regarding a product, it could be a 3D printout of the product so you can touch feel and understand the physical design. Regarding software, it might be a realistic but non-working version of the software to be able to get in-depth user feedback and reaction. The idea is to focus the mockup and enactment on 20% of the features and functionality that will drive 80% of the benefit or engagement.


High fidelity

A prototype or pilot that is high fidelity is typically a functional prototype or a live pilot, where the actual user or customer is engaged in the use of the prototype or pilot for user engagement feedback. While there is still time to iterate on the final design, many of the final elements and design will be consistent with the high-fidelity prototype or pilot.


What are the best practices in prototyping & piloting?

Prototyping & piloting is a ton of fun. Seeing customers or users react to an idea or design, as they imagine themselves using it, provides useful feedback and is entertaining. Below are some prototyping and piloting best practices.


Fake it until you make it!

Seriously, use whatever means at your disposal to build a prototype or pilot. I’ve seen store layouts made with styrofoam and cardboard. I’ve seen amazing sketches on the back of napkins that bring ideas to life. I’ve seen the electronic guts of a future high-end battery system cobbled together. Start with low fidelity and go from there.


Use the right tools

Whether you are prototyping a physical product or software or piloting a new service or process, there are useful tools. At Goal Zero we had our 3D printer, which could take design files and build a physical prototype in a day. If you are developing a website or software, there are hosts of great programs to help you iterate prototypes in no time. And, if you are piloting a new service or process, there is simulation software to conceptualize and design the service or process virtually. And, there are many smartphone apps to get real-time feedback on a live pilot. Do your research and find the right tools for your prototyping or piloting job.


Practice rapid prototyping

The beauty of using an agile methodology is the output of every sprint is a better and better prototype. Regardless of whether or not you use an agile methodology, practice rapid prototyping. Getting early feedback and ideas from users and customers accelerates good design and ideas.


Don’t worry about perfection

In prototyping and piloting, there is often the perfectionism syndrome, which is the drive to make it perfect before getting feedback. You have to embrace the opposite perspective of getting a lot of feedback along the entire design journey.



Ensure you don’t have scope creep in prototyping and piloting. Focus on the big ideas, designs, features, and functionality that need improvement, feedback, and decisions.


Take feedback with a grain of salt

Try to get enough feedback from enough users and customers so that you can pick out the themes that are consistent in the feedback. While there can be some great one-off ideas, make sure you don’t overvalue one-off criticisms and never take any of the feedback personally.




 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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