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Building and Learning through Prototypes
Written by Betsy
Wednesday, 16 May 2012 12:02

This week Kairos Consumers interviewed Ric Edinberg, Principal at in/situm U.S. regarding a growing trend: prototyping in research.

For many companies, prototyping as part of the research process is not so much a new or novel component in the research process as it is an increasingly accepted risk management approach. While dire economic times arguably have an impact on research budgets and product development timelines, the fact is that prototyping simply meshes well with shortened time to market demands and technology advancements. There may not have been a turning point, per se, but Edinberg noted that there are a couple of notable milestones when it comes to prototyping. Firstly: IDEO has been actively prototyping for 20 years, and with great success and notoriety. The company remains a gold standard in many ways. As for why and how companies not necessarily ingrained in the product design process have also taken to prototyping, Edinberg points toward the volatility of markets. “Speed to market is imperative and agility is critical. The ideal process is close to evolutionary biology. The idea of testing multiple processes, products or services concurrently is an opportunity, because it is risky to put all of your eggs in one basket.” The approach, from a theoretical standpoint, is sometimes referred to as “hill climbing”, says Edinberg, where the danger of climbing the huge mountain is that you might not be climbing the right mountain.

Many of us are active participants in prototyping, often without actually recognizing our involvement. The  digital Coca-Cola Freestyle machine at Pei Wei restaurants and other chains is one such example of such subtlety. In fact, I had to ask Edinberg if it was actually a valid example, doubting for a minute that Coke was actually getting high value out of casual diners looking for a soft drink to wash down spicy Chinese food. The machine, with is highly interactive and visually appealing, allows consumers to select any mix of 20+ fountain drinks and create whatever mixture might most appeal. On the back end: A computer that tallies the various concoctions and choices in general, providing Coke with insights regarding flavor combinations and beverage trends in general.

In/situm has used prototypes to learn more about populations that otherwise might not be forthcoming with information. The idea, Edinberg says, is that you build a tool in order to learn. One example he cites is a board game created for oncologists. The game elicited conversations about meaningful topics – thus serving to help researchers organize valuable information – among a group that might not otherwise share such insights in a casual setting. There exist situations – particular related to user experiences – where additional information may be required in order to refine a situation.

Another route is to employ the sacrificial prototype. In this scenario, “fake” concepts are tested in order to identify particular cultural and human factors that have should be taken into consideration in creating the “real” concept. A sacrificial prototype gives a test group something to push against, or a benchmark of sorts.

Regardless of the concept, Edinberg stresses that there is a value versus scale situation at work. One should be asking: What is the least I can do to test my hypothesis/hypotheses. He points toward the comparison of time to market for Motorola versus Sony in mobile phones: Motorola sometimes took 18 months to get new phones out, packaging all the bells and whistles, potentially without validating that each and every feature served a purpose for its target consumers…whereas Sony innovated lightly – adding maybe just a feature or two with each iteration – and introduced new phones as regularly as every six months.  The latter was able to gauge almost immediately whether its newest innovations appealed to the market. Moreover, in markets like Japan where these products are treated to a degree like accessories, the Sony innovation and launch approach made a lot more sense.

While Kairos Consumers would like to think that its own methodologies evolve with technology, there is admittedly some lag time between delivering results of an online survey or online bulletin board and actual integration on the client side. Of the methodologies that we as a company regularly advocate, online communities can best allow for real time concepting. “Continually trying to do things on a larger scale is clumsy for business. Things must be designed to scale, “ notes Edinberg, “Although the tough thing is that learning is not the perceived outcome.” Moreover, the reality is that like any trial and error process, one must accept error as a potential outcome. It would seem that disadvantages include not knowing where to stop…or not testing the correct concept(s) in the first place. Both bode well for the health of more “traditional” consumer research methods, it would seem.

Ric notes that he is seeing a lot of willingness to prototype in the marketplace, but that some industries are better suited for it than others. For example, feedback regarding hotel stays can serve to easily tweak the guest experience going forward. However, in other cases scale does not allow for immediate incorporation of feedback.

In/situm (,  a trusted partner of Kairos Consumers, has operations across Latin America and a U.S. office in Chicago (Evanston). In addition to granting interviews to Kairos Consumers, Ric Edinberg designs and leads global projects focusing on user experiences, services, brands, devices and spaces within food industries (from fast food to premium chocolate), consumer electronics, pharmacy benefits, redesigning hospital flows, designing for office cultures and contexts among other sectors.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 May 2012 12:25