Improve your business output through rapid prototyping

In the face of tremendous technological development, business planning has been rendered obsolete by the pace of change. Here we explore why rapid prototyping is a suitable model for modern business, and what principles organisations might adopt to be successful.

The Landscape Has Changed.

"Never underestimate the power of technology to disrupt business"

There is a famous quote that if the owners of the American railroads had realised they were in the people transportation business rather than the railroad business, then they might have noticed the potential of the aviation industry. Instead they are an almost forgotten after-thought of American transportation. Technology has always disrupted business.

But technology is changing and growing at an ever-increasing rate. And that means more disruption, happening more regularly. And here"s the kicker - technology doesn"t grow incrementally. It grows exponentially, with new discoveries and developments increasing the speed at which further new developments can be made. This speeds the whole thing up dramatically. If exponential growth holds true, then in 5 years time, we"re going to be thirty two times more advanced than we are now. More incredibly, in 10 years time we"ll be over a thousand times more advanced.

We"re already at a point where technology grows so rapidly that change is the only constant. Ray Kurzweil, the futurologist who developed the notion of exponential technological growth, had the following to say, "If you look at the implications of exponential growth, it creates a very different picture of the future and it’s not intuitive." Good luck writing a business plan for that.

But of course, that"s the challenge that modern business faces - how to plan for the future in a world where change is constant and old notions of 3 or 5 year plans seem outdated and unrealistic (a 5 year plan released in 2008 would have missed the invention of the iPad and the popularisation of tablets, for example).

It"s a foolish business that doesn"t plan for the future at all, and a lucky one that succeeds like that. So, it"s not that we don"t need to plan; it"s just that the notion of how we plan needs to change.

Test, Learn, Repeat

"To a scientist, failure is good. It means something happened that you didn"t expect. It means you just learnt something."

We cannot plan for a future that we cannot intuitively predict. Or, to look at it another way, the future has become too complex to fully understand. You cannot predict the whole by understanding the sum of its current parts.

There is another way of operating in a space that we don"t fully understand. We can adopt processes that better deal with the practical realities of the unknown. First and foremost, business can learn a lot from the ways science thinks.

There are no 3-year plans in science. There are theories and there are hypotheses. And a hypothesis remains exactly that until proven true or false through experimentation. Science is constantly testing its hypotheses, and learning from the feedback it receives.

To put this into practice, we can look further at ideas of agile programming and rapid prototyping. The idea behind rapid prototyping is simple - build a minimal viable product (or service) as quickly as possible, test it quickly and regularly, and get it out in front of people and start learning from their use of this product immediately. Feed this data back into development, continue to prototype and repeat the process. Test, Learn, Repeat.

In order to do this, we need to start by clearly defining what success looks like (have a clear hypothesis if you like). So we need to start by capturing business goals and the metrics that are used to measure them. We need to work out how to connect them with the work that we are doing, so we understand very clearly whether our tests are moving us closer to success. Then we need to change our work, and re-test. For this, we need a process.

Having a Clear Process Makes It Repeatable

"Sometimes we make the process more complicated than we need to."

Reading Room"s Agile Iterative Discovery (RRAID) process is designed to facilitate exactly this style of approach. RRAID is predicated on the idea of creating a hypothesis, researching to learn more about our hypothesis, building creative work that is then used to further test and prove (or disprove) this hypothesis. At every stage, we are capturing learnings and feeding them into our overall understanding of the task at hand.

The basic tenets of RRAID are as follows:

  • Capture clear business objectives, and create KPIs for the project that can be connected back to meeting these business objectives.
  • Have a clear understanding of your target audiences, and base audience research around psychographic (emotions, motivations, behaviours) principles rather than standard demographics.
  • Understand your internal users who will be using the systems put in place. Their relationship with the systems being built will often determine the success of a project.
  • Understand and document all business stakeholders, their relationship with the project and their goals and ambitions for the project. Understanding the internal landscape through which change must be managed is vital and often overlooked.
  • Coupled with this is a single over-riding principle that guides our use of RRAID - stay flexible, and remember to iterate. At any moment, you must be prepared to throw everything away and start again if that"s what you discover.

This means documentation is lean and flexible, and our staff are encouraged to constantly question previous assumptions. We must learn from the testing we do when we iterate, and we must take responsibility for what we learn. And if what we learn is that we are on the wrong path, then the sooner we switch - taking all our learnings with us - the better.

Rapid Prototyping Can Deliver Innovation

"Innovation is non-linear and iterative"

There is a growing understanding of both the importance of iterative thinking and the power of a modern process to help achieve business goals. Vijay Kumar"s excellent book 101 Design Methods talks through the importance of a clear structure to help organisations better innovate. He outlines 4 core principles to help all businesses better innovate. These are principles that are certainly supported through the implementation of RRAID and are fundamental to successfully using rapid prototyping to help with business planning.

Build Innovations Around Experiences. Customer experience is at the absolute centre of innovation. As Kumar says, "every company and organisation in some measure creates or affects peoples" experiences." It is the creation of these experiences, or the understanding of how new products and services fit with existing experiences, that really allow us to develop innovative approaches.

Think of Innovations As Systems. Whatever you"re building or creating naturally will end up belonging to a larger system of offerings. Kumar defines a "system" as "any set of interacting or interdependent entities that form an integrated whole which is greater than the sum of its parts". Apple"s musical "system", made up of iPods, iPhones, iTunes and now Beats headphones is a perfect example of a working, interdependent system.

Cultivate an Innovation Culture. "Everyone"s actions can add up to the overall cultural behaviour of the organisation." At Reading Room, we work hard to create a culture around co-operation and collaboration. We believe innovation happens where new ideas meet each other, so we ensure that our people sit in multi-disciplinary teams, bring a cross-pollination of ideas together for each of our projects.

Adopt a Disciplined Innovation Process. As Kumar says, "successful innovation can and should be planned and managed like any other organisational function." The biggest mistake people make is in the assumption innovation - or any creative activity - is opposed to any type of process. However, "Eureka!" moments are rare, and process can help provide the discipline required to successfully innovate.

Old Notions of "Creativity" Need To Be Forgotten

"Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things."

So rapid prototyping and user testing can be used to deliver innovative ideas that can help change business. But on any project, the question will loom - where do I start? With such a vastness of choice, how does anyone know what parts to concentrate on first? At Reading Room we have a process called Concept Development that helps to define our initial focus on any given project.

For us, a concept is far more than just words and pictures. It could be any number of things. Choosing a set of concepts helps us to focus our early thoughts. It helps us engage stakeholders correctly, by ensuring their concerns are answers early on. Whilst there are almost an infinite number of concepts that could be chosen, we have a list of around 20 that help our teams focus, and helps them to lead early brainstorms about solutions. The following are extracts from our Concepts Handbook, detailed just 4 possible areas for concept development.

Technical Architecture. How are we going to make sure this stuff works? How will pages get served, how will content get delivered? Start with the existing client setup and then ask:

  • How does this meet needs?
  • How should it change?
  • What should it change to?

Identify areas with integration requirements and suggestions of how to deal with this integration. Consider potential costs and price to client. Think about how to present this back to clients – how do you make a marketing director interested in site architecture?

Interaction Development. Taking design concepts one stage further and actually building interactions to work in-browser. Decide on a key user journey Look at the interactions on that journey – what button presses happen? What forms are submitted? What error messages are returned? What drop-down lists are used?

For each interaction, create working HTML/JavaScript/CSS to demonstrate exactly how it will work. Remember, you are interested in the elegance of the interaction itself, NOT the actual design of the page.

Data. Big data. Little data. Lots of data. Whatever. How do we use client, customer and prospect data to drive the client forward? Understand or estimate existing client data sources. Map out and consider new data sources and development of data feeds. Work out what we intend to do with this data, how it will be collected, processed and mined for information. Consider reporting and how people will see the end result. Consider security and access. The end result should be a visualisation of where the data is coming from, going to and what benefits this will provide. Organisational Change. True digital transformation projects will lead to a requirement for organisational change. How do we manage and control that? Help clients to define an internal ‘change’ taskforce. Look to define new corporate behaviours, guidelines and documentation. Consider training and workshop requirements. What internal comms are needed to announce the change?

Networked Physical Devices. Internet Connected Fridges! Thermostats You Can Control From Your Phone! Internet of Things opportunities. Look at the client’s physical locations. How does the work we’re being asked to do relate to these spaces? What would the benefit be to the end users of having these connected physical devices? What is the likelihood of adoption? Consider:

  • Individual requirements / barriers – does this do something I want/need?
  • Social requirements / barriers – what do my friends and family think?
  • Societal requirements / barriers – does the wider infrastructure allow for it?

Choosing a mixture of 3 or 4 concepts gives us a starting point, somewhere to begin. You can see these are not just within the traditional scope of "creativity", but include strategic and technical elements as well. It helps our teams ensure that our response to client briefs remains holistic and to avoid "tunnel vision" - the honing in onto just a single element of a project, thinking this is the one big idea needed for success.

As we work through our iterative process of course many things will change, and as we discover more, we may change the focus of the work. However, using concept development in this manner gives us a jump start, and ensures we"re considering every aspect of the project, not just the visual and written.

3 Ways To Improve Your Business Output Through Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping can provide a useful platform from which to approach business planning. It asks us to do less research up front, and work out ways to release work as quickly as possible – even if in limited numbers through alpha and beta tests. This approach allows us to learn what works quicker, and gives us a flexible structure to work within. Our top 3 recommendations would be:

  1. Think iteratively; learn from what you do, and test, test, test. In order to ensure you do learn, make sure everything is documented, and a clear set of KPIs are created and tracked.
  2. If business goals set the problem, customer experience likely holds the solution. Understand the customer experience you"re creating, and work on developing customer-centric solutions to the identified business problems.
  3. Digital projects involve design, strategic and technological disciplines. Starting with a focus on just one will limit your possibilities. Use a wide variety of concepts to avoid "tunnel vision".

Technology will continue to disrupt business. But if we change the way we do business, we can at least be ready for the next disruption.

Written by Adam Sefton, Head of Strategy