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What is Pretotyping?

Agile Fundamentals

If you have never heard the term pre-to-typing before, don’t despair, you are not alone. Most folks have not and hence are not familiar with the concept and approach it represents.

The term, as explained by its founders: pretotyping is a way to test a product idea quickly and inexpensively by creating extremely simplified versions of that product to help validate the premise that “If we build it, they will use it.”

The basic theory, practice and tools for pretotyping were developed by Alberto Savoia while he served at Google (2008-2012) as Engineering Director and Innovation Agitator. Alberto set out to determine the cause of product failures. He discovered that products failed in the market most often because they were not the “right” fit, and not due to poor execution (of course this has its fair share too).

The purpose and intent of creating a product pretotype is to validate the product idea before putting in time and money building an actual “prototype”. So there is a key difference between a prototype and a pretotype. Alberto explains the difference beautifully by citing the example of Jeff Hawkins’ use of a pretotype of a Palm Pilot to validate the idea and determining a market need for a PIM (Personal Information Manager), a new product category that he pioneered.

Hawkins mocked up a Palm Pilot with wood and paper; he carried it with him to simulate (pretend) the experience of a “real” device. He showed the device to several people, explaining how it would work aod provided a (simulated) real experience of a product. His goal was to determine if people would actually buy such a device before building an actual “prototype,” which would be time consuming and expensive.

The key differences between pretotyping and prototyping are:

Pretotyping Prototyping
Would people be interested in it? Can we build it?
Will people use it as expected? Will it work as expected?
Will people continue to use it? How cheaply can we build it?
Will people pay for it? How fast can we make it?

The concept of pretotyping has close affinity and practice to Eric Ries’ high Lean Startup Movement and the practice of building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Beyond commercial (B2C) product development, pretotyping can be applied to:

  1. Business-2-Business Products
  2. Internal Products (for employees within an organization)
  3. Government Products (for individual or corporate taxpayers).

Pretotyping helps eliminate the Bad Ideas from the Good. It helps Fail Fast and Fail Often, facilitating product idea evolution towards the “right” product with minimum possible investment of time and money.

His unwillingness to let us deviate from correct practice into bad habits is what set him apart from all other coaches we have had. … Immediately we saw improvements in our effectiveness.

Gerard W., Freddie Mac

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