Great Prototyping Disasters of the 21st Century: Why My Cheap Prototype Nearly Cost Me £5m

by Stephen Wood

Great Prototyping Disasters of the 21st Century: Why My Cheap Prototype Nearly Cost Me £5m Prototyping can be an effective way to test out innovative ideas early in your development cycle. They enable user to validate assumptions and benefits before significant investments are made, letting you “fail often to succeed earlier”, to use IDEO’s phrase. But this is only helpful if you’re failing because your prototype needs fine-tuning, not because you’ve fundamentally misunderstood the point of prototyping; a distinction that nearly cost me a £5m deal.

We were working with a retailer that needed to simplify its customer experience. Exploring options for tech-enabled innovation we identified that biometric speech recognition had the potential to dramatically increase the scope of self-service processes, the audience it addressed and remove the customers number one issue: logging in.

Because speech recognition technology was new to the (somewhat risk averse) client we agreed to create a prototype to validate that the approach worked:

  • We worked with voice talent to create branded persona for the service (think Siri, but with a nicer English accent).
  • Our application team created a simple shopping application and set up accounts for the retailer’s board members.
  • Then, the telephony team enabled the client to dial a dedicated number and try the service before our next steering committee.

We’d developed the prototype in days. We were boarder-line smug and expected adulation.

Did you ever expect a standing ovation and bouquets but get boos and rotten fruit?

Having tried the service and the client’s comments ranged from the polite “clunky” to the melodramatic “brand destroying train wreck”. The project was close to being canned. We had to think fast, agreeing to reconvene the next day with something that would get us back on track.

The question that you want to answer may not be the question that the client actually asked.

Our team was confused. We’d shown them that we could deliver something revolutionary, using bleeding edge technology and in virtually no time. Why was this not seen as a good thing? Where was our ovation?

We decided to reframe the issue in the context of our client’s comments: Our prototype had answered a question but it hadn’t been the client’s question. We had answered:

“Show us how this technology is mature enough to deploy and that you have the skills to deliver our solution”. However what the retailer had asked was “How can we dramatically improve our customers’ experience?”

Not the same thing at all.

We told the app team, the telephony team to go home while we sat in our hotel room with glass of fine English wine and prepared for an all-nighter. Ultimately, we wrote and then recorded a four basic scripted interactions. The only technology involved was a dicatphone.

When we played this back to the clients the next day. They smiled. There was no talk of Wizard of Oz trickery and nobody mentioned technology at all. The client got it; they liked it and they ultimately bought it.

Years later Steve D’Amico, from P&G’s Clay Street Project, told me a similar story. A.G. Lafley radically refocused P&G’s approach to innovation by shifting away from a technology-centric view, or what he termed the obsession with creating “a superior molecular experience”, to focus on the end consumer experience. Fundamentally, there was a shift away from “Look how smart we are” to “We’ve understood your need and our opportunity”.

Understanding this fundamental truth from the outset enables you to create stronger prototypes that accelerate the innovation cycle. It may even save you from all-nighters fuelled by English country wine.

image credit: disgusted expression image from bigstock

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Stephen WoodStephen Wood: For over 20 years Stephen has focused on technology’s potential to address business issues and to unearth new opportunities. His current research interests include tech-enabled innovation and the facilitation of creativity in business.

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