Prototypes provide a Pathway for Connecting with Customers


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Prototypes provide a Pathway for Connecting with Customers 0

Prototyping is a way to introduce our products or services in a very disarming way. It is a way of saying, “I respect your opinion.” Creating that empathetic connection with others can have a profound impact on your company. We all prefer to buy services from people that we perceive to be experts in their field. The role of the expert has changed. It is no longer the expert with superior knowledge; it is the expert that shows knowledge in how the service/product is used. We have gone from a world of selling benefits and features to a world of listening and collaboration. That connection with a customer clarifies how the service is perceived, not how it may look to us.

Traditional sales approaches in the past center on improving customer experience through techniques that tries to manipulate the customer emotions. In the book Listening With Empathy , author John Selby says,

The new approach is participatory rather than manipulative – teaching you how to shift inwardly from negative to positive moods, and thus become genuinely friendly and helpful. Our Listening with Empathy method will enable you to move through the following four customer-encounter phases with high success:

Phase1 – Preparation: Before meeting with a customer or client, it’s vital to put aside any stress, worries, or judgments that may pollute the encounter – and shift your focus toward positive feelings and heart-centered emotions.

Phase 2 – The Moment of Encounter: Right when you meet someone, you need to present an honest, friendly, nonjudgmental greeting, and offer relaxed space. New techniques can help you maintain a bright inner center, emit a friendly presence, and converse with relaxed spontaneity, acceptance, and enjoyment.

Phase 3 – Empathic Communication: When you begin talking business, you need to maintain clear intent to be of service and to enable your customers to truly satisfy their needs. By encouraging an enjoyable emotion atmosphere, you can make sure your customers feel good hands and well taken care of.

Phase 4 – Processing: This fourth phase involves pausing after a meeting to reflect on a recent sales or service encounter and to decide purposefully how to follow up on it. You’ll learn to re-experience positive aspects of the encounter and focus on your desire to meet with the customer again.

Prototyping can be a powerful tool but only if you are willing listen and make that connection with your customers. The ability to reach outside of companies and connect with our customers develops a shared outlook of our markets and will allow us to develop new opportunities faster than our competitors. It is a simple fact that the companies that know their customers best are the market leaders. They understand what is important. The companies that don’t, market to the general public and as a result get average results. Our new products, our prototypes are shared experiences. Prototypes should serve as models not just for improved design but for improved connection with our customers.

P.S. The easiest form of engagement is listening. Well, maybe not the easiest.

Customer Interactivity is the Most Meaningful Part of Design

Prototypes are becoming a design deliverable with the advent of many sophisticated software applications spurred by Rapid Prototyping, 3D Modeling etc. However, the initial paper sketch is arguably the best tool, at least in the beginning. Prototyping helps us to design better user experiences. However, many of us still forget to include the user! We still dwell on what we can do versus looking at what the user does! Even at the paper stage of prototyping, I encourage you to try to articulate that feeling and function of the design into a model and put it in the hands of the user. Their interactivity is the most meaningful part of design. Do it early and do it often.

From adaptive path blog, Rapid Prototyping Tools:

Making Effective Prototypes

In order to evaluate a prototyping tool or technique, we first need to define what makes an effective prototype. The best prototypes are ones that slipstream right into our design process. We want the ability to quickly take sketches from a whiteboard to something interactive.

Effective prototypes are fast. We want to use techniques that allow for rapid iteration. A prototype should not just be bolted onto the end of a design process. Incorporating the creation of a prototype into your daily design work allows new ideas to emerge and validates concepts quickly.

Effective prototypes are disposable. Just like with any design deliverable, we are creating an artifact intended to express an idea to someone else (stakeholder, developer, user, etc). Once that design idea has been communicated, the prototype deliverable can be discarded. We don’t have to feel the burden of creating a masterpiece that will live on, and we certainly don’t have to work in production-level code.

Effective prototypes are focused. We want to select the interactions of our design that really need to be prototyped. Look for the parts of your design that have of complexity. Look for interaction patterns repeated throughout the user’s experience. Look for the interactions that bring revenue to your product. A prototype that demonstrates these interactions will be the best use of your time and energy.

There are few faster, cheaper and more effective tools than the pen and paper. It’s easy, you can use it anywhere and anytime and it is one of the most effective collaboration tools that exist. The best course I have ever taken since college and in fact, I might as well throw college into the mix was a sketching class. It taught me more about “How to See” or observe than any of my engineering, communication and even Lean and Six Sigma training. Another added benefit, actually the original intent, was to relinquish any fear that I had in picking up a pencil and sketching. Admittedly, I never became a proficient artist in those 8 weeks but it was my first stepping stone to sketching. I later increased my ability with cartooning, particularly Looney Tune characters. It was a great tool and I encourage anyone to spend time developing these skills including the Looney Tune group. .

As Service Design, Design Thinking, Open Innovation and Co-creation continue become more prevalent, prototyping is becoming more applicable to any industry or even professional service firm. The most obvious is of course on the web with many Beta or Free-trial type applications. The typical first step outside of the idea is putting it on paper. That in itself can be a daunting task for many. I ran across this Slideshare presentation that I found to be a great introduction on how to start out the process by using these 3 simple steps, which I have paraphrased:

  1. See – Ask: What are you thinking
  2. Sort – Ask: What it means
  3. Sketch – Ask: Why does it matter

If you can translate your idea to paper using this outline, you have built your first prototype.

Kate also included the workbook she handed out with this presentation.

Getting through this first step can be very difficult. The first person that will critique this will be you. That fear of failure or unwillingness to seek input because your waiting for a more finished product or even idea can be significantly minimized by using this process. See, Sort and Sketch provides a simple orderly process that is easily communicated to others. And by involving others (CUSTOMERS) early in the process, it allows for more collaboration throughout the process.

At some point and time, you have to turn your idea into a reality. It is the best way to get feedback.Most of us are bias about our idea and even in the way we perceive and interpret the data. This is why having a structured approach to prototyping is imperative. Without one, we typically see what we want to see. As a result, we gain confirmation versus additional knowledge.

You must be very open to feedback at this stage. You must welcome complaints and criticisms from others. If you take an honest and positive approach in gaining feedback from others, you will have increased your odds of success and gain the valuable information needed.

The instinctive type approach is surprisingly rather closed to alternatives. As a result the outcome is frequently flawed or less effective than a structured approach. In The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving book outlines six steps of the problem with intuitive problem solving:

  • We commonly begin our analysis of a problem by formulating our conclusions; we thus start at what should be the end of the analytic process.
  • Our analysis usually focuses on the solution which we intuitively favor; we therefore give inadequate attention to alternative solutions.
  • The solution we intuitively favor is more often than not the first one that seems satisfactory.
  • We tend to confuse “discussing/thinking hard” about a problem with “analyzing” it (these2 activities are not at all the same).
  • We focus on the substance (evidence, arguments, and conclusions) and not on the process of our analysts.
  • Most people are functionally illiterate when it comes to structuring their analysis.

If people have not learned and understood problem solving techniques, they cannot formulate a reasonable conclusion. It is a guess and a reaction based simply on intuition. Building the prototype is the easy part. Breaking them, testing them and learning from them is the important part. In a recent read, Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide, I found author Todd Zaki Warfel description of the process outstanding. Though the book may lend itself more to the UI/UX/IX and other software designers, I found the book fascinating and so grounded in foundational principles that I would recommend it for anyone. The reporting process I recommend for most prototyping is using a basic A3 for structure. This way you outline your process in a clear and concise manner.

In the book Innovation Acceleration: Transforming Organizational Thinking, the authors use the term “project pillars” as a way of clarifying your vision. Their example was the “project pillars” for the Palm Pilot.

  • Fits in pocket.
  • Synchronizes seamlessly with PC
  • Fast and easy to use
  • Costs no more than $299

The authors go on to say:

The company was able to build the world’s first successful personal digital assistant. Meeting those constraints required a lot of trial and error, but it provided targets to focus the team’s creative energies. Once you have nailed the general design concept, this approach leads to more innovative outcomes rather than meandering aimlessly from one idea to another. This is a tricky position because you have to balance direct with an open mind.

They outline a design thinking process in the book that I believe can be utilized in designing your prototype. I paraphrase their material and combined with my own into a format for prototypes:

Keep good records – Archive everything. I use to use a box in my room for different design projects. I would tear out magazine articles, copies of book pages, pictures, sketches. I have since narrowed that down and store most of my files electronically that also includes audio and video recordings, links to other material and so forth.

Constantly generate and refine ideas based on customer’s perspective – This is not problem solving. It is one of the reasons that I discuss the Marketing Gateway of EDCA > PDCA>SDCA. It is also why getting a prototype out in front of customer early – even in the pen and paper stage is so important. What we think are great ideas, may not be so great. If you are going to be radical as Clayton Christensen says, “Consider your customers’ deepest values and interest rather than their purchasing behavior”.

Visualization, Mock-ups, Models – This is the most effective way of advancing an idea into reality. This is the heart of your prototype. Remember that verbal communication is often misunderstood. A better way to communicate your idea is to express it in some type of visual form. It can be done through rehearsing, sketches, interviews, skits and many other techniques. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an actual physical representation is worth a million words. If you want to get great feedback on your idea, build a prototype. Nothing gets your idea across better than something people can participate in providing questions and feedback. One of the reasons managers struggle with this guideline is that they fear not delivering a finished and polished product/service, but this is not necessarily true.

When you see interaction in prototype, you’ll know you’re on the right path. One of my favorite stories and coincidentally again about the Palm Pilot was that the inventor went into a “Shark Tank” (not the TV show or a literal definition) and was completely ill-prepared. Looking around for something to engage his audience, he tossed a wallet in the middle of the table and said it would look something like this. Moments later, he saw them starting to look at the wallet and knew the deal was done when they started passing the wallet around the table.

Get Feedback and Involvement from a variety of People – Search for feedback from a diverse group of potential customers, suppliers, fellow managers, employees, and content experts. You may get a lot of suggestions, but only a few might be useful (that’s okay; it is a journey). You never know when someone will give you an unexpected insight that would have been overlooked had you not searched out a lot of the opinion of others. The key point is to build something you can receive feedback on and return to rebuild as soon as possible. Moreover, with available technologies today, it’s getting easier to make prototypes. But don’t stop there. What about an interactive play? What would a sales presentation look like as a prototype? You could invite customers and maybe even local actors and directors of local theaters. This is play time, use it and get the most out of it from as many people as possible.

Prototyping is meant to be an iterative process. But this is a new practice for most people and organizations. Most people within organizations are implementing orders and maintaining the way a company operates. So how do create this type of thinking and bring it into reality in everyday work? More importantly, how do you learn to experiment? This is why it is so important to have developed the SDCA and PDCA frameworks within an organization before venturing into EDCA. Without this existing culture, (that little i again) the big I of innovation is seldom successful.

The best way to learn how to prototype is to try to act out a service encounter at your location. Use people from your own organization to create the atmosphere of a rehearsal. Ask for volunteers from a local college theatrical program to play a few parts. The process itself is very easy. The asking is the hard part.

From the book This is Service Design Thinking the authors state this perspective on Service Prototypes:


What is it? A service prototype is a simulation of a service experience. These simulations can range from being informal “roleplay” style conversations, to more detailed full scale recreations involving active user-participation props, and physical touch points.

How is it made? Usually some form of mock-up of the service system will be created. The prototype can vary greatly in terms of tone and complexity, but the common element will be the capacity to test the service solutions being proposed in something approaching a “real-world” environment. The prototype will generally he developed iteratively, with suggestions and refinements being constantly incorporated.

Why is it used? Service prototypes can generate a far deeper understanding of a service than is possible with written or visual descriptions. The principle of “learning by doing” is prevalent throughout, with the focus on user experience meaning the prototype can also generate tangible evidence on which solutions can be founded. Prototypes also help iterate design solutions, as they can quickly incorporate and test the ideas and refinements they may provoke.

Service Staging

What is it? Service staging is the physical acting out of scenarios and prototypes by design teams, staff, or even customers in a situation that resembles a theater rehearsal. Those participating will usually act out an encounter that one of the team has experienced, or explore a prototype situation.

How is it done? When using service staging it is crucial to create a playful “safe space” environment to ensure that participants are comfortable and open enough to become fully involved with the exercise. After a story boarding phase to record real experiences or develop new prototypes, people take on roles – such as customer or staff member – and act out the situation in an iterative cycle, moving from the starting story board to a new design. Group methods like “forum theater” are used for idea generation and to keep everyone involved. Alternatively, one person may serve as the director” making suggestions to solve the problems that are revealed.

Why is it used? Service staging brings kinesthetic learning and emotion into the design process. It allows people to focus on the minute of subtext and body language, both of which are crucial to understanding the real-world situations in which a service is delivered. Playing different characters in a reality-based scenario allows designers to empathize with the personas on which they are based.

Do you need to prototype each of the three user story scenarios that we have saved? Only customers provide results and customer satisfaction is the key result you are looking for. I think the smartest companies ask their customers what the requirements should be for the product or service and then work backwards? This is what we have done up to this point. The not so smart, designs a service and then figures out ways to market and sell it. We have a tendency to start internalizing the process once we get to the idea stage. Now is the time we must include our customers more than ever. Afraid that it is not complete enough? The more complete the project the less feedback you will receive. The idea is to generate ideas, feedback. It is not meant for validation of the service.

“Prototypes are a way of thinking out loud. You want the right people thinking out loud with you.” – Paul MacCready

Try prototyping your 3 ideas and at this point reflecting on only these 4 questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. What could be improved?
  3. What additional questions were raised?
  4. What new ideas did it generate?

Recommended Reading/Listening

A Service Design Thinking Primer



A Product Marketers perspective on Prototyping


Simulating Lean Supply Chain Thinking



Lean Simulations and Training Tips



Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


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