Product Innovation Trends

Pretotype It

The following guest post is the final in a series of four articles by innovation agitator Alberto Savoia (find the first here). Throughout his career as a serial entrepreneur and Google employee, Alberto has experienced great market successes–along with a few inevitable failures. In this series he’ll share his knowledge about why products fail and provide recommendations for beating the odds. Download Alberto’s ebook about overcoming market failure. 


 As we get ready to wrap up this series, here’s a summary of the past three posts:

  1. The Law of Market Failure: Most new products will fail in the market, even if they are competently executed.
  2. F.L.O.P. Analysis: Most new products fail for three primary reasons: Failure in Launch, Operation or Premise. Of these three, failure in Premise is the most common and the hardest one from which to recover.
  3. Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask. Data Beats Opinions: Abstract ideas, hypothetical questions and subjective opinions are not a reliable way to validate a new product premise. Before you invest in building–or even prototyping–your new product you can use pretotypes to quickly validate many of your assumptions.

In this final article I will introduce the concept of pretotypes with my two favorite examples. Then we’ll see how The Pretotyping Effect can have a dramatic impact on the way you approach and test new product ideas and how it can increase your odds for market success.

Pretotype Before You Prototype

What is a pretotype? How is it different from a prototype? And why did I feel the need to coin a new word for the concept? The best way to answer these questions is to share with you the two examples that led me to realize that between ideas and what most people think of as prototypes, there is a wonderfully efficient and effective intermediate step.

Example 1: The IBM Speech-to-Text Pretotype

Some three decades ago, IBM was years away from being able to prototype speech-to-text technology because the hardware available those days was significantly underpowered for the task. To cope with the lagging technology, the company utilized a very clever solution to test and validate some of its ideas and hypotheses related to speech-to-text.

They set up a room with a microphone, a computer monitor–and no keyboard! They told potential users that they had a speech-to-text machine for them to try; all they had to do was speak into the microphone and their words would “magically” appear on the monitor.

Speech-to-text image 1
Fig 1: What users thought was going on.

And that’s exactly what happened. But how was that possible?

They pulled it off by hiding a fast typist (with a keyboard) in another room. The microphone output was fed to a speaker, and the hidden typist translated the speech into keystrokes which appeared as text on the monitor with amazing speed and accuracy.

Speech-to-text image 2
Fig 2: What was actually going on.

Brilliant isn’t it?

With this clever solution IBM learned that, even with fast and highly-accurate speech-to-text translation, there were some fundamental user interaction issues that would have seriously impacted its chances for market success. First, users’ throats got sore after a while, loud working environments made speech-to-text unappealing and lack of privacy would be an issue for many would-be users. Surprisingly, as it may have seemed then, 30+ years later we are still relying on keyboards as our primary mode of interacting with computers.

The first time I heard this story I was left–ahem–speechless. IBM’s solution was completely different from what most people would consider a speech-to-text prototype. They could not build a proper prototype, so they pretended to have one. I thought that something this clever and unique deserved its own name–so that it would not be conflated with traditional prototypes–and the word pretotype was born.

Example 2: The Palm Pilot Pretotype

In the mid-90s, brilliant innovator and entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins had an idea for the personal digital assistant (PDA) that would eventually become the Palm Pilot. But before committing to it, and investing in building an expensive prototype (which would have required a full team of engineers and a lot of time and money), he wanted to validate some of his assumptions about the device size, shape and functionality. He knew he could build it, but would he use it? What would he use it for? And how would he use it?

His solution was to cut a block of wood to match the intended size of the device and use paper sleeves to simulate various user screens and functionality. He carried the block of wood with him for a few weeks and pretended that it was a functional device in order to get insights into how he would use it. If someone asked for a meeting, for example, he’d pull out the block and tap on it to simulate checking his calendar and to schedule a meeting reminder.

Palm Pilot Image for Jama Articl
Fig. 4 The Palm Pilot pretotype.

Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

With the help of his pretotype, Hawkins learned that he would actually carry such a device with him, and that he would be using it mostly for four functions (address book, calendar, memo and to-do lists). His simple experiment convinced him that it would be great to have a working version of the device. After he validated some of his key assumptions about its size and functionality, investing in building a proper prototype was well justified.

Fig 3. Palm Pilot Prototype.

Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA.

Eventually, the Palm Pilot not only became incredibly successful in its own right, but established the form factor and paved the ground for smart phones.

The Pretotyping Effect

You can’t escape The Law of Market Failure. Most new products will always be destined to fail, but not all failures are created equal. If you fail fast, you can recover easily, make a few changes and re-test your assumptions–or move on to the next idea. By allowing you to validate core hypotheses about new products quickly and cheaply, pretotyping lets you evaluate more ideas which, in turn, helps you increase your success rate and minimize the number of missed opportunities. I call this, The Pretotyping Effect:

The Pretotyping Effect

Well, we’ve reached the end of this series of articles. I hope to have provided you with some interesting perspectives and insights into The Law of Market Failure and how pretotyping can help you to minimize its impact on your next new product.

It has been a pleasure to share these concepts you with you. May you always find The Right It, in life and work.

Interested in learning more? download my ebook, Failure: Analyze it, Don’t Humanize it.  


About Alberto Savoia

As a serial entrepreneur and an early Google employee (where he led the development and launch of Google’s AdWords), Alberto Savoia has experienced great market successes–along with a few inevitable failures. Most entrepreneurs and innovators respond to failure by licking their wounds and moving on to their next idea. But Alberto decided to first deal with the sting of failure by stinging back. Between 2008 and 2011, while still at Google, Alberto became a serious student of failure in new and innovative products. After reading dozens of studies and analyzing hundreds of new products, he was able to identify the main cause for why most new products fail in the market, and developed a set of techniques, which he called Pretotyping, to minimize such failures.

The concept, techniques, tools and metrics of pretotyping were an instant hit within Google; and soon Alberto found himself teaching pretotyping at Stanford University and at many companies, from startups to Fortune 500. His handbook “Pretotype It–Make sure you are building The Right It before you build It right” has been translated in many languages and has become an invaluable guide for thousands of innovators and entrepreneurs world-wide. Alberto’s work on innovation has been recognized with numerous awards, including The Wall Street Journal Innovator Award. Learn more about Alberto on his website and follow him on Twitter @Pretotyping.