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Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping

by eyepopslikeamosquito (Chancellor)
on Aug 04, 2015 at 11:56 UTC ( #1137353=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

The biggest waste in software development seems to be building the wrong product, or the wrong features

-- from How to build the right thing by Henrik Kniberg

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all

-- Peter Drucker

I'd originally planned yet another installment of the long-running Agile Imposition series, reporting on Lean startup and related ideas. As I began my research however, I soon realized this is a vast, complicated and perplexing topic; a topic so important it can make or break your business.

So, to do it justice, I've decided instead to start a new series of articles on building the right thing.

Innovators Trump Ideas

Most new ideas fail, even if they are very well executed.

-- from The Pretotyping Manifesto by Alberto Savoia

At work we have a place where googlers submit their ideas; there are over 10,000 ideas. I call it the place where ideas go to die.

-- from The Pretotyping Manifesto by Alberto Savoia

If you have any doubt about the business value of ideas, try going to any venture capitalist and telling them: "I have a great idea that could be turned into a multi-billion $ business. I am not going to implement it, but if you give me a mere $10,000 I'll give you my idea and it's yours to do whatever you want with it." Just for fun, I created an ad peddling my services as an Ideator and posted it on Craigslist: "Ideator for hire. $10 per idea." I am still waiting for a serious reply.

-- from Innovators beat Ideas by Alberto Savoia

Leonard approaches them with an idea for a smartphone app that helps users solve Differential Equations and announces that nobody else is currently making an app like theirs. Because of Penny's presence, Sheldon is afraid Penny will steal Leonard's idea. He points out an "Unlikely, but very plausible scenario" that Penny befriends the gang to steal a marketable idea from them. Penny points out that she hangs out with them partly because she receives free food.

-- from The Bus Pants Utilization Big Bang Theory, Season 4, Episode 12

Sheldon's reaction notwithstanding, ideas themselves are of little value.

Though innovators trump ideas, backing an innovator -- even one with a successful track record -- is hardly a safe bet. Innovation is hard. Startups are risky. Indeed, the prime motivation of both Alberto Savoia (father of pretotyping) and Eric Ries (father of Lean startup) is that they both experienced both phenomenal success and catastrophic failure in different Startups -- and so became determined to figure out why.

Some Famous Product Failures

Many businesses disappear because the founder-entrepreneur insists that he or she knows better than the market

-- Peter Drucker

The Innovator's nightmare is spending years and millions to build and perfect a product or service that people don't need or want

-- from The Pretotyping Manifesto by Alberto Savoia

The throwaway merchants at Bic thought; I know we've been very successfully making disposable pens, lighters and razors, why not make disposable underwear for women?

-- from Biggest and Worst Product Failures

Some examples of spectacular failures caused by building the wrong "it":

Many other examples could be given.

What is especially tragic is when huge investments are made up front, then -- when the product idea is clearly failing -- instead of calling it quits, still more cash is pumped in. Until bankruptcy ensues. How to avoid this sort of tragedy?


IBM 30 years ago did something very clever. They thought that speech to text would be the next big thing because managers could not type. Their market research told them that if they built a speech to text translator, people would buy it. As a small experiment they got people who said "we will pay $10,000 if you build it" and brought them to IBM. They put them in a room with a microphone and a screen, so they thought they had a speech to text translator when in fact they had a super typist in a hidden room! It sounded like a good idea. However, after using it, at the end of the day my throat is sore; and I cannot dictate confidential memos in an open office. After the test, folks said "I'm sorry, I hope you didn't build too many of them, because we don't want them".

The person who built the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins, had an innovator's nightmare, lost millions. This time, instead of whipping my investors into a frenzy, this time let's test the idea with a little wood block and a tooth pick, and he went around for two weeks pretending he had built this Palm Pilot. After two weeks of this pretending, he said "You know, if this wasn't just a piece of wood I would actually use it". It had much less functionality than the Newton, yet was much more successful.

-- from The Pretotyping Manifesto by Alberto Savoia

Pretotyping: Validating the market appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money.

-- from The Pretotyping Manifesto by Alberto Savoia

The Pretotyping Manifesto:

  • innovators beat ideas
  • pretotypes beat productypes
  • data beats opinions
  • doing beats talking
  • simple beats complex
  • now beats later
  • commitment beats committees

False Positives and False Negatives

Remember Webvan, the originators of the idea of groceries ordered online, then delivered to your door? Conceived during the first internet boom of the late 1990's, the idea behind Webvan was an instant success in Thoughtland. Everyone gave it a thumbs-up, and why not? It sounded simple, convenient, it had that why-didnít-I-think-of-that, forehead-smacking ring of genius.

Who can ignore Twitter? But when you first heard of the service, what was your reaction? Some may have thought it an intriguing experiment in real-time micro-broadcasting (though what evidence there was that this was a gap for people is unclear to me). But surely few intuited that it would ultimately power the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring. The elevator pitch for Twitter has that terrier-twisting-its-head-to-comprehend, temple-scratching ring of insanity.

-- from Pretotyping@Work Invent Like a Startup, Invest Like a Grownup by Jeremy Clark

With Webvan, people who had been asked a hypothetical "would you use it?" question turned out to be far less enthusiastic when faced with a concrete "will you use it?" question.

By the way, seeking to learn from failure, Amazon has recently hired several of the original Webvan developers to launch a new Amazon Fresh grocery business.

It seems that False Positives are usually based on the opinions of acknowledged (and over-confident) experts. We pretotype because data beats opinions.

False Negatives, such as Twitter, are much rarer. Which leads us to Clark's second law of failure: too few crazy-sounding ideas get tried.

To avoid both False Positive and False Negative outcomes, revealed-preference market testing of reasonable proxies for the final product have to be achievable at much lower investments of time and money.

-- from Pretotyping@Work Invent Like a Startup, Invest Like a Grownup by Jeremy Clark

Some Pretotyping Techniques

  • Fake Door aka Landing Page. Advertise a new product or feature then track the response rate to see who would be interested.
  • Pinocchio. As used by Jeff Hawkins with his wooden model of the Palm Pilot.
  • Mechanical Turk. As used above by IBM to test customer reaction to speech-to-text translation "software".
  • Create a Video. As, for example, DropBox did.
  • One Night Stand (aka Concierge service aka Wizard of Oz). A fairly complete service experience is provided, minus the expensive underlying infrastructure required by a permanent solution.
  • Partnership. Instead of building expensive underlying infrastructure, partner with others who have it. Webvan, for example, might have avoided building expensive infrastructure by partnering with existing grocery stores (or by using Concierge).
  • Impersonator. A new wrapper is put on an existing product in order to impersonate a new one.
  • Piecemeal Solution. Similar to Impersonator, the product is presented by combining existing technologies, using minimal code/scripting to glue components together.
  • Walking Skeleton by Alistair Cockburn. Similar to Piecemeal Solution.
  • Audience Building. Get an audience before you build your product. For example, blog first.
  • Crowdfunding. Get the money first, before you actually build your product.
  • Single Feature. Instead of building the whole product, build just a single feature that can be used to test assumptions.
  • MVP. A Minimum Viable Product (MVP), a core part of Lean startup, is a working prototype put in the customer's hands. It is stripped down to the bare minimum required to perform a fair test.

A complementary approach to pretotyping that has made a big splash recently is Lean startup, the subject of the next installment in this series.

Perl Monks References

External References

Extra References Added Later

Updated Sep/Oct 2015: Added "Create a Video", "Partnership", "Audience Building", "Crowdfunding", "Single Feature", "Piecemeal Solution", and "Walking Skeleton" to "Some Pretotyping Techniques" section. Added Extra References section.

  • Comment on Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by BrowserUk (Pope) on Aug 04, 2015 at 16:58 UTC

    Is it me, or do you too get the impression that "the usual suspects" have misread pretotyping as prototyping?

    The most interesting thing for me about this idea, (with its awful sobriquet), is that it is nothing new.

    My second attempt at a career was to do an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering with a car manufacturer, with a view to becoming a draftsman. Which after 5 years, I finally made it into the drawing office for the last 13 weeks. At which point I kicked it into touch; I hated it. (Though the death of my father had some part to play also.) During the apprenticeship I got to spend time in pretty much every dept. from the accounts office to waste management. My favorite dept. was the styling and design centre where I discovered I had something of a flair for sculpting.

    Every year, the dept. produced dozens of quarter scale clay models of proposed designs; from which some candidates where chosen to go on to be rendered full sized.

    Similarly, they would repad existing seats to change their shape and cover them with plain white calico covers which would then be hand painted to give substance to designer's ideas.

    In addition, many of the Concept cars at the major motor shows each year are non-running mock-ups to test feasibility and opinion.

    Coming back to software, I can see some merit in the idea of pretotyping the (graphical) user interfaces of programs and web applications; but -- unlike the wooden mock-up of the Palm Pilot -- I think that the distinction between a pretotype and a minimal prototype is essentially negligible.

    Anyone got any experience of this phone's predecessor?

    With the rise and rise of 'Social' network sites: 'Computers are making people easier to use everyday'
    Examine what is said, not who speaks -- Silence betokens consent -- Love the truth but pardon error.
    "Science is about questioning the status quo. Questioning authority". I knew I was on the right track :)
    In the absence of evidence, opinion is indistinguishable from prejudice.
    I'm with torvalds on this Agile (and TDD) debunked I told'em LLVM was the way to go. But did they listen!
Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by Your Mother (Chancellor) on Aug 04, 2015 at 14:05 UTC

    Tangent but FWIW I was a die-hard Home Grocer fan and ordered from them at least weekly. Amazon Fresh was, or is not yet, as good on any level (delivery, price, website/cart, consistent selection, produce, ...) and got worse over time from their launch when I also used them weekly and trailed off after a couple of years to almost never. Apparently it was bad timing (dot com bubble made necessary VC evaporate) and Webvan's incompetence (they bought out Home Grocer and trashed it) that doomed Home Grocer. I still miss it; and Kozmo for that matter but that had little to no chance of success.

Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by bulrush (Scribe) on Aug 04, 2015 at 17:59 UTC
    Their market research told them that if they built a speech to text translator, people would buy it.

    I often wonder how this market research is done and if there are any external influences. Even the worst ideas seem to have the backing of "market research". Do the people they ask of these ideas just feel compelled to give a positive answer so they will get their $10usd? Or is there something else going on?

    Take the late 1980s gimmick "matrix management", of which I was a victim (not as management). Management consultants simply blurted out that this was a great idea! Never having actually given it a test run in real life.

    It means you have multiple managers so the employee (me) could help out different departments/projects with his/her skills. What actually happened was the managers could rarely meet to determine who's project had the highest priority, as every project was an emergency. Hence, very little work actually got finished as I couldn't do much until the managers decided which was the highest priority project.

    In a deeper link we have a mention of GfK's Museum of Failures. I do surveys for GfK, I didn't know they had this museum. It would be fun to read through it.

    As far as the speech-to-text software goes (brand Dragon Software), I begin seeing this in the mid-1990s as it was "maturing". Quite a few people bought it, but found out it failed, very hard. Why? Nearly every office had a noisy air conditioning system which would confuse the translator. So it worked fine in a quiet demo room, but use it in an actual office, and it failed miserably. I wonder if a unidirectional mike could have helped this.

Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by chacham (Prior) on Aug 04, 2015 at 12:34 UTC

    But why do people code in the first place? To be successful, or because they believe in the idea? There's a difference whether your thinking about a business or if you're thinking about a project your interested in.

Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by chacham (Prior) on Aug 04, 2015 at 12:35 UTC

    Innovators Trump Ideas

    A little politics never hurt, eh? :)

Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by GotToBTru (Prior) on Aug 10, 2015 at 19:44 UTC

    I'm reminded of TED:The single biggest reason why startups succeed.

    The number one thing was timing. Timing accounted for 42 percent of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea, the differentiability of the idea, the uniqueness of the idea, that actually came in third.

    Speed in getting to market without having invested the farm would allow you to find out the time is wrong with minimum loss.

    Dum Spiro Spero
Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by sundialsvc4 (Abbot) on Aug 04, 2015 at 15:05 UTC

    Groceries are an extremely perishable product that you still want to pick up and look at.   The business model of “a home delivery service” would do much better delivering something besides groceries, to someplace besides someone’s home.   Not surprisingly, many companies exist which do just that.   Even so, they are still (just) service businesses, entirely dependent upon a thriving demand for their services from clients who, with a slight effort, could do without them.

    If we tilt this back toward the original title of the topic ... software development ... once again, “building a Perl program mobile app is the easy part.”   Creating a viable business out of it, is not.   Especially if the customer, strictly speaking, does not require whatever-it-is that you do.   You will never make your fortune by selling something that, to your customer, is “optional.”

    Today, we have a vast over-supply of software development “talent” who still cling to the Garage notion of, “if you build it, they will come.”   There are more than a hundred “ride sharing” apps, but only one that (today, and who-cares about tomorrow) is worth $50 Billion dollars.   “The app,” itself, has very little to do with it:   there are many more that are more-or-less just like it.   Tens of thousands of apps are created through much “blood, sweat, and tears” which never pay-back a single dime.   Had they been approached as a business venture, and without the ultimate purpose of making a speculative killing at the stock market, they never would have been created at all.

    The folks at Apple once again proved that they knew what they were doing by selling iOS developer memberships.   They knew that there would be a flood of demand for people who would pay to develop apps for the iPhone, because Steve Jobs made it look so easy.   They opened access to the iTunes store (et al) to one and all.   But let the record show that the people who actually made money from The Gold Rush were:   photographers, prostitutes, and hardware salesmen like Leland Stanford.   You never were destined to find a nugget, but you would buy a pick and shovel and have your picture taken, and maybe (heh ...) “get a good night’s sleep.”

Re: Building the Right Thing (Part I): Pretotyping
by sundialsvc4 (Abbot) on Aug 04, 2015 at 13:29 UTC

    I don’t want to bust your bubble, eyes ... really, I don’t.   (I just want to collect a few more down-votes...)

    This, “pretotyping,” is the sort of thing that makes a good book, with no end of plausible material that could be put into its pages, but which actually doesn’t say anything.   Fact is, it is never a problem to come up with a new idea that is un-workable.   “Home delivery of groceries” sounds great if you don’t know the very-thin economics and very-big logistics of the actual grocery business.   Amazon, flush with money, doesn’t understand it either ... just as Google, equally flush, doesn’t understand that you can’t put optical fibers on light-poles that you don’t own, nor that telephone and electrical companies (who do own those poles) have already done it.

    The real economics of speculation haven’t changed much.   Twitter simply took IRC = Internet Relay Chat, complete with its message-length (that came from an IBM 3270 terminal, of all places) and commoditized it.   It succeeded, partly due to the fact that it was cheap and easy to do, and partly because of a helluva lot of marketing.   Uber will succeed, even if it ultimately fails in its ostensible purpose to carry people around New York City, because the stock speculators (at the moment) value it at $50 Billion dollars:   its only actual product is its own Stock.   No one cares about it as long as they are not the Last Sucker.

    It is also easy to forget the importance of “existing infrastructure.”   Today, cell phones are ubiquitous and they all have high-speed data capability.   The Internet is also high-speed, with optical connections straight to people’s homes.   None of these things existed in the days of Newton or Palm Pilot.   Most of the things we have today would not exist without it.   But also, “it” would not exist without “most of the things we have today.”

    Finally, even though we have “millions of ‘apps,’” more than 97% of all apps make less than $100 a month for their creators.   Less than 3% make more money than all the others combined.   “The Next Big Thing™” could be stuck in that quagmire right now, never even to be known to exist.   There are millions of books on Amazon, and tunes on iTunes, that have never sold a single copy.

    Actual market success is uncertain, and especially, un-glamorous.   It doesn’t sell books.   Amazon succeeded after many years of losing money because Jeff Bezos came from Wall Street and had very deep pockets behind him:   his backers knew that they would lose money, and they could afford to do so.   Apple Computer’s first truly successful product in the last ten years wasn’t a computer:   it was a music player.   Both of those products are successful because of a vast distribution and manufacturing network that is completely invisible to the consumer, who simply “wants” a product, goes into the store, and finds it to be in-stock.   The myth is two kids in their parent’s garage.   The reality (of “a business built to last,” anyway ... and not all of them are) ... is much more boring, but it is founded in how the industries actually work.

    We hear a lot about “disruptive change,” as though established industries were lead by people who were actually so cluelessly set-in-their-ways that they need some Young Turk to light an explosive device under their butts.   But, often it is the erstwhile “disruptors” who are left holding the bomb.

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