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How to Prototype Your Ideas

By Keltie Maguire, The Clarity Coach

The design-thinking concept of prototyping can help you test-drive your ideas — and minimise risk — while exploring new directions and opportunities.

Most business owners and aspiring business owners I meet have no shortage of bright ideas. They’ve got ideas for new products or services they could offer, ideas about how they can grow their audience and impact, ideas to make their day-to-day more awesome, and ideas for potential collaborations and partnerships. But there’s also sometimes a reluctance or uncertainty when it comes to pursuing something new. Coming up with an idea is one thing — realising it is another.

Have you ever considered a new path or wanted to pursue a particular vision, only to find yourself stuck because your idea felt too costly, too risky, or too uncertain?

Today we’ll explore how the design thinking concept of prototyping can help you explore your ideas, while making the “barrier-to-entry” much lower and less daunting.

Why our ideas don’t see the light of day.

Firstly, let’s look at the most common reasons we don’t pursue a new idea in the first place.

1. Our goals and ambitions often feel insurmountable.

Whether opening a juice bar or moving with your family to China — when we have a goal or vision it can feel exciting to dream it, but knowing which steps to take to make it happen can be completely overwhelming.

“What kind of business license do I need?” “How will I get funding?” “Do I need to quit my day job first?” “Will I need to learn Cantonese or Mandarin?” These big questions can feel like hurdles, and sometimes we can’t move past them.

2. We lack certainty and confidence.

“What if I hate running a brick and mortar business?” “What if my kids can’t adjust to life in Beijing?” If we haven’t done something before it’s hard to cultivate enough assurance that our idea will be enjoyable and successful. 3. Our resources are limited. The fact is, it can be difficult to invest our time, money, and energy into an idea if we’re not confident we’ll get enough returns (or if said resources aren’t there in the first place). Opening a juice bar might cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Relocating your family to China would be a ton of work and might feel like a gamble. The thing that all of these hurdles have in common? You’re trying to make a decision based on information you don’t have available. If you’re asking yourself questions like, “Do I have the energy for this?” or “Does my idea make financial sense?” or “What if this is a massive failure?” — you absolutely need to consider prototyping.

What exactly is prototyping?

Prototyping is a concept that has its origins in design thinking. It’s a way to explore &

bring theoretical ideas to life and is most commonly used to test products, concepts, or processes.

When the designers at Apple developed the first iPhone, it wasn’t created straight out of the gate. It took dozens of prototype devices over the course of a few years, in order to bring the final, original iPhone to life.

In their book, “Designing Your Life” authors Dave Evans and Bill Burnett discuss how we can use this concept of prototyping when it comes to designing our lives.

They write that,

“...when you are designing your life, you don’t have a lot of data available, especially reliable data about your future. You have to accept that this is the kind of messy problem in which traditional cause-and-effect thinking won’t work. Luckily designers have come up with a way of sneaking up on the future through prototyping...Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about what you’re interested in.”

In other words, we can use prototyping to gain more information, not to mention, confidence, about how and if we should proceed with a particular idea.

Better still, prototyping gives us a chance to try our ideas on for size, and dip a toe in the water, — quickly and in a relatively “low-risk” way.

Rather than investing weeks, months, or years of our time, a huge output of money, and the blood, sweat, and tears that often accompanies new ideas — prototyping helps us get to the heart of matters quickly and answers the question: does this idea make sense and is it for me?

Here’s how prototyping our ideas works.

Prototyping begins with asking a simple question: “How might I prototype [the idea I’m considering]”? I always encourage my clients to pose this question as broadly as possible, and to do this, we can ask what’s really at the heart of the idea we’re considering. For example, rather than asking yourself, “How can I prototype running a juice bar?” you might ask, “How can I prototype a business that allows me to help people discover the power of nutritious foods?” As you can see, one of these questions will help you generate far more ideas than the other, and to explore more new possibilities. When it comes to brainstorming possible prototypes, go for volume and try and reserve judgment in terms of what seems logical or reasonable. You’ll sort through your options later and in the meantime, we just want to get your creative juices flowing. I always encourage my clients to come up with ideas that are: - Low risk - Low cost - Imperfect - That they can take the first step on, today.

As Bill Burnett and Dave Evans share in their book, a prototype can be a conversation (i.e. speaking with someone who has done what you are considering or who has information related to it) or an experience (in the traditional 9-to-5 world an example is volunteer work or an internship; I’ll share some experiential examples in business, in just a moment).

Let’s go back to the idea of opening a juice bar. Some possible prototypes could include:

  • Speaking with other cafe and restaurant owners to learn about the pros and cons of the industry and to get a taste of “a-day-in-the-life”

  • Talking with a former juice bar owner (they’ll probably be more candid and open than someone in the industry currently)

  • Taking a stand at a local farmer’s market for a weekend, or the summer, to sell your juices

  • Making some juice for friends and family to test and possibly order

  • Working in a juice bar part-time

  • Hosting a pop-up juice bar or looking for a shop-in-shop space (i.e. renting a corner of someone’s clothing store)

  • Looking into selling bottled juices online (as an alternative to a brick-and-mortar space)

Can you see how getting input from a former juice bar owner might uncover information that could save a lot of time and headaches? This conversation could lead to the realisation that, actually, juice has surprisingly low margins and that finding reliable staff is a total nightmare. Or on the flip side, that it’s a thriving industry and that you’re even more keen to try it! Maybe you’re not planning an entirely new business, but are wondering about offering a group program to your audience. Of course, you could go all-in, building a landing page, spending money on ads, and putting in the work to develop the whole thing. Alternatively, you might try a prototype first: let’s say, hosting a 2-hour workshop on a similar topic to see how you like group facilitation and if there’s an interested audience. Prototyping your ideas is about more than just a thumbs up or thumbs down on the path you’re considering. It also gives you valuable information about pitfalls to consider, areas to focus in on, and how you can be better prepared for the “real” thing. In terms of which prototype ideas you tackle first, it’s totally up to you. I’d suggest starting with an idea that excites you, and that you can get started on immediately.

Send the email, make a call, or fill out an application. The most important thing with prototyping is that it gets us out into the world so we can learn things.

Through prototyping we can uncover new information, spark even better ideas, or put old dreams to rest. And best of all, we can do it today, to build the future we want, tomorrow.


About Keltie Maguire

Keltie Maguire is a clarity coach who helps small business owners and professionals get unstuck, find direction, and take action -- both personally and professionally. Prior to becoming a coach, Keltie spent over 15 years in sales and marketing, as well as several years designing and running her own jewellery line, Keltie Leanne Designs. Originally from Vancouver, Keltie currently lives in Munich, Germany. When she isn't exploring Munich, you’ll likely find Keltie hiking a mountain or travelling to a neighbouring European city.


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