Testing Digital Prototypes Together with Customers

In the summer of 2018, Apple was the first US company to break the magic barrier of a trillion dollars stock market value. A trillion is a one with twelve zeros – and as a number just as intangible as the success that made it possible. Countless analysts are trying to explain how the company, which at the turn of the millennium was still threatened with extinction, became the technology giant it is today. If one asks the enthusiasts, the unanimous view is: through innovative products and a clever brand strategy. Critics, on the other hand, like to point out the high prices and lack of compatibility with devices from other manufacturers, which forces buyers to leave the Apple universe as little as possible. But both sides, and most users in particular agree on this: Apple has succeeded like no other company in combining design and user-friendliness in such an elegant and clever way. Consistency and minimalism are elementary components of Apple’s philosophy. Together with high-quality workmanship, they create an intuitive and pleasant user experience. It is simply fun to operate the devices.

The example of the company from Cupertino, California, shows impressively how good design can have an impact on the purchase decision. In addition to the users’ requirements and expectations of the product, their concrete experiences and emotions are of central importance. Because even if a company knows exactly what its target group wants, this does not mean that it can automatically launch a successful product on the market. Consumers must be able to recognize themselves and taken by the hand when they see, touch and operate. Innovative features or superior technology will be lost without the right design. Today, design determines the success of products and the sustainability of business models. And design, in conjunction with user guidance, is also the driving force behind innovation to stand out from the sheer endless mass of products. But good design is not that easy.


Making the Customer Experience Visible and Comprehensible

How do I design a product that it appeals to many users, is easy to use and covers all needs sufficiently? Creatives and innovators regularly ask themselves this question when they enter the conception phase after identifying the customer’s wishes. An established and equally successful way is to validate hypotheses using prototypes. But the conventional testing of prototypes, including the dispatch of test objects and survey forms, can often only be accomplished with a small test group and is tedious to implement. In times of rapidly accelerating digitalization, which makes successful business models obsolete virtually overnight, this is hardly practicable. Long review and feedback loops are no longer up to date when a company has to ask itself questions parallel to product development: What will we sell in a few years’ time? What is our market? And who are our competitors?


Nearly all companies are in a state of transition into the digital age and have to deal with exactly these questions. This means that they have to transform their core business digitally at high pressure and at the same time, open up new business models. This can only be done with the appropriate speed in product development. But that’s exactly what many companies still have big problems with. According to the “State of Innovation Report” of “CB Insights”, 60% of the study participants need a year or more to launch a new product on the market. This is also due to slow and unnecessarily complicated feedback mechanisms when testing prototypes. These not only delay the market launch but can also falsify the results through a poorly designed user survey and thus have negative effects on the chances of success in competition.


Behind it lies the old dilemma of Garbage In, Garbage Out. If the experiment is not based on real conditions, the insights gained will only deceive you, even if they give the impression of truth. And when testing prototypes, there are various obstacles that can falsify the results. Under certain circumstances, this can lead to the product developers’ assumptions being unreflectively confirmed, without the comments and change requests of the test group being taken into account at all. These are often communication barriers and understanding problems between the creative minds of the company and the respective testers. Or the processes and structures to obtain feedback are not designed to translate this feedback into agile product development quickly.


The solution can be derived directly from the problem. The product developers and testers are far away from each other, both spatially and mentally. So, what to do? A process is established that brings the testers and their experience closer together with the company’s innovators. This enables both parties to exchange concrete information directly and openly and promotes the seamless integration of suggestions for improvement into product development. However, most companies lack the appropriate digital infrastructure for this type of large-scale collaboration project with many external stakeholders. The answer is to use an open innovation platform. It not only offers a discussion channel for all participants but also establishes a structured feedback process. The significant advantage is that the user’s impressions of the product can be made visible, understandable and in a certain way experienced by the company’s product developers. When organizations opt for Co-Creation with Customers, they are right in the middle of the development process.


The Prototype as Process and Storyteller

But how does the testing of prototypes via an Open Innovation platform work in detail? What are the advantages of this approach? And what about digital prototypes? To be able to approach these questions, you first have to bear in mind that prototypes have always had a dual function in the innovation process. On the one hand, the prototype is a process for testing hypotheses and iteratively optimizing products together with a target group. On the other hand, the prototype also functions as a storyteller, since it transports the product’s development history to potential consumers over the various development stages and thus becomes a marketing instrument, so to speak. The prototype is, therefore, both a frame of reference and an aid to staging.


The word prototype has its roots in the Greek language and refers to the original or primitive form of things. Applied to the innovation process, the prototype is the first representation of an idea or solution. It is created after the concept phase and serves to illustrate the design as well as the product characteristics. Starting with a first version, the process continues with a step-by-step approach to the finished end product. Prototyping aims to obtain feedback as early as possible and to incorporate it directly into the further development process. This helps the product developers to check the assumptions underlying the prototype with regard to structure, design and function. Through the interaction of a test group with the prototype, possible errors in the concept or problems in the design can be quickly identified and eliminated before the market launch.


Based on the processes of Design Thinking, prototyping also includes many cycles of feedback and iteration. Each cycle generates new suggestions for improvement and change requests, which are then transferred to the prototype – until the company achieves a feasible innovation. At a deeper level, however, something else happens. The interaction and collaboration between the test group and the designers change the perception on both sides. While customer surveys used to be a rather impersonal matter, the direct contact between innovators and potential consumers increases the understanding of the conditions of product development. This enables users to understand the background to many decisions better and develop a feeling for which of their wishes can be implemented. On the other hand, the constant and structured exchange helps the company to correctly classify the users’ experiences with the product and translate them into suitable solutions.


Digital Infrastructure, Digital Prototypes

However, if prototyping is to fulfil its high promise of helping product developers create superior end-user experiences, the company must strive to minimize the distance to the test group. This works best with an open innovation platform. It brings together the company’s innovators and potential consumers with essential stakeholders in the innovation process. What used to happen analogously when testing prototypes now happens entirely digitally on an Open Innovation Platform.


Instead of questioning the testers individually about their experiences via analogue channels, all feedback can be collected at a central location. This is naturally much faster since the individual data sets of the different people do not have to be merged first. In addition, the individual testers can now easily exchange ideas with each other, develop ideas and work on solutions together with the designers. This transforms the one-dimensional feedback mechanism into an open discussion forum. This promotes communication and collaboration among the participants, which in turn increases motivation to contribute. The new possibilities and freedoms allow the testers to shape future products actively. This also increases interest and leads to intense brand loyalty. Ultimately, everything contributes to unleashing the entire creative potential of the test group.


Traditional, analogue approaches fail here from a certain number of participants onwards due to the flood of data that is generated by the various feedback loops and optimization steps. A digital infrastructure, on the other hand, stores all relevant information in a central location. And with the help of semantic analysis tools and balanced coordination mechanisms, the large amount of information can be condensed into usable data. This helps to structure the discussions on the platform and to identify the relevant information for the innovation process. Also, it ensures that no knowledge is lost between the iterative steps of the design phases. This makes the development process understandable in the long term and, above all, transparent.


The prototype – the secret protagonist of the entire process – is entirely unbound by the medium or form in which it is presented. Whether a physical or digital model, both can be displayed and tested on the platform according to similar patterns. The digital prototypes are clearly on their way to digging the water out of their physical relatives. Given the fact that few products are available today without any digital component, this is hardly surprising. The advantages are obvious. They facilitate joint development across departmental, corporate or geographic boundaries. The best specialists and partners can easily be integrated into a development network with the help of an open innovation platform. The digital component makes it possible for all stakeholders to work in parallel and collaboratively on the project.


In addition, click dummies, mockups or animated 3D models are usually cheaper to produce than their physical counterparts and are easier to extract from the ongoing development process. Digital prototypes are therefore particularly suitable for creating several design variants at once. And since uncertainty is unavoidable in product development, innovators make regular use of it by building up a whole portfolio of options. The respective test procedure is not very time-consuming at the digital level and quickly separates the good from the less good design ideas. This is where the highest value of digital prototypes for the innovation process manifests itself. Because rapid failure is the hallmark of creative geniuses through the centuries. Creativity is a consequence of productivity. If product developers want to increase the production of hits, they must do so by risking a parallel increase in the occurrence of errors. The most successful creators are usually those who also accept the most mistakes.


Test. Iterate. Repeat.

The process of testing prototypes describes the experimental approach to a final solution in many small, iterative steps and is very repetitive. One can imagine it as a kind of cycle that is repeated until one is satisfied with the result. The respective prototype is first conceived on the basis of findings that have already been collected elsewhere on the platform. For example, in a crowd innovation project designed to identify the requirements and needs of potential users. Once the concept has been developed, the first phase begins, and the prototype is presented to the target group or community on the platform. Through the explicit description of the individual stages and the direct communication channels on the platform, the test requirements become concretely tangible and comprehensible for all participants.


Afterwards, extensive testing is carried out. Depending on the type of prototype, either directly on the platform or in subsequent offline formats. The focus is mainly on the built-in functions and the preliminary design. The test community familiarizes itself with the prototype and works through a checklist provided by the product developers or decides for itself which focus it sets during testing. This phase usually takes several weeks to give the community enough time to deal intensively with the test object. But the exact opposite can also be implemented in an uncomplicated manner. For example, in just a few hours, you can get feedback on the usability and navigation logic of a click-dummy to a new website. This makes it possible to check whether users understand a planned interaction and carry it out intuitively or whether they get stuck at certain points.


What happens next can be determined individually for each case. Ideally, however, a phase of surveys follows to obtain quantitative feedback from all participants. The standardized questions result in a structured and significant data set. By questioning the testers about their reactions to the effect and functioning of certain elements, information is generated that enables product development to rely on reliable empirical data. The opposite approach is then reserved for the next phase. With open-ended discussion rounds on the platform, a lot of qualitative feedback can be obtained. This helps to interpret better and understand the emotions and opinions of the target group. What was perhaps only superficially dealt with in the surveys can be intensified here in direct exchange. Why don’t you like the colour design, and why is the placement of a gear knob wrong? Instead of short answers, a dialogue emerges that leads to the goal and above all seamlessly leads to a collaborative solution to the problem.


And that brings us to the final stage of the process. The circle closes, and testing starts all over again. Iteration is the magic word. This means that the comments and wishes of the testers are transferred to the prototype and the prototype is played back to the community in a new version. And so the process repeats itself again and again. This creates time and space for necessary optimizations and innovative ideas – from the prototype through MVP to the finished product. What could be more revealing than placing a working model in the hands of users, receiving their feedback and then using it for learning? During each iterative test, the process generates small bits of data that the product developer can see and trust. He will soon find that user reactions are becoming more and more positive as their feedback flows into all iterations. This slowly leads to the certainty that the design and product features are on the right track.


Advantages of the innosabi Technology

The use of an innosabi platform makes it possible to test prototypes quickly and easily with a large number of participants. By involving all stakeholders on a central platform, the iterative optimization of the product takes place together with the potential consumers. Co-Creation with Customers increases trust in the product on the user side and guarantees a successful launch for the company on the other side. Agile processes and intuitive user guidance on the platform lead to short feedback loops that allow changes to be quickly incorporated and re-tested. This helps the company’s innovators and designers validate their hypotheses or identify the actual needs of the target group. The expected effects are enormous. The quality of the product is significantly improved, while the risk of market failure is almost zero. The acceleration of the innovation process through rapid iteration cycles also reduces costs, labour and resource requirements, and time to market.