4 Keys to Testing Your Product With Rapid Prototyping

Little boy in pilot costume

Do you have a product concept or invention in mind? By testing your product with rapid prototyping, you can construct a demo in your kitchen or garage and test it with consumers. Honestly. It doesn’t need to cost thousands to see if your idea could be a winner.

Even if you absolutely know your idea is a winner – and your mom agrees – it’s important to test it with potential customers, according to Heather Andrus, chief innovation officer at Altitude, a design and innovation consulting firm in Boston, Mass., that has worked with iconic companies including Nike, Colgate, Bose, and Motorola.

“With product testing, the goal is to get outside of your own head. You’re making a product that’s for lots of other people,” Andrus says.

Altitude tests its concepts early and often, each iteration looking for something different, beginning with the product’s value proposition and ending with details of the look, feel, and function.

See the need

Before beginning to develop a product, the wise inventor talks to people, says Andrus. “Take to them what you think they need, but be really open to hearing something totally different than what you thought. It’s the idea of finding the hidden needs.”

When Altitude was charged with developing children’s toothbrushes, the design team looked for things that might make brushing more engaging. “We took a bunch of toothbrushes, chopped them apart and put them back together, used Sculpey clay to make them fit their hands better.”

But when they took the designs out to kids, what they heard was, “Brushing hurts my gums.” The team realized that what children really needed was not Disney characters or funny handles but smaller-sized brushes for their little mouths.

Talking to professionals can also help you refine your product. RentaGreenBox.com produces zero-waste packing and moving materials. Before he launches a new product, founder Spencer Brown always runs ideas by pro movers.

While developing the Bio-Degradable Bed Bug Mattress Bag, movers told him that adding two extra inches to the sides of the bag would decrease their loading times of each mattress and extending the bag by six inches made it easier to fold and seal. These insights helped Brown create a product that really did the job right.

Find the want

Once you have the concept, value proposition testing lets you find out if people would want whatever a final product would deliver. Andrus advises creating a quick-and-dirty demonstration of what your product will do, no matter how kludgy the prototype is.

Many inventors get hung up wanting to perfect their product before they show it to anyone. There’s a natural fear that consumers will look at a jerry-rigged prototype and say, “But … it’s held together with tape.”

That is a concern, Andrus admits. The key to avoiding this response is to frame the demonstration for them correctly. For example, when Altitude tested the Margaritaville appliance concept, it rented restaurant-grade frozen-drink makers and gave them to consumers to take home. The machines were big, loud, and meant to churn out a pitcher of frozen drinks in 10 seconds.

“We wanted people to understand how much value they got from the output,” Andrus says. So Margaritaville testers were told, “Just focus on the drink itself. If you had an appliance that made a margarita just like this one, would you like it?”

Make it work

Once you’ve confirmed that there’s a potential market for your product, it’s time to start figuring out the details: the product’s features and functionality. Andrus stresses that you should test elements individually.

For example, ergonomics – the way the product feels when it’s used – can make or break an item. Altitude developed the Draftmark Tap System, a home system for serving beer on tap. The value proposition was obvious, Andrus says, but, she added, “The experience of the tap handle turned out to be the crux of the product.” Most beer drinkers have watched bartenders pull a pint hundreds of times, and they’ve built up an idea of what it must feel like that was in fact quite different from what pulling a pro tap really does feel like.

In two days, Altitude’s team roughed up eight different tap handles and brought consumers in to try them out. “We honed in on creating the experience that people imagined,” she says. “Build something that feels as real as possible as quickly as possible to get to the ergonomic solution.”

Multiple, quick tests with rapid prototyping

Ideally, Andrus says, you should test every feature of your product separately: colors; buttons, knobs and switches; handles; and innards. You don’t need a fancy design shop with a 3-D printer and injection molding. Even a high-end agency like Altitude goes really low-tech for some of its rapid prototyping. For example, tasked with creating new products for DeWalt, it came up with the idea of a rugged job-site radio.

The concept tanked in focus groups, but Altitude still believed in it. So the company built a box out of plywood, stuck a Sanyo boom box in it and gave it to construction crews to test. Workers loved it – and didn’t want to give it back. Combined with a charger, the DeWalt Worksite Radio/Charger became one of the company’s most successful product introductions.

For a more detailed look at how to build product prototypes designed to test different aspects of the concept, read Altitudes’ blog post about rapid prototyping.


This article was originally published on the SAP Innovation blog.

Alanna Fincke

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Alanna Fincke

VP, Marketing