The Pretotyping Effect

Alberto Savoia
5 min readSep 23, 2014

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.

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.

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.

Fig 3. 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 4. 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:

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 findThe Right It, in life and work.

Thank you for reading, and I hope to see and meet many of you in person at theJama Product Delivery Summit on September 29th!