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Pretotyping is at the heart of real innovation

In this video, Patrick Copeland, Senior Engineering Director, unpicks why in just one year 80% of 2.5k new products failed, why 76% of new products are just ‘me too’ or incremental innovation, and why pretotyping is at the heart of true innovation.

Patrick believes that standard funding processes for innovation are built to reject breakthrough innovations, resulting in failed products and the loss of millions of dollars.

In the usual dialogue, Patrick says, products start in ‘Thoughtland”, are then subject to multiple discussions and conversations which ends up with a derivative of the original idea. The opinions from the conversations become ‘gates’ on the road to creating the ‘perfect’ product, but when the product finally arrives it isn’t (and could never have been) perfect, and is often such a watered down version of the original idea, that the response is underwhelming.

Some high profile failures include: Crystal Pepsi (everyone thinks the chemicals that dye Pepsi are bad for you = let’s take the chemicals out and it will be a clear drink. No one bought it and the company lost an estimated $50m) and Webvan, an online grocery order / delivery service (the company invested in huge warehouse spaces and hired large numbers of staff. Customers, however, only used the service once, but didn’t repeat so it became clear it wasn’t a sustainable business and investors lost over $1b). Even Google isn’t immune with innovations such as Wave (a new communication tool) in the ‘Google Graveyard’.

Patrick’s new approach is called Pretotyping, a way of validating the market appeal and actual usage of a potential new product objectively and with the smallest possible investment of time and money. Or, put more simply: making sure you are building the right ‘it’ before you build ‘it’ right. ‘It’ can be anything – a social experiment, a product, tool, a way to transform behaviour – it’s all about thinking how can you create an experiment as early as possible to save yourself time and money.

Patrick believes that breakthroughs can be achieved by trading opinion for data as fast as possible. Do lots of experimentation but very cheaply – if the unit cost of experimentation is high, too few breakthroughs will be funded. If you can lower that unit cost, getting to agreement over initial funding is easier. More tests per unit of resource spreads the investor’s bets and keeps inventors in the game.

The six principles of pretoyping are:

1. Mechanical Turk: human intelligence works behind the curtain to simulate complex technology

Back when rows of typists typed up dictations as standard working procedure, IBM and their customers saw the arrival of personal computers and thought that a software which could translate speech to text would be the next great innovation. However, they knew it would cost a fortune to develop, so instead they sat a person in front of a computer screen thinking they were speaking to a super intelligent computer and talk through what they wanted to write. What they learnt is that it is far from easy to navigate text via speech, and that the voice quickly gets tired and strained. In reality IBM just had a typist behind the screen, proving quickly and cheaply that that although it had sounded like a great idea, the test showed that people would not want to use the software over just typing themselves.

2. Fake Door: simulating new product or service, simply to capture interest in the apparent offering

McDonalds trialed McSpaghetti by putting it on the menu without actually having the product in restaurants. The response to an order was “sadly we are sold out so have some free fries.” But now McDonald’s knew there really was a demand from customers for the product.

Tessler, inventors of an electric car, built a huge amount of enthusiasm for the product by having a waiting list for a product which wasn’t available yet, and you had to pay $5k to get on that list. The company has also sold millions of dollars of space flights thus proving the demand for both products.

3. Pinocchio: simple models to enable experimentation around form and usability

The founder of Palm Computing mocked up a Palm Pilot with wood and paper and carried it with him for weeks pretending it was a working device. His objective was to learn if he would actually use such a device, and what was the functionality he as a user wanted it to have, before going to the next, very expensive and time-consuming step of building an actual working prototype.

4. Impersonator: an existing product wrapped in a new “skin” or presentation layer

Dog Water, selling bottled water for your dog in pet stores. They bought a case of bottled water and changed the label to test whether people would actually buy this new product. They did.

5. Minimum Viable Product (MVP): simplest possible version of the final product What is the smallest (and cheapest) possible thing you can build that validates your product.

6. One-Night Stand: a mocked up ‘set’ standing in for the fully built experience Some questions to ask about your ‘it’: Behaviour: will people adapt in order to use it? Appearance: will they like it if it looks like that? Environment: will they use it where they are? Price: will they use it if it costs X? Or Y? Or Z? Functionality: will they use it if it does not do X? Channel: will they buy it this way? And finally, the Pretotyping Manifesto:

  • Innovators beat ideas

  • Pretotypes beat productypes

  • Data beats opinions

  • Doing beats talking

  • Simple beats complex

  • Now beats later

  • Commitment beats committees

To find out more about pretotyping go to

Patrick Copeland was a key speaker at Wavelength Connect event Reconnect 2 (Making Change Happen). To view more videos from this event go to Reconnect 2 (Making Change Happen).

Click on the link to view more videos from Patrick Copeland

About: Google’s mission is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. A $30 billion business of 53,000 people, Google truly has changed the world – and continues to push the boundaries of our imagination with products such as driverless cars and Google glass. In 2012, Google ranked Number 1 in Fortune Magazine’s prestigious ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. Innovative benefits and the opportunity to pursue ideas that challenge the status quo are just a few of the attributes that have continued to maintain Google’s place as one of America’s most in demand companies for top talent.

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