Encouragement of Pretotyping: Approach to human-centric development

(This artcile is a tranlatied version of Nikkei Sangyou News Artcile on 5/31/2013)

Just about a year ago, I was in a restaurant in Palo Alto with Professor Toshiro Kita at Doshisha University of Graduate School of Business, who was then staying in San Francisco. We were debating the following questions over a glass of beer: Aren’t Japanese companies creating goods and services in a wrong way? Have they stopped providing “human-centric” products and services known for meticulous care in every detail although it has been considered Japanese companies’ specialty?

Alberto Savoia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is advocating “pretotyping” as innovative design techniques for goods and services. It’s not “prototyping,” which means building a functional prototype to collect customer feedback before “it” is actually produced. Pretotyping, on the other hand, is about conducting customer-oriented design to minimize production efforts as much as possible. According to Alberto, he coined this term by combining “Pretend” with “Typing” in November 2009. Now that this term has become widely known, a search engine will no longer give you likely correct spellings when you type in “pretotyping.” In this new “pretotyping” approach, you should “make sure you are building the right ‘it’ before you build it right” by pretending to already have “it” so that you can determine if customers will want it. Hereinafter in this article, any reference to “it” refers to goods and services. 

A couple of successful examples better explain what pretotyping is. Let me share with you a fascinating anecdote on the “human-centric” design of the Palm Pilot in 1996 by Jeff Hawkins, Palm’s co-founder. Hawkins’ previous attempt to launch a mobile terminal failed in late 1980’s. The product was technologically original but a commercial failure. It was too big and did not look sophisticated. Several years later, he developed a pretotype of a new mobile phone. It was a pocket-sized block of wood wrapped with paper on which he printed images of a calendar and memo. Every day he carried “it” around with him in his pocket, pretending it was working. From time to time, he pulled it out from his pocket and pretended to record some plans on the calendar, checking its button configuration and display. He built a prototype of the terminal after he had become confident that “it” was going to be an innovative product. As he had predicted, it turned out to be a hit as a cool multi-functional electronic organizer. I believe that smartphones today trace their roots back to this Palm Pilot.

I was so excited about Alberto’s pretotyping story, and I have become a pretotype evangelist accredited by Alberto. Whenever people come to me with a development proposal, I always ask them these three questions: 1. Do they want “it”?  2. Can we build “it”?  3. Can we make money through “it”?

We too often get trapped here, thinking of these questions in reverse order from 3 to 1. Engineers, including myself, are particularly prone to this type of error. We start making a product or service after thinking about question 2 most seriously while giving some thought to the limitation raised by question 3; the most important question 1 is usually left on a back burner.

Can anyone expect to innovative “it” only through questionnaires or interviews with hundreds of people? Aren’t we “decorating” our products with “differentiating features” only by looking at our competition instead of customers? My belief is that we are able to build human-centric “it” only after pondering over question 1.

Behind the pretotyping techniques exist serious attitudes of developers. Before starting making new products or services, developers think through the question: Do customers want “it”? Persons in charge of development try to get to the core of the question: How will building “it” change the lives of people? What they are doing is exactly pretotyping and serious search. This can be an answer to help achieve what Professor Kita desires - “human-centric development.”