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3 Things Learned Making PROTO

Behind the scenes on our internal innovation project: post 2 of 3

· Entrepreneurship,prototyping,Product Development

In this blog, I want to cover this process and a few things we’ve learned in developing PROTO:

  1. Empty Box Test
  2. The Ugly Core
  3. Don’t Be Global

In the winter of 2015, our small consultancy was still just starting, so why another new project? Well, we were afraid of stagnation in our skills, saw limitations in our business model and lastly, the market was a little wobbly as well. We decided that developing an internal innovation could really solidify our foundation.

I feel a bit selfish talking about our business rationale, but I also know that if the project doesn’t create value for others, it won’t go anywhere either. Innovations must help people. Our business would be nothing without our clients and our friends. So we wanted to create something for them, but what would that be? What would they value? What would they need? How can we help them?

To answer these questions, we wanted to co-create with our users. The traditional approach to innovation has been to let R&D create new offerings behind closed doors until the launch date, when the product was finally revealed. Instead, co-creation opens innovations to the users by letting them define and refine the product at each stage of development. From inspiration to ideation to development and visual design, we asked questions, listened to feedback and observed how they interacted with PROTO.



    Pull ideas from everywhere, and don’t limit yourself at this stage. The goal of ideation is quantity. Many people run out of steam after their first 5 to 10 ideas (they’re just too deep into their own business), so we went through several rounds of ideation with many different people. From that we were able to collect nearly 100 ideas.

    This is our new product, what do you think is inside?

    We didn’t limit who we talked to either: friends, clients, users, internally with the team many times. We literally put empty boxes in front of our clients and said to them, “this is our new product, what do you think is inside?”

    Even though it was empty, from this brainstorming technique, we learned what they might want from us, without spending any money. Pro tip: use different sized boxes to get different types of ideas. When you’re an innovator, then everything is inspiration.


    All this was wildly inspiring, fantasizing about all the directions our business could go, but at the same time, confusing. They all sounded so promising, how do we choose? We didn’t have the resources to chase every idea but it had to be “right.”

    You don’t need beauty, you just prefer it.

    We analyzed everything from feasibility to business impact to potential user interest. This analysis dragged on a bit, until we realized it was fear (again) that prevented us from moving forward.

    So start simply. We just used paper that was literally ripped from a notebook and handwritten in an few minutes. It was so ugly, but it’s surprising how little details that people need. Even from notebook paper, testers were playing for hours, losing track of time. That’s how we knew we had something special.

    People were taking pictures of our shitty prototype because they loved it. You don’t need beauty, you just prefer it. And that preference slows you down. Find the ugly core of the solution.


    I’m pretttttty smart, but still I’m somehow wrong about nearly everything! haha, so that’s why our core philosophy is to experiment. With PROTO we tested every idea, every word, every graphic. We tested the game’s mechanisms: should we have a timer? should we have dice? should we have math? should we have a board?

    For the marketing, we tested round after round of messages, photos, videos. Instead of having a global strategy, each test result informed our overall strategy. Bottom up, instead of top down. By testing, we learn and that’s where growth comes from. A global strategy assumes you know what’s right. A bottom up approach is results driven and adapts to your users. Test evvvvverrrrything!

    In fact, PROTO wasn’t even called PROTO until a few months ago. It was called “muttoduk” at first and that lasted almost a year. I stubbornly kept it for personal reasons (I thought it was clever, but now I see how hard it is to explain), but you have to listen to your feedback unemotionally.

    Thankfully, PROTO is a much better name. Proto actually means “first” “original” or “primitive.” That’s what we wish for you, to play with your idea first with PROTO.

    So whether it’s at work, inside your existing company, or doing something entirely new, we hope these 3 lessons help you START a new project

    1. Empty Box Test
    2. The Ugly Core
    3. Don’t Be Global

    You might have noticed that all three of these techniques emphasize the speed of execution. Innovations are often lofty ideas but they also take such a long time and get pushed to the back seat for the business priorities of the day.

    The secret to innovation is starting… and the secret to the secret is that its always just starting now… just starting… just start.

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