The Craft of Prototyping by Caitlin Kalinowski

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2017

Prototyping helps you to focus your energy on the right thing at the right time in product development – and therein lies one of the secrets to building great products. Whether you’re building hardware or software, knowing how to leverage the art of prototyping from the first iteration to the last is critical to success.

When Caitlin Kalinowski joined Oculus as Head of Product Design Engineering, her team was sweating a challenge – designing the controller that would ship with the Oculus Rift. At the time, VR was uncharted territory, and no one knew what the hardware should look or feel like. The team, working with engineering and product design, started to weigh the factors that would determine how the product would ultimately look and feel. Each new parameter complicated a number of others, and the team iterated over and over again – and it’s in this iteration that the magic happens.

Caitlin Kalinowski on Prototyping at Mind the Product San Francisco

6 Principles of Prototyping

Caitlin is a master of prototyping, with incredible experience in helping design some amazing products. Before her work at Oculus, she worked on the OQO Model 02, she was the technical lead for Apple’s MacBook Air and Mac Pro, and she designed and shipped Facebook’s Bluetooth Beacons. In this awesome talk from Mind the Product San Francisco, based on her interview with First Round Review, she shares her six principles of prototyping.

1. Define your Non-Negotiables

There’s a moment before you start building your product when the deadlines aren’t set, the stakeholders are still patient, and customers aren’t clamoring. Use this moment to be very clear about what goals you will not bend or budge on. Before even starting the design work you must define these non-negotiables – what your product absolutely must do (or not do). New companies are often under pressure and don’t define these non-negotiables clearly enough. You have to boil these critical elements down to one or two key variables – and if you don’t nail these don’t ship the product.

2. Let the Product Drive your Style

Caution vs Speed - Caitlin Kalinowski
There are two main considerations when designing new products – speed and caution. Which way you tilt depends on your company, where you are in your development cycle, and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re trying to beat a competitor to market or going low volume then go all-in on speed – but if you’re building a huge high-volume product you need to exercise caution. This affects your team management too – if you’re on the cautious side make sure you check and recheck all assumptions, but if you’re on the speed side then choose your top priorities and focus on them. Once you’ve figured out where on this scale you sit you’re ready to start prototyping, with the goal to iterate as much as you can before your ship date.

3. Solve the Hardest Problems First

Most people increase their effort as the product development process goes on, and at the end you find all those bugs and issues that you need to fix. But making changes at the end of your development cycle is far more difficult and costly than making changes at the beginning. Focus your efforts towards the beginning where you can squeeze in as many iterations and changes as possible. Put all the hard work and your best people in at the beginning, focusing on the hardest thing first, and you can layer in the easier problems later.

Solve the Hardest Problems First - Caitlin Kalinowski

4. Build Ugly Prototypes

Your early iterations should be hideous. Seriously ugly. You’re focusing on the toughest engineering and design problems first so you don’t need to worry about how it looks – yet. There’s also a hidden benefit in this ugliness as people – especially influential people in your company – don’t attach to it as much. By keeping prototypes uglier for longer it allows you the freedom to throw out ideas without upsetting anyone.

5. Converge Quickly or Reset

This principle stops you from following the wrong path for too long – and it has to do with listening to your team. Too much prototyping can be a bad thing. You know you’re on the wrong path when your iterations start only to yield tiny incremental improvements and you aren’t converging on your goal. Then it’s important to either change your goal or revisit your assumptions.

6. Iterate Like Crazy

Ultimately, how you get from good to great is to iterate like crazy. Even if everything else is done well and looks good on paper you can miss the feel, the sound – all the minutiae that give an experience its glow. If you don’t iterate tightly on the parts that customers interact with the most, you can miss the opportunity to ship products people really love. It took 50 iterations to get the feel and experience of the MacBook trackpad right. This is a crticial touchpoint for the MacBook as you use it all the time – so it’s critical to get right.

Caitlin Kalinowski at #mtpcon SF

The Magic is in the Implementation

These principles aren’t new, or Caitlin’s alone, but far too many people fail to apply them. You have to apply them rigorously, but if all else fails, go back to where you started – why are you building this product, who is it for – and focus on the user experience.

Prototyping is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun you’re doing it wrong – free your team to come up with ideas, celebrate a surfeit of cool ideas, and once you’ve celebrated your successful release you can pick up your next great idea from the cutting room floor.

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20+ years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Chief Product Officer at large, advising and mentoring startups. He is also the author of best-seller Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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