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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mock-Ups, Industrial Design, and Prototypes

When you're a company showing a non-existent or early stage product off, you want to give engineers, investors, and the press an idea of where you are going with it, and so you need to have Mock-Ups, Industrial Design, and Prototypes. Each has a slightly different meaning, and while there's no firm line dividing them, I'll give the definitions that have been standard in most engineering fields in which I have worked.

Why does this matter? Because startup founders, CEOs, and PR teams might 'accidentally' get them confused and have you believing that thing they're holding in their hands really works when it's just a painted egg-carton, unless you know what to ask.

This is a very, very early stage representation of how a final product may look. It's done with no or limited user surveys and testing, engineering specs are incomplete, and is usually a basic structure made from cheap parts such as cardboard or plastic to give something to hold in your hands and imagine as to the size, weight etc of the final product. Think elementary school science fair. It's made cheaply, quickly, will change significantly before the final product, and most importantly is completely non-functional.

Industrial Design
This is something more substantial than the Mock-Up. Later in the product development stage, when the engineering specs are more solid, and there's been real user testing data to see what the users want in the product, and your marketing team has defined your target markets and how you want to appeal to the consumer, you do your Industrial Design (ID). This is where you make your product look as appealing as possible while keeping the technical needs in mind, and meeting your unit cost targets.  If you have multiple products you make sure it gives you a 'family' look, so your products are distinct - think Apple, or Dyson. There's usually a substantial amount of work needed to generate the information the Industrial Designer needs (both technical and user), then there's a few iterations of artist's renderings and 3D printed models before the final ID is made. You might spend tens of thousands to millions of dollars per product to do this well, and should be hiring specialists to do it. This is the world where the likes of Jony Ive work.

ID is a fundamental part of any product you actually want to sell, but once again it's important to remember that ID is completely non-functional no matter how pretty it looks. 

A prototype is a non-final engineering system showing some or all of the technical features of the final product, to some degree. Most products go through multiple prototypes during development, and are a critical part of the learning process for engineering, as well as developing the information needed. They are made with engineers in mind, to see performance, manufacturing and test techniques, as a platform to make quick changes and as such is often ugly, loud, expensive, and temperamental. Over time the prototypes get more refined, features more complete (or dropped), until you reach the point where you're just tweaking and then you freeze the design, and move to production. Some engineers also like to use terms such as "Demonstration System" for very early prototypes whose performance does not reach a level needed for a product but still use the same technical methods that will be improved to the point of being useful, that's a personal preference.

The most important thing with a Prototype is that to some degree it is actually functional

Suggestions to Tech Journalists and Investors
If someone shows you what they call a "prototype", try to turn it on, or ask what functionality is in the item they are holding up as a "prototype" (be really specific here, point to it, and ask what that item there can do, not what might be in the lab somewhere, as PR teams sometimes 'forget' to make that difference clear). If it doesn't work and it looks ugly, it's a Mock-Up, and if it doesn't work and looks gorgeous, it's Industrial Design. If they mumble or don't let you touch it, then it's a Mock-Up/ID and they're trying it on. Until proven otherwise, call it a Mock-Up or "non-functional Industrial Design", if it's truly a prototype then any real company will be very quick to prove that to you.

As this article on Theranos so clearly shows, startup founders have a skill of telling no lies, but making you believe there is more to their product without ever saying it, and the word "Prototype" is one of the methods of doing so. Beware.

In her 90 minutes onstage, Holmes did not tell any obvious lies. Her genius was in the strategic leaving out of information -- creating holes that people tend to fill with faulty assumptions. Instead of lying, she prompted people to lie to themselves. Understanding how to avoid being fooled by this technique is important, given how frequently it pops up in fields far beyond science. Fact-checkers often don't spot this brand of deception.


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