Dave Lovemartin

Build the right thing before you build the thing right

Why a prototying mindset can derisk investment

last tended: 16.02.2024

Zappos founder, Nick Swinmurn, began his business by putting up photos of shoes from local shoe stores on a website.

When someone ordered the shoes online, he would go back to the store, buy them and send them off.

He proved the value of online shoe stores without the investment risk of setting up warehouses, distribution or purchasing stock.

Founded with a prototyping mindset, Zappos ended up being a $1.2 billion acquisition by Amazon.

If I need to explore an idea, validate a concept or communicate a vision. A prototype is most often the first tool that I reach for.

Give the customers what they want

Steve Jobs said:

Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse”.

Your users might ask for features but it’s important to understand what their motivations and needs are. There might be better ways that you can serve those needs.

By regularly listening to your customers, you can identify opportunities to

Once you understand your users’ needs, you can come up with novel ways to serve them.

How do you know if your ideas will work?

Unfortunately, us human beings have an innate tendency to overvalue our own ideas.

Studies show that people err systematically when forecasting the value of their own innovation. Once we come up with an idea, we tend to then seek corroboration and proof that our idea is a good one.

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow talks about this “Confirmation Bias”.

We only look for confirmation of the validity of our ideas, and then simultaneously reject all input or information that is inconsistent with what we have already decided to believe.

To combat confirmation bias, you must create a hypothesis — a yet-to-be-proven theory.

Then seek ways to invalidate this hypothesis, to prove that your idea is wrong. This is what scientists do.

Pick out assumptions made forming your ideas and then put them to the test. A prototype is a brilliant way of doing this.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is a vision of the future that will help make decisions and reduce risks.

Sometimes this is in the form of a technical proof of concept — making sure the technology can do the job a user needs it to do.

But a prototype can also be an approximation of an experience — simulating a user journey or interaction. It can be a video, a sketch, mock-ups or something of higher fidelity made with code.

When Dropbox launched, they used a video to showcase the functionality of dragging and dropping files into a folder and that folder was shared and synced between devices.

At the time, it seemed like magic, and it was. The technology didn’t exist.

It was just smoke and mirrors.

But the video went viral, millions of people signed up to use it and Dropbox raised the investment needed to make the vision a reality.

A prototype is worth a thousand meetings — communicating vision

When you talk through solutions in your teams, and you don’t have a prototype, each member of the team can have their own interpretation of what is being described. A prototype brings your vision to life so that everyone shares understanding.

This is why IDEO says, If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.


A prototype can inspire, excite, and win hearts and minds.

Build to learn — explore the possible

Prototypes are useful because, rather than using the limitations of one’s working memory and imagination, you can start playing with the possible.

Like journalling can free your mind, prototying can help unblock you. Building to think means that you make your ideas tangible, quickly. This helps fuel early ideation and pushes your thinking further.

Prototyping can help you unlock new ideas that you wouldn’t just “think of”. A time machine that lets you glimpse the possible and understand what doesn’t exist today.

How to prototype

When you put the prototype to the test, learning from failures early and inexpensively is the key.

You may make assumptions about how people will act, behave, or feel, only to learn the complete opposite.

In this case, your prototype isn’t a failure at all. It’s successful in helping you learn, before you invest a ton of time and resources into making the real thing.

When you set out to prototype your ideas, start by asking yourselves these questions:

Your prototype should tell a story. Make sure there’s a beginning and an end. Make it clear what the context is and who the actors are.

Make sure that there is a narrative structure — a clear logical path through the journey

Make sure you:

Typically, a prototype, by design, is disposable but through rapid-prototyping you can iterate and refine as you go — but if you do re-use parts, just be careful that “throw-away” code doesn’t end up being used in production.

When you have gained confidence in your idea, build the smallest thing possible that will deliver the value your users are looking for, and then iterate on that based continual feedback.


Embracing a prototyping mindset involves sharing your workings with your team, stakeholders, and customers at an early stage.

This transparency and learning mindset de-risks investment, engages stakeholders and fosters collaboration.

Because you prove the value of an approach without betting the farm, you can roll the dice and know the odds are in your favour.

I challenge you to make prototyping and this hypothesis-driven approach, a central part of your workflows.

Build the right thing, and then build the thing right!

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