A Story of Disruption by Rabidly Prototyping

ascanio
Written by in Practices
- 6 min read

I love to use the term “rabid” when talking about rapid prototyping, since I believe it unleashes its true power when performed obsessively.
The power to change culture.

Its my first post here, so bare with me, it might be a little long, but I hope it gives you something to think about, and helps me start a conversation with fellow rebels!

I come from the typical corporate clichè, the Product Development unit of large automotive manufacturers. In fact I have been operating from within their Design departments, which are often detached from corporate dynamics. I was always a “rebel” in the eyes of Engineering departments, since I had the luxury of looking at things a little more broadly then they could from their hyper-structured turfs.
There is a lot to be said about the dysfunctional behaviors I have witnessed, but there are two key issues that are relevant to the matter:

Lack of leadership - incompetent full-bellied managers micro-managing and making decisions about technical issues they really have no business touching.

Lack of expertise - incompetent young professionals thrown in the pit because the company wouldn’t afford to pay for experienced talent. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a problem in itself, but can yield disastrous results under extreme time pressure if not dealt with.

I was astonished to learn that everyone around me, in the Engineering departments I was collaborating with, was designing complex solutions for car on-board infotainment systems on paper ( Office documents to be exact ), leaving validation for the latest stage in the Waterfall timeline.
A part from being a huge product quality risk, it also made it nearly impossible for anyone to truly understand the ramifications of what was being designed.

I will give a very specific example: after a top manager took a Porsche Carrera for a joy ride, we quickly got a new request to add a digital chronometer feature to a 500HP sports vehicle under development at the time.
As usual, the request was late in an already stressed development pipeline, which gave Engineering middle managers the excuse to merely copy-paste the solution from Porsche’s. But a little issue crept up: contrary to Porsche, we only had a single push button available to provide user interaction. Porsche’s logic needed to be adapted, redesigned.

So the Engineering HMI team took some time off to design a solution, in MS Excel and Powerpoint nonetheless!
As you might expect, at a closer look, the solution made no sense, but no manager had the competence to realize it by looking at the specification documents. I voiced my concerns, to no avail: I was a designer, on paper I simply had to care about making beautiful graphics. Grrrrr!

That’s were I used my skills ( I used to be a software developer and interaction designer before becoming a car interior and later UI designer ) to build a prototype of the feature. An Android consumer tablet and a custom app were enough.
I then went on to build a few variants that I could test, first on myself, then other designers and engineers, then non-experts ( a large enterprise is filled with staffing functions employees that are closer to the average user than you might expect ).
After validating, selecting and improving a solid solution, I presented the Engineering’s design and my competing alternative to the top management. My solution won hands down in the matter of minutes. No discussion.
The feature amusingly didn’t make it into production due to budget reasons: it was cancelled short after. Meh.

What this experience taught me is how disruptive the power of rapid prototyping is, over people and organisations.
There are two essential take aways I got from it:

Experimentation beats experience - rapid prototyping makes the cost of “mistakes” affordable. When your people are able to try many ideas, fail and finally select a solution, experience becomes less relevant. Incompetent motivated professionals will thrive from day one.
On a more cultural note, rapid prototyping allows designers to identify themselves with the process rather than with their ideas. A crucial step on the journey to objectivity ( or user-centric approach, as they call it recently ).

Evidence beats ego - prototypes will allow opinionated executives to reconsider their ideas. This I have seen happen over and again. Even the CEO of the company will feel compelled to change his mind when confronted with evidence. A prototype will put the audience in the shoes of the end customer, terminating endless ego-battles at executive meetings.

But there is a catch. For rapid prototyping to effect its full impact, I believe it has to be pervasive. It must be performed all the time, so it must cost close to nothing.
My DIY approach to prototyping, by means of Adobe Flash ( yes, I am old… say JS or Unity today! ), a few tablets and some Arduino boards, cost about 98% less than the commonly practiced prototyping the companies would buy from automotive suppliers. It yielded results in about 85% less time too.

A very common strategic mistake is to seek efficiency at a broader level, for example by adopting tools that will make prototypes reusable, to feed them into the mainstream development pipeline, theoretically saving time. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let me give you another example: a few years ago a new user interface development tool gained traction, Rightware Kanzi. It eventually won the favor of tech-versed car manufacturers like Audi and Porsche by promising the ability to deliver videogame-like 3D graphics in cars.
They failed to deliver on one of their UVP’s: the ability to perform rapid prototyping with it, and reuse the code by prototyping and developing for production with the same tool.

The reason of the failure isn’t technical, the tools is formidable. The issue lies in their licensing strategy which has prevented a widespread community of experts from taking shape. You can’t find experienced talent and it’s extremely expensive to train people. There is also no marketplace for knowledge or pre-made solutions.

Large manufacturers are buying into Kanzi’s promise of development efficiency, only to find their rapid prototyping efforts crippled. A wise strategist would select a tool such as Unity 3D instead ( it’s a tool to create actual 3D videogames ). It’s incomparably cheaper, it has a huge community, you can easily recruit experts, you can have anyone train themselves on the tool with thousands of tutorials and forums online. Better yet, you can purchase bits of code that solve problems, instead of developing everything inhouse.

If you have seen the Byton concept car presented at CES in January 2018 ( https://techaeris.com/2018/01/12/byton-concept-car-49-inch-center-console-screen/ ) you will have noticed the real-time 3D graphic user interface on it’s ginormous dash display.
What you might not know is that the touch-less user interaction, based on gestures in the air, was made possible by using a Microsoft Kinect device, driven by a bit of code made available by the community of Unity developers.
It didn’t take Byton months and tens ( even hundreds! ) of thousand of dollars to develop custom logic and hardware, they simply downloaded a piece of ready-made software, purchased a consumer device, and voilà.

———

I believe rabid prototyping is an effective tool for organisational change. It has a very profound impact on people, both among operatives and executives. It changes the dynamics of interaction between people and their way of working. It also makes work more fun!

It also just takes one to kick it off. Have someone bring a prototype at a meeting table that would otherwise revolve around verbal discussion or a Powerpoint presentation and see it excert its disruptive power.

Hope you found this interesting, please let me know in the comments!

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