Going Forth, Innovation, Prototyping

Paper Prototyping as a Creative Catalyst

I think we can all agree that Disney Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, doesn’t merely tug at your heartstrings. Rather it grabs hold with a death grip and shakes them with a vigor that would make the Grinch weep, even prior to his heart enlargement. If you’ve not seen it yet, prepare your “It’s dusty in here” and “I got something in my eye” crying cover stories and go.

As you shed tears for Bing Bong (and you will) think of one simple fact… At one point, this story sucked.

These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.
These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.

It was likely long ago, back in the early pitches and storyboarding phases. However, as Pixar Animation President Ed Catmull states “I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’” He adds “We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere“.

One key takeaway here is that we, as innovators, must start our creative idea somewhere, tell the story, and figure out how to get it “from suck to not-suck”. In fact, the faster we do this, the better. We don’t want to spend needless hours putting all kinds of sheen, gloss, and functionality into that first prototype because we will likely fail and need to pivot. That is why we need to prototype on paper.

I’ve prototyped a few games just as a means to get an idea down, get it moderately functional, and to give the game idea some quick playtesting. I do not want to spend time or money in making beautiful, final quality game pieces because there are still many aspects that will need developing, balancing, or discarding. In order to prototype quickly, I keep a large stack of 3 by 5 notecards nearby (along with shiny glass beads, sparkly sticker books, and a plethora of dice). These become my makeshift game pieces. The best part is, they aren’t limited to prototyping games. A notecard could represent an app’s splash screen, an email template, or whatever you are innovating. There is always a way.

One quick note: Paper prototyping is a method, a way of making your ideas tangible in a quick, low-cost manner so that your innovative hypothesis can be validated. It does not HAVE to be paper, but whatever material you use should have the same inexpensive and recyclable nature.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why you should prototype of paper early, and often.

Notecards! A prototyper's canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.
Notecards! A prototyper’s canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.

YOU CAN PROTOTYPE CHEAP

Notecards can be bought for several on the dollar. This definitely beats the time and effort that would go into developing a digital or physical first version of your innovation. Imagine spending resources to have a first iteration of your innovation built, only to put it in front of some customers and find out that your solution needs some big time overhauling. Instead, if you had paper prototyped that primary version, you might be out a couple dollars. That’s a pretty decent Return on Investment for all the learning you can do with a first prototype.

YOU CAN PROTOTYPE FAST

There you are, sitting with a target customer, showing them your idea. You watch them interact with your prototype and you notice a huge flaw that needs to be addressed. If you’ve built a more elaborate prototype, this pivot can be costly and put a huge delay in your deliverable timelines. All those items in your kanban or development pipeline now have to sit and wait for this first one to be addressed. If you prototyped on paper (and remembered to bring notecards and pencils to your focus group) you can mock up the new screen or feature within seconds! Remember that you are just telling your innovation’s story  so these don’t have to be marketable graphics. They just need to be enough for the customer to see how it works and for you to watch them “interact”.  Plus this reduces your iteration time to something very minimal.

YOU CAN BE DARING

When you aren’t worried about cost of developing a prototype, and you aren’t worried about the time it takes to pivot and persevere into iteration two and beyond, then you can be as adventurous with your prototype as you want to be. You aren’t risking a ton of resources so put those ugly ideas out there! Be disruptive, do things the way no one in your industry does them. If your “out-there” idea crashes and burns, all you are out is a handful of notecards.

YOU CAN PUT THE FLOW IN THE CUSTOMER’S HANDS SOONER

This "paper prototyped" game card could represent your target customer's profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.
This “paper prototyped” game card could represent your target customer’s profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.

The best time to learn about your solution’s fit with your customers is when they are holding it in their hands. When your prototype only lives internally, it will always appear perfect. You need to kick it out of the nest and see if your idea can fly on its own. The faster you can do this, the less time you spend on bad ideas. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, get your core mechanics on paper and start asking your customers to look at it. It opens up new idea avenues for you to explore and it helps paint a better picture of what jobs the customer needs your innovation to do. We can all work on understanding our customer better, because they are always changing. Opportunities to learn and grow are valuable, especially when your innovation is in the very formative stages of its lifespan.

Later, we’ll go into some methods on “how” to prototype with paper… but for now, grab your notecards and start iterating!

Challenge

  • For this challenge, you will need 10 notecards.
  • Take 6 notecards and prototype the flow your customer will experience with your prototype.
  • Show it to someone and have them “pretend” its the real deal.
  • Iterate right then and there on any pain points they experience. Use your remaining 4 notecards for any additional or replacement steps in the flow.
  • Identify places you need to pivot and persevere and use more notecards to craft the next version!

___________

What materials do you use to prototype with? I’d love to see what is in your bag of tricks down in the comment section.

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Being Awesome, Like a Startup, Mastermind Games, Writing

Write Like a Startup

I’ve had this really amazing opportunity to freelance and do some game writing for indie studio, Mastermind GamesAffliction is set in small town America, circa 1950. You can smell the pies cooling on the windowsills, hear the brass band playing in town square, and everyone greets you with a smile. Until all that ended. You’ll experience the town as an abandoned wasteland, uncovering the tattered history, while keeping a safe distance from the shadowy Reapers. You can either cure the town or fall victim to the many dangers that lurk inside its borders.
Writing for the game has been an absolute blast and the more I write for this game, the more I’ve realized that game writing is like running a Startup. So I leaned into that slide and started to look at startups for ways to help my writing. Let me share with you four ideas I borrow from startups and how to apply them to your writing.
Bring Loads of Ideas
Picture a suitcase. A really large suitcase. In this suitcase you can fit every shirt you’ve ever owned. But wait! Before you start cramming your sixth grade Camp Okeechobee t-shirt into the suitcase, you’re going to fill it with ideas. And like a suitcase full of every shirt you’ve ever owned, only a few will get worn. Your “idea case” should be bursting at the seems because when you begin writing, you’ll never know when you’ll need to break out a new idea.
You can practice this skill by picking something you did today, and try to think of ten different ways you could have done it. Did you text a friend today? What are ten other ways you could have communicated? Once a list of ten is easy, try to get twenty, then thirty. The benefit to this method is that the first ten ideas you have are probably the same ten ideas everyone has. By pushing your limits, you will stretch and start finding more ideas, which leads to the more creative ideas.
Prototype Early and Often
You’ll envision the narrative in a perfect state, but until you get it on paper and in front of someone else, you’ll only stunt its potential. We’ve prototyped the narrative for this project a number of times. Each time we’ve been able to look at different aspects and really get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Each prototype allowed us to get ideas out there, kind of play test them a little mentally, and identify which pieces worked.
If we hadn’t prototyped the narrative, I would be off happily writing myself into corners that the game wouldn’t able to fix. Worse yet, my literary lost causes, my poetic pinch points, my description the doglegs into a dead-end… they could all cost the developer money and time. No one wants to delay a game because their story got stuck and they need to circle back to when it made sense. The benefit has been keeping the narrative, in whatever raw and rough state it is in, out in the open for all of us to work on.
Be Willing to Kill Off the Bad Ideas
Admitting an idea is bad is not easy at first. But remember, we were chasing sheer quantity in tip Number One. Not all of those ideas are going to be winners. Honestly, they shouldn’t be. You can’t be afraid of taking the bad ideas, crumpling up the paper they’re written on, and sky-hooking them into the nearest trashcan.
Occasionally they aren’t even bad ideas! Sometimes they just don’t fit into the scheme of the narrative anymore. You will find yourself looking at that beautifully crafted story arc with its twists and player choices, and you’ll try to shoehorn it in. Unfortunately, like Cinderella’s step-sister’s foot and the glass slipper, it just won’t fit. Remember, it’s ok to kill off these ideas because if it doesn’t fit for you, it won’t work for the player/reader.
Pivot and Persevere
This is where all three of the previous tips blend together into a delicious stew. Since you prototyped your narrative (Number Three), you will be able to identify where the gaps are. These gaps either come from bad ideas where you need to prune those story branches (Number Two) or from missing steps between one chunk to the next, in which case you can try to bridge it with a new idea (Number One). However, here is where this practice gets its own number instead of being delegated a “summary”.
When you are evaluating your prototype, you will have to consciously make the decision “Should I pivot or persevere?”
Pivoting is when you’ve come to a dark spot that has failed so poorly that it just needs to be removed, replaced, and rewritten. Maybe you get to the end of a narrative road to find out that it is a dead-end and you really should have never gone down this road in the first place. Great news! Because you prototyped first, you found this before you wrote it in stone. It is way easier to swing a u-turn and pivot back to where the story is good.
The "ideacase"; chock full of ideas ranging from awesome to certified stinkers.
The “ideacase”; chock full of ideas ranging from awesome to certified stinkers.

You can persevere when your prototype road is good enough to move to deeper writing. Maybe it isn’t perfect, yet, but you can feel that it can get there. WARNING! This is not something you do because you just love this idea. It honestly has to feel right in the flow of your prototype and earn the ability to persevere. There is no room for “idea nepotism”; no narrative arc gets a free pass because its the nephew of the boss.

I’ve found by incorporating these Startup mentalities to my writing, I’ve destroyed some of the biggest barriers. I no longer fear the blank page; a.k.a. the Great Void. I am bringing an “idea case” full of good, and less-than-good ideas, to start shaping the page into my vision. I also don’t fear critiques either, because I know i’ve got more ideas and I’m willing to remove any of the ones that don’t work. So get out your notebooks, there are literary startups in your brain, waiting to hit the page running.
Challenge
  • The next time you sit down to write (your blog, a story, some game narrative, or copy for your product), fill your “idea case” with as many thoughts as you can.
  • Find a way to get your writing in the hands of some readers early. Even if it isn’t in a final stage. The roughness can sometimes help readers offer more honest critiques.
  • Protect your heart now that your favorite idea may not make the cut. 
  • When you do find a spot that isn’t working, dig in and see if you need to pivot, or if you can persevere and improve it.
Going Forth, Innovation, Persona, Pre-Mortem, Testing

I’m not dead yet!

I enjoy a good scary movie from time to time and zombies are everywhere. Zombies cause a load of difficult situations for folks. Imagine that you’ve just pronounced Steve* deceased, when all of a sudden, Steve sits upright and starts expressing his sudden love of brains. “My bad everyone” you might say sheepishly “I could’ve sworn he was a goner.” Then everyone rolls their eyes at you and it just gets super awkward. If only you had done a little more checking before, you might have a plan for when your “deceased” diagnosis failed.

Whether it is zombies or innovation prototyping, you need to do a pre-mortem.

The whole point of building prototypes and testing them with customers, is to see if you solution succeeds or fails. Yet we often wait to get our “failure folder” before we start thinking of why it went wrong and where the pivot opportunities are. There is no need to wait to make decisions when you conduct a pre-mortem.

Pre-mortems can help you plan if your prototype fails and comes after your brains.
Pre-mortems can help you plan if your prototype fails and comes after your brains.

Pre-mortems occur after your prototype is ready for testing, but before you do any actual testing. They allow you to take a glance at your work from a different angle. To this point, you’ve spent your brain power finding ways to get the prototype to work, how to demonstrate your hypothesis, and how to collect the data points you know are important. A pre-mortem let’s you stop those thoughts, and think “How can this prototype fail during the test and what am I going to do after it does?”

Pre-mortems focus your thoughts of failure to a single test of your prototype, not your end product. By keeping the scope of your vision on just one test, it is way less scary to envision the many ways it can fail.

A simple pre-mortem can be done by yourself as long as your prototype is in its testable state. However, it is very beneficial to have other people look at your prototype during the pre-mortem. These people are not your testers and they may not even be your target customer. Your pre-mortem pals are chosen because they have candor (which means that if it stinks, they’ll tell you… to your face… with no hesitation.) This group isn’t hyper-critical necessarily. They want to see you succeed, so they won’t inflate your hope with false niceties to avoid hurting your feelings.

If a person will tell you that your shirt is ugly, sign them up for your pre-mortem crew.

Executing a pre-mortem can be an informal process, however it is possible to ruin the validity of the pre-mortem. Be cautious to not “lead your witness” by building a worldview where your prototype is the only solution. You are best off not even telling them what your solution is or how it works. It is natural for us to go into pitch mode when we have someone looking at our prototype, but you wont be at the point of sale for your product every time. They will have to use your product by themselves, and “get it”.

Pre-mortems allow you to test your prototype, without any guiding, to see if it stands up on its own. A pre-mortem is like the first few shaky steps of a gangly giraffe; it looks like it will topple at any moment and you want to run over and prop it up, but you shouldn’t interfere if you want it to be running across the savannah someday.

To avoid the “let me just show you how this amazing product works” scenario, I’ve crafted a guide for you. This guide can be used whether you are “pre-morteming” by yourself, or with your group (the ones who are ok saying they don’t like your haircut).

THE GUIDE

  1. Refer to your customer profile so that you or your group can get in the customer’s mindset. Make sure to explain the pain points you identified for the primary persona.
  2. Let your pre-mortem pals interact with your prototype while you sit silently.
  3. Observe and document how they interact.
    • If you are doing this step virtually, have them write down or say everything that comes to mind including “Ok now I am clicking this button because it looks like it needs to be clicked… and now I am going to do this other thing”.
  4. Pretend to be in the future and your prototype has just failed in its most recent test.
    • NO REASON FOR FAILURE IS TO BE GIVEN YET.
  5. Have everyone participating in the pre-mortem write down how your prototype failed. Aim for lists with multiple failure options.
  6. Share and evaluate the responses. If you are doing this in a group, one person may see the prototype failing one way, and that may spark discussion on other ways no one had thought of.
    • I will warn you that this is a tough conversation to be a part of. However, you must encourage the dialogue. “This is great! Tell me more about how my prototype will fall on it’s face during the test!”
  7. Take your list of possible failures and start thinking of ways you can pivot.
    • Take no action now, unless a failure is eminent and will ruin the test. If that’s the case, you have to fix that! Otherwise, the list of failures is not guaranteed. Keep in mind that your pre-mortem pals may not be representative of your testing group.

If you are pre-morteming by yourself, you can skip steps 2 and 3. You should probably also skip any of the open discussion parts unless you want to talk to yourself out loud. And that’s totally fine if you do.

I enjoy pre-mortems. They teach you in so many ways. They serve as mini tests before your real test. They open up your eyes so that you can see your prototype from the customer’s point of view. They help you identify ways your prototype will stumble during the test. They let you plan pivots ahead of time, that you can act on later if your prototype does actually fail. I don’t dread testing prototypes because I know if it fails, I have a plan or two ready to go.

I challenge you to be vulnerable and find some folks who will look at your prototype with a critical eye. Plan for failure now instead of later.

*You may or may not know a Steve but I assure you that the names have been made up and any likeness to someone you know is purely coincidental.