Focus first on the prototype

April 3, 1997
Hewlett-Packard Co. suggests focusing mostly on making lots of prototypes and less on a detailed product specification

To get design projects rolling, Hewlett-Packard Co. suggests focusing mostly on making lots of prototypes and less on a detailed product specification. Also, it recommends passing the prototypes around to other engineers and groups to garner as much input and comment as possible. Then let their insight guide redesigns.

The unusual philosophy seems to work. Hewlett-Packard averages more than one new product introduction for each day of the year. The procedure is particularly well heeded in the printer division where products have a life cycle of about six months.

Most design departments fall into one of two camps when preparing for a project, says Michael Schrage, an engineering management consultant from MIT and a proponent of HP’s philosophy. “One group spends excessive time getting the specification perfect before releasing it to the design department. The other group gets a glimmer of an idea, cobbles something together right away, and gets on with modifying the prototype.”

The prototypes Schrage refers to include detailed software models or virtual prototypes. “Strong prototyping cultures produce strong products,” he says. Instead of using an innovative process to come up with finished design ideas, let the prototype drive the innovation process, he suggests.

The MIT consultant observes that most good organizations let teams generate innovative ideas or models. But in the next level of teamwork, innovative prototypes will also generate more innovative teams, he predicts. One way this happens is with software geared to encouraging the collaborative flow of ideas.

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