A prototype for the future

Once upon a time there lived a handful of inventors, backed by wealthy benefactors they raced to create the latest technology and advance society beyond all imagining. Some were successful and received fame, fortune and glory. Others failed and died a miserable poverty stricken death. Lucky for the modern day genius then, that this is the age of fast, affordable prototyping, but does it really make for better products for the people?

Are all ideas created equal?

A prototype is a test. It’s an early version of a product, idea or vehicle manufactured to test the different components of the idea to see if they work or if they can be improved before investing millions in scaling the idea up for mass production. So, not much has changed since the Industrial Revolution in that respect.

But this is the digital age and unlike our clever forefathers (and mothers), prototyping is now widely available at high speed and low cost. Anyone with an idea can take it from the back of a fag packet in a pub (basic prototype, which is just a crudely constructed concept as stable as its originator after a few hours in the pub) to a manufacturing prototype (basically a mini working model of how the final product/service will actually operate before going into production). At this point we enter a swish new world of Computer Aided Design (CAD), Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM), Rapid Prototyping, 3D Printing and Laser Beams.

However it can all get a bit Star Trek for those of us who aren’t stalwarts of manufacturing and science, so how exactly can we get from drunken drawing to celebrated entrepreneur in a digital age? And more importantly should you prototype an idea just because you can, or would some of those ideas be best left languishing among the pork scratchings and pints?

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Prototyping a new customer relationship

A 3D printer can cost as little as little as £30 and with a little help from YouTube (other self -help video channels are available), you can have a mini model of your idea up and running in no time. However if you haven’t thought about your audience you could be left with a garage full of mini-machines and a hefty bill for materials.

We caught up with Imran Ali, co-founder of Carbon Imagineering who has spent the last year working with the University of Leeds Creative and Cultural Exchange on its Creative Labs programme to explore new ways of creating media archives.

“We spent the first six months of the project setting up small storytelling workshops with target communities in Rothesay, Stoke and Manchester. Participants would tell us about their families, their motivations and historical or local interests, sharing the real and fictional stories they wanted to tell.”

The programme is designed to explore the relationship between culture, arts, science and technology but Imran warns against jumping in with the technology first.

“We spent our time building, trust, chemistry and a personal rapport with each volunteer storyteller. Paper prototypes and wireframes gave way to listening and attentiveness. They shared their most personal histories with us and we needed to ensure our response respected that trust. We designed for Jane and Pat and a dozen users we could look in the eye rather than millions that would just be rows in a database.”

The result of the project is Pararchive, an intuitive software that will allow users to create their own stories from personal and archive material. Imran and his team started by working with the communities and relationships they had built to co-define a specification for the new service. The team then developed a test version of a website which is shared with the people at the heart of the project to check it still reflects their ideals. Running in tandem to the development work a detailed research programme supported by the University is taking place to constantly check and reimagine the concept based on the feedback and results of testing.

Prototyping versus the people

Pararchive received a grant of £477,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to further the work of the research with the team, and to work with community partners, the BBC and Science Museum Group to fully develop the Pararchive software. It is expected to launch in March 2015.

Whilst the team may have got from the germ of an idea to fully fledged service, Imran’s is a cautionary tale to remember the people at the heart of your idea before getting carried away with the technology that will enable you to deliver it.

“Lots of people will tell you about SEO, open data, business, commerce, reach, conversion and the various technologies you can use to prototype your service. But the web was made for people, not for businesses or data or machines, so that’s where every idea should start.”


This article was first published in The Professional business magazine in January 2015.