It was a strange sight: a 40-year-old man taking a block of wood out of his shirt pocket, then pretending to scribble something on it with a stick. He stopped, then tap, tap, scribble again. After that he put it back into his shirt pocket.
The man is Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the PalmPilot, the first handheld device that put computers into our pockets.
Hawkins had launched a similar venture a few years earlier, an amazing handheld computer called GRiDPaD. This was before we had LED monitors, when laptops weighed more than 10 pounds, so it was an impressive piece of hardware — but it was a flop because it wasn’t small enough for people to carry around. This is why he decided to simulate the experience of carrying around the device by cutting a block of wood representative of its size, sticking a piece of paper on it to simulate the interface, and carrying it around for months. Every time he needed to make an appointment, he’d take it out and pretend to check his calendar on the “device” and add the appointment to it.
This story illustrates prototyping — a quick and cheap way to simulate a product experience in order to reduce risks — very well. In the Palm Pilot example, the biggest risk was that the device might be too big to carry around. This type of prototype looks very crude because the focus is on realistic scenarios.
Prototypes can be really close to the final product with all of the features that will be included when the product is launched. But designers often start out by making a rapid prototype, the quickest and easiest way to prototype, in which the designer tries to mimic the experience without actually building or creating anything.
In software development and product design, rapid prototyping refers to techniques used to simulate the experience of using the software. In most cases, these techniques involve no coding in order to optimize speed and minimize cost. The goal is still to reduce risks — in this case, having to do with the product’s efficiency and effectiveness.