As part of the new product development process, prototyping has many flavors: looks-like prototype, works-like prototype, engineering-prototypes (DVT, EVT, PVT, etc.) and more.

However, in the context of business, we see prototyping as a way to ask less-biased questions to your target audiences–typically customers / stakeholders–with their responses being behavioral…did they “purchase” our prototype? Did they “sign up” for the news letter? Did they “click” to access the “product pricing” details? with the ultimate goal being to truthfully understand product desirability and other key unknowns about the NPD process.

In the entrepreneurial ecosystem we’re fomenting both here at U.C. Berkeley and Silicon Valley at large, we’ve dubbed this “Market Experimentation” and it’s goal is to reduce the massive risk that comes with building products and new ventures.

Why Prototype?

“If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a prototype is worth 1000 meetings.” said someone insightful from IDEO [1]. So many business people *talk* about ideas and opportunities that they believe will be “blockbuster hits” but this is nothing more than conjecture…speculation. It’s exhausting to hear one great idea after another knowing full well that the person with the idea will rarely have the courage and grit to actually execute the concept. But U.C. Berkeley students are taught differently. They are thought to think and act beyond the idea / problem. They’re taught to build prototypes.

If you want to read more about how we define prototyping, you can read our Why Prototype section.

The act of prototyping while in the context of business enables opportunists to better understand the desirability and viability of their business concepts through experimentation–Market Experimentation we call it. Through iterative processes, entrepreneurs, product managers and students can quickly suss out which of their many ideas have legs and would be worth further development and investment. For a lack of a better alternative at the time (circa 2010/11), we created the Rapid Innovation Cycle (RIC)–an iterative process of:

  1. Opportunity Recognition
  2. Solution Selection
  3. Market Experiment and
  4. Experimental Results.

An in-depth discussion of this process can be found here in a 2012 publication [2].

For this discussion, we’re presuming you have already brainstormed and found the right problem to solve and have a filtered set of potential solutions to make your target audiences’s proverbial “pain” go away. Our belief is that until you build something that can test your stakeholders’s unbiased behavioral response to your product / solution…you may be spinning your wheels, solving a “non problem” or have built a product that fails to conjure meaningful transactions of money, time or other value. Thus, we’ll be discussing what’s at the heart and soul of a prototype in three contexts:

  1. Hardware Prototyping
  2. Software Prototyping
  3. Service Prototyping

Hardware Prototyping

Not many business-school-student ideas are wrapped up in deep hardware tech, but nonetheless, physical goods and other eCommerce items are often physical in nature and present an opportunity for the bold. So it’s worthwhile to discuss how to prototype and execute meaningful market experiments so that entrepreneurs can better understand the market opportunity and justify continued investment of time, money, energy and so forth.

We commonly break down hardware prototyping into three sub categories:

  1. Hardware Office Hacking
  2. 24 Hour Hardware Hacking
  3. 48 Hour Hardware Hacking

Hardware Office Hacking

This is what it sounds like, you got a meeting with your VP of product for 4pm the same day. You have just a few hours to quickly explain to–OR better yet–show them what in the heck your idea is all about. And because, you read this post, you realize you have a gem of resources right in your office supply cabinet to work from.

Office Hacking is just a fun way to describe “low-fidelity” prototyping. Prototypes which are not typically functional, nor do they look good. Rather, they often represent the object in a loose physical form, OR can become some key feature of the new idea. Maybe it’s an improvement on one of your company’s existing product lines so you use cut up cardboard, tape and a few sharpie markers to illustrate how your new feature(s) will work. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but rather, it needs to help you tell your story. It likely would not suffice sitting alone on the table. It requires you–the innovator–to discuss the key parts, but it quickly helps your audience understand your concept. As a major side benefit, it also does the following:

  1. Helps YOU understand your concept better.
  2. Helps you identify key engineering opportunities and risks.
  3. It separates you–massively–from the annoying idea people.
  4. It shows you can execute and are not afraid to be vulnerable and show off an idea that is incomplete.

Continuing with the analogy, the VP is impressed with your hacked prototype. They even got involved with the ideation process because they could hold, touch and get a slight taste of your product concept. Thus, you were building serious buy in from a senior leader and they begin to want to see you succeed because you successfully articulated the value and that your product had some feasibility to be built. Thus your VP says, “this is crap, I can’t show this to the CTO, what can you get me by end of day tomorrow?” Now you enter, 24-Hour Hacking.

24 Hour Hardware Hacking

This is what it sounds like, leveraging a variety of higher-fidelity–yet quick turn around–tools and resources to improve upon your Office Hacked prototype.

This might involve going to your neighbors garage and convincing them to fire up the table saw and cutting something out of wood. Or better yet, you have a neighbor who bought a 3D printer and ran out of trinkets to print thus it’s been sitting idle. You know they’re good with basic CAD and while their printer isn’t the best on the market, it will print something out of a more believable material like plastic.

In both our undergraduate and graduate-level courses, we teach business students how to quickly manipulate three key tools for low-fidelity 3D printing:

  1. Thingiverse – to not reinvent the wheel in 3D CAD, rather “borrow” from online (if it or something similar already exists)
  2. Selva3D – to put brand names / logos into 3D printed parts
  3. TinkerCAD – to put your own final touches on your model
  4. Rapid Prototyping Vendors – people who can perform 3D printing services for you. We have a large list of those vendors here in our resources page:

There are also other higher-fidelity prototyping tools for hardware but may be hard to get in a pinch. Some of these are–for example:

  1. LittleBits – electronics kits that snap together like Legos
  2. Legos – maybe you have kids, maybe you’re still a kid, pull out the legos and see what you can put together
  3. Foam-Core – like cardboard, but a slight notch up (YouTube Video How-To)
  4. Styrofoam – terrible for the environment, fantastic for sculpting hardware parts / components
  5. Woodshop / metalshops – remember that noisy neighbor on Saturday mornings? It’s likely they have tools. Be their friend.

The goal of this 24-hour prototype is higher fidelity and if at all possible, integrating any or all of the concepts you believed were good ones from your VP. This will indicate to them that a) you listen b) their ideas are now invested in with yours, creating mutual ownership and c) ideally your VP is smart and has increased the value of your concept.

If you’re a student at the Haas School of Business, you actually have access to these sorts of prototyping tools in the Innovation Lab. Here’s a 13 minute video walking you through the 3D printing process:

48-Hour+ Hardware Prototyping

So the meeting with the VP and the CTO went well. The CTO was able to easily see the concept, articulate the value and was also impressed by your ability to build something that worked partially and didn’t look entirely like trash. Now they’ve green lighted $10K for you to build a more meaningful prototype. (HBR Idea Cast circa 2012 once stated that you can measure a company’s ability to innovate by how fast they can disburse $10K into an employee’s hand to build out a concept).

This is where you can really procure both design, fabrication and prototyping resources to engineer a better, more functional solution. This may NOT be necessary at this stage. And rather, you *may* put this money into other in/validation methods such as “landing pages” or eCommerce stores with the prototype concept on “display” and “ready for purchase” to see if anyone besides your mother cares. Luckily you know at least your VP and CTO do care, but that’s a market of two. You need more unbiased feedback and you need to understand what price the market will bear. Thus, here are some non-hardware, market experimentation tools / concepts that you might leverage (if you don’t simply improve the fidelity and functionality of your original concept).

  1. Setup an eCommerce Store – Shopify, wordpress and many others are quick and easy to setup, collect payments and fulfill orders.
  2. Create a product demo video – then upload it to YouTube and see if anyone understands the problem, the concept and then does some form of “work” to “learn more” or “buy now”. These are your “calls to action” and help you better understand how much people currently care about your problem and solution. The further into this funnel they go, the more likely they are interested in purchasing your concept.
  3. Create a landing page – very quickly with the value propositions and calls to action (CTAs) to: learn more, buy now, pre order now, understand pricing, collect email addresses, etc. Always find a way to capture your audiences contact information so you can follow up with “great product deals for [your] VIP clients” when really, you’re trying to understand why exactly they dug so deep into your customer funnel.
  4. Create online ads to A/B test product variants / value props – yes, you have to spend a little money, but you can drive traffic to the landing page and truly understand if the target market hypotheses you formed are in/valid.

Hardware product development is expensive. The business of selling hardware can also be very tricky and many kickstarter concepts have gone underwater the day they were fully funded because the founders didn’t understand the unit economics of the products they were building nor did they factor in enough product development R&D costs into their pricing models. This is often why, many people just find opportunities, related to software.

Software Prototyping

So you own a smartphone and have marveled in the joy a simple app can bring to your life. And because you’re in (or went to) B-School, you’re thinking, “I can do this”. And we’re here to tell you…YOU CAN! Or at the very least, you absolutely can prototype a very meaningful software prototype. Again, the goal being to:

  1. Separate yourselves from the “idea” people
  2. Show you’ve got some skin in the game with the effort required to build a prototype
  3. Better understand your target audience and their needs / wants
  4. Minimize the bias in asking your target audience questions about their desire for your product.

So in the same manner as Hardware Prototyping, we’re going to walk you through software prototyping, from low-to-high fidelity. You want to start with low-fidelity prototypes to minimize your efforts in solving problems no one cares about (think Steve Blank’s Web Van). But if you strike a chord with your key stakeholders, then you can improve the prototype fidelity, getting the user experience / user interface (UI / UX) to a point where you may even trick a stakeholder into being able to “purchase” the app…validating there might actually be legs to your business.

Low Fidelity Software Prototyping

The key tools you’ll need to start with low-fidelity prototyping are the following:

  1. Sharpie Markers
  2. Printer Paper

Your first step should be to execute a time-binned exercise known as the “Crazy 8s” method popularized by some folks at Google in the book called Sprint. You simply fold up your piece of printer paper into two rows, four columns so that you have roughly 8x little 2.5″ x 4″ blank rectangular sections that are roughly the same size as your old iPhone 5S screen. You have 8x little sections whereby you’re going to quickly mockup each key screen.

In our classes at Berkeley, we either have folks mockup a user experience specific / meaningful to them (usually if students have formed teams and have projects they’re working on) OR you propose a user experience that can be improved: like “getting new license plate tags from the DMV”. Both have pros and cons but the key things to remember about this exercise are:

  1. Time-bin the exercise – and make the timing difficult. We usually say 2 minutes for all 8x screens. Very few people actually achieve this, but there are several important pedagogical reasons to do this (which we can explain later if you’re curious). The video below suggests 8 minutes, but since you’re Berkeley students, we know you can do it in much less time.
  2. Use blunt-tipped writing instruments like sharpies – this is important because you don’t have time for detail. It’s also important because when you’re sharing your workflow with a team or in class, your audience won’t be able to see your cute emoji drawings made in 0.5mm lead automatic pencil.

Once you’ve done this, you’ve effectively prototyped a plausible mobile experience. What’s beautiful about software prototyping is that the software folks who use these tools know how to build software and thus made the next tool we’ll discuss–that will take your Crazy 8’s screens and turn them into a semi-functional app. It’s called Marvel PoP or “Prototyping on Paper” app and it’s great for making the buttons you drew with your sharpie sort of “work” in a mobile experience.

This student app was to help new parents manage and share the workload in raising a newborn. In this short video, they find a parent who seems to resonate with their concept. It’s important that they have a second person capturing the experience on video so they can improve the UI/UX and user flow based on every minor hiccup experienced by the target user.

If the Crazy 8’s method is a bit too low-fidelity for you, we actually developed another low-fidelity prototyping tool we call the “SmartPad“. It’s basically like the piece of paper you sectioned off into 8x screens in the Crazy 8’s method–with the major exception is that we’ve turned those screens into pieces of paper which look like your favorite smartphone.

It not only doubles as an abundant source of smartphone screens for prototyping, but can also be handed off to people who want to offload their ideas onto you, wasting your time, and not understanding the hard work required to fully develop the workflow. Executives and non technical people alike can easily take a SmartPad and think through the user flow they want if they’re not happy with yours.

High-fidelity Software Prototyping

Once you believe you have a workable UI / UX in sharpie / SmartPad format, optimized via PoP, now you’re ready to step it up a notch by using a higher-fidelity software prototyping tool. Most common are:

  1. InvisionApp (link)
  2. (link)
  3. Marvel (link)
  4. Justinmind (link)

So wait, why do we have to go through all this low-fidelity stuff, when we can just start with high-fidelity?

Great question! What might be the tradeoff? Higher-fidelity tools require more expertise and more effort to put together. Thus your iteration speed will undoubtedly be slower. That being said, you won’t have to make major changes because you’ve figured out the major pieces in your low-fidelity prototyping efforts. It’s kinda like attempting to sand a piece of wood with high grit–say 440–sand paper from the very get go. You’ll spend a lot of time tweaking and making changes in a high-fidelity tool which will ultimately be thrown to the trash. Don’t just work hard…work hard AND smart and go twice as far.

You can likely find tons of great examples on YouTube or online of functional InVision or web prototypes, but you may be asking the question, “who is this for?” Why–if I know the work flow–would I go to the trouble of doing a high-fidelity version at all? Can’t I just hand my PoP app to a developer?

Well, yes you can. But you still don’t really know if people would want to download your app or more importantly, engage in some transaction with you (financial, time, personal information or otherwise). You need to test the market and while a PoP app can get you some insightful information from your target audience, no one will likely buy a “PoP App” from your website. We have however, seen people “pay” for the experience our students have mapped out with high-fidelity tools.

With a high-fidelity web app or mobile app, you can make a demo video, which makes your target audience “believe” you have a functioning app and you could experiment with those engaged prospects with meaningful calls to action (CTAs). “Pricing information” or “Download at the App Store”. If people click the links to go download your app, have them fill out a form, give you their email address or some other information…because clearly they were willing to take the time to download an app (which sadly, has become “tedious” for people today…but when in reality, it’s quite simple and easy to do so with broadband internet).

Always remember, we have all the latest and greatest prototyping resources and tools listed here:

If you still haven’t got enough prototyping–or we didn’t quite capture the essence of the business you’re trying to build–our third form of Prototyping is Service Prototyping and just might do the trick. It can also be quite fun and exhilarating if you fully immerse yourself in the experience. Just don’t do anything that will get you or anyone else hurt or in jail.

Service Prototyping

Service prototyping can serve many business objectives.

It’s arguable that Costco sells products. They wouldn’t likely claim to be in the “service business”. But in truth, there are “service people” all around you who are at your beck and call to answer questions about products on display. So “how might we” (a phrase used a lot in prototyping contexts) “reimagine” the product display experience? or the Product Purchase experience?

Or how might we change the sit-down dining experience into something a bit more accessible to the person on the go? What would we have to do in the kitchen to make a burger essentially “on demand” in < 2 min?

Or lastly, how might I understand if my target clients would be willing to a) let me put an IoT device that measures chlorine levels in their pools and then b) let me purchase chemicals on their behalf based on the IoT sensors floating in their pool?

Service Prototyping can help you with just these sorts of questions. But it does have some serious pre-requisites:

  1. Being bold
  2. Full immersion into the experience
  3. Observation of the normal world, combined with a dissatisfaction with that status quo.
  4. An ability to reimagine a different, better and plausibly feasible experience.
  5. An ability to “fake” and deliver that new experience to your target audience; garnering key insights and feedback about this new service.

So where do we begin? Well, where have we begun with the past two types of prototyping? Low fidelity.

Low-Fidelity Service Prototyping

This is where you get to be like Einstein. Yes, Albert Einstein. You know how he established his world-renown theories of relativity? Thought experiments. This is one case where thinking through an experience can actually be valuable (provided this isn’t where you end with your prototyping).

Visualizing how a process can be different and improved–running scenarios through your head–can be very valuable and save you lots of resources. Sometimes it can be difficult to think through every plausible mishap in your new service design…but just running through the process and getting a gut check if what you’re mentally proposing IS possible, is all you need.

We alluded to a fast-food example above, and this is EXACTLY how the brothers at McDonalds conceptualized their “fast-food” kitchen. How they’d layout their grill, veggie prep, bun toasting and so forth. They had to reimagine the kitchen in a whole new way in order to get burgers out in less than 2 min. You can watch this beautiful service prototyping scene in the movie the Founder, where the brothers are on a play ground with chalk and they spatially map out what tools needed to be where in order to design the perfect kitchen. They had their stopwatch out and went through all the motions with key staff members and other key personnel. Ultimately, they determined it was possible and then committed to the higher-fidelity experience which was renovating their kitchen according to this new playground + chalk layout.

High-fidelity Service Prototyping

The second example we typically discuss is of our friend Ravi and his IoT water pH sensing device. You can refer to the slides presented in class as to how this story goes. But this was a combination of low fidelity hardware prototyping along with a high-fidelity service prototyping experience which landed him $500K seed investment and an eventual company acquisition.

UPDATE 3/11/2020

PM Marketplace Example – how to prototype a complicated, two-sided market experience with minimal technology development.

Thanks to one of your colleagues, we had the opportunity to talk through a plausible prototype solution to test the marketplace dynamics of the Product Manager mentee/mentor marketplace. We talked through who the client(s) could be, and how they could prototype their marketplace experience WITHOUT building a fully-functional marketplace app (which is HARD).

You colleague also asked good questions about Opportunity Recognition and the Rapid Innovation Cycle execution timescales. You can find those notes here:

Rapid Innovation Cycle – Notes – Google Doc (accessible by current U.C. Berkeley Students only)


  1. 11 Best Prototyping Tools for UI / UX (link)
  2. McCoy, et. al. “Rapid Innovation Cycle” ASEAN Entrepreneurship. 2012. (link)
  3. “The Founder – Speedy System”. YouTube. Accessed on 3/8/2020. (link)