Pretotyping – Techniques for Building the Right Product

Alberto Savoia defines pretotyping as determining that you are “building the right product before you invest in building your product right.” His book “Pretotype It” (Second Edition available as a Free PDF or on Kindle for $0.99) lists a set of seven techniques for pretotyping on pages 39-40. This post analyzes and elaborates on the techniques from the book (bold text is from the book) and then offers five additional ones that should be included.

Seven Basic Pretotyping Techniques


  1. The Mechanical Turk – Replace complex and expensive computers or machines with human beings.
    Also known as

    • starting with a service
    • wrapping a thick protective blanket of consulting around your product so that no one is hurt by it
    • selling the holes not the drill
    • Wizard of Oz (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain).
    • Flintstoning (Fred Flinstone’s feet powered his “car”).
    • Manualating (a backward formation from automating)
    • the concierge method
  2. The Pinocchio – Build a non-functional, “lifeless”, version of the product.
    Useful for form and fit validation. Jeff Hawkins famously carried around a block of wood to get an appreciation for what a PDA might feel like.
  3. The Minimum Viable Product (or Stripped Tease) – Create a functional version of the product, but stripped down to its most basic functionality.
    A basic approach for any bootstrapper – make sure you have the simplest offering that customers are willing to buy before you worry about adding features (and delaying time to break even revenue).  In reading this Savoia is using the Marty Cagan MVP model “smallest possible product that has three critical characteristics: people choose to use it or buy it; people can figure out how to use it; and we can deliver it when we need it with the resources available – also known as valuable, usable and feasible.”
  4. The Provincial – Before launching world-wide, run a test on a very small sample.
    Start in a niche. When in doubt zoom in for traction.
  5. The Fake Door – Create a fake “entry” for a product that doesn’t yet exist in any form.
    I am not a fan of this except in very limited circumstances for B2B markets as it can be very corrosive to the trust required to built a long term business relationship. And at least with software products for business, a longer term relationship is normally intrinsic to the customer’s calculation of the value of your offering. If you start to erect “Potemkin village” products that have too many false fronts or facade items in your menus and options prospects may doubt the entire offering.
  6. The Pretend-to-Own – Before investing in buying whatever you need for your product, rent or borrow it first.
    Find a way to use tooling or equipment before committing to  a significant purchase.
  7. The Re-label – Put a different label on an existing product that looks like the product you want to create.
    Often a more complex product can have menu items deleted or entire branches of a menu tree pruned to explore whether this is a market for a simpler offering. At Cisco we didn’t stuff two connectors on a four port router and changed the paint job to create a “lower cost” model until the box could be re-designed.

Five I Think Should Be Added

  • The holodeck – simulate the effect of a product on a workflow: understand where the next bottleneck is to determine how much benefit eliminating one or more steps (or reducing one or more category of error) will actually yield. This is the default method for “system on a chip” design approaches but I suspect we will see more service workflow simulations as a part of the development of new service offerings in the future.
  • Family Tree – verify that manual implementations exist for what you plan to automate, has someone written an Excel macro (or an EMACS macro)  to solve the problem. Are people already following a checklist to prevent a category of errors? Replacing workarounds involves less behavior change (at least in terms of a customer’s view of the real problem) than getting them to try something without antecedents.
  • “What’s On Your Mind” – understand the customer’s view of the problem and the constraints your solution has to satisfy before proposing one.  This normally requires an active curiosity about the customer’s perception of their needs.  This is not the same as asking them for features and implementing them without considering the deeper implications.
  • Picnic in the Graveyard – do research on what’s been tried and failed. Many near misses have two out of three values in a feature set combination correct (some just have too many features and it’s less a matter of changing features than deleting a few). If you are going to introduce something that’s “been tried before” be clear in your own mind of what’s different about it and why it will make a difference to your customer.
  • Want Ad – ask customers to write up a job description with a focus on “results to be achieved” by your product. Clayton Christensen calls this the “jobs to be done” model for a new produce (See also Chapter 3 from Innovator’s SolutionWhat Products Will Customers Want to Buy

Savoia Adds “One Night Stand”

In workshops given after the second edition was published Savoia has added a new technique: The One Night Stand. Primarily aimed at retail innovation it says you can create “a complete service experience without the infrastructure required by a permanent solution.  Here are some details from the  “Pretotyping Cheat Sheet” by Leonardo Zangrando (

  • How: Deliver target customers the real experience in an extremely narrow geographic scope and time frame.
  • Why: Avoid large infrastructure investment until validating market interest and actual use.
  • Where: In the same real-life situation where the innovation will be used but with limited time and geographic scope.

Three situations where this is most appropriate:

  1. The solution is-or depends critically upon–an interactive service experience
  2. You expect demand for the offer will be sensitive to the choice of channel, and you need to test a number of possible customer interception points
  3. You want to validate a large homogeneous market before scaling up

I think this is an intelligent elaboration on what was called “The Provincial” in the second edition but it’s particularly appropriate where a specialized facility can be replaced in a trial for a temporary setup (e.g. a tent in the parking lot of an existing store, a stall in a farmers market, a rented facility in preference to building your own before you have determined there is a need).

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9 thoughts on “Pretotyping – Techniques for Building the Right Product”

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  2. I LOVE this list and the names. :)

    One that’s missing is a combined prototyping technique I refer to as Benjamin Button prototyping after the movie. It basically involves two simultaneous prototypes:

    • One that’s really “young” built by the engineering team that shows core functionality working (not quite MVP more like minimal product that’s not yet viable)
    • One that looks really “mature” but is actually non-functional. Similar to your Pinocchio on this list, typically as a beautiful looking keynote/powerpoint prototype that looks like a potential product. It can be clicked thru as part of a solution interview to illustrate a potential solution.

    Then over time the “young” looking and the more more “mature” prototypes can converge into a healthy 25-year adult that can successfully enter the world as your MVP. :)

    Slides here:

  3. Great post Sean.

    I’ve received many (dozens) of letters thanking me for the book, and I get a few questions each month, but I did not get many emails suggesting ideas as you did in March of 2012. Thanks for the pointers and suggestions.

    The list of pretotyping techniques I have in the book was just a sampler; I encourage people to create/name new ones–and you’ve done a great job.

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