Student and faculty innovators explain how to build the right kind of prototype for your situation, helpful digital and physical tools to consider – and how to get started.
You have a great idea – a really great one. You’ve done your research, spoken with peers, colleagues and potential customers, and now you’re ready to create a prototype to simulate a product. But where do you start? Can you create a prototype on campus? When is the best time to create a prototype? Innovate Carolina supports many students, faculty and alumni who are on this same quest. We’ve heard similar questions and checked in with faculty and student experts who have guidance to offer.
We recently spoke with:
These experts give you insights on functional vs. aesthetic prototypes, how to work within your budget and the physical and digital resources they recommend to get started.
Denali Dahl: Kalia Health is developing a home-based urine test for preeclampsia. We developed a proof-of-concept prototype that can detect our biomarkers of interest from a fresh urine sample using a lateral flow assay format. For us, what was critical about this prototype is demonstrating that our diagnostic idea is possible. We had the idea and knew that it should be possible based on pre-existing research and literature, but being able to scientifically prove that the diagnostic idea is possible was a critical step. This means it's an idea that's worth continuing to pursue (go/no go decision). For investors, the proof-of-concept prototype is essential to de-risking the idea and showing that our idea can be translated into reality, which is essential for attracting funding. Other prototypes that are focused on aesthetics and showing what the device would look like are also helpful, even if they are not functional. For example, if we are giving a presentation or at a showcase event, having an example of what the device would look like makes the explanation to new people easier – It gives them something to look at, they can handle it, see how it feels. The perfect prototype is one that helps you meet a specific goal or milestone. For us, the functional prototype de-risked our idea and demonstrated proof-of-concept. The non-functional aesthetic prototype helped us explain our ideas at competitions and presentations.
Jeff Terrell: The best time, in a word, is early. People need something to see and interact with to really get your vision. And it's difficult to persuade a partner or investor to engage if they don't really get it. Plus, having a prototype shows people that you believe in your own idea enough to spend some time working on it, so they're more likely to take you seriously.
Once you start talking to others and envision possibilities, you find more opportunities to connect with people from different disciplines who have new ideas. It’s been an amazing opportunity to take that risk and try to reach out and find people who are also interested in thinking a little bit differently. We’re pushing the boundaries of what it means to teach in the humanities.
Walters: Assuming that the appropriate amount of preliminary work has been done (e.g. characterizing user, identifying needs, defining features, etc.), the first step in my opinion is to always start with hand drawn sketches. This is true regardless of the type of product or service. Drawing and diagraming by hand is simultaneously visceral and cathartic. It helps guide the direction of the interpretation and opens the mind to more creative processes. While I do employ a wide range of methods and technologies in prototyping, I almost never start with an electronic visualization of a prototype. Creation of virtual prototype renderings is rarely worthwhile at the early stages. Creation of functional virtual prototypes is often necessary with more complex mechanical designs, but again, it wouldn’t be the first step.
Jain, Majety and Makwana: For QUVI, we did not spend any money to create our prototype. We were fortunate to have access to great resources on campus like the BeAM makerspace that allowed us to develop and build our first prototype completely for free. When creating a low-resolution prototype, it doesn't make much sense to spend a significant amount of money developing it because it's just mostly to help yourself and others visualize a very basic vision of your idea. Additionally, this first prototype will most likely still be riddled with problems and errors and sinking large amounts of money into it probably isn't the best use of that money. We used our first prototype more as a proof of concept and to help show the judges in the Makeathon competition how we planned on implementing our product. Even for our working prototype we did not spend thousands of dollars creating it. Rather, we worked with our mentor to find someone who would be willing to build it for a heavily reduced price. This allowed us to use our money towards lab testing and future development.
Jain, Majety and Makwana: Our process for creating a physical prototype entailed developing a 3D CAD model, 3D printing it in the BeAM makerspace, and iterating on it as we applied for grants and received funding before we pursued creating our MVP. This process was advantageous in the sense that we were able to transform our idea into something that was presentable quickly, but we also learned that prototype refinement is a constant process. After we created our first prototype, we continued to brainstorm ways in which we could make improvements to the chassis and its durability, or how we could better contain the UV-C light inside QUVI. When we were starting to build our functioning prototype, having these ideas and concepts in place allowed us to improve QUVI’s efficiency and safety. e limitless possibility.
Terrell: Two things. For software prototypes, the most important advice I can give is to use existing design patterns that users already know. (For more on this, see the classic book Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, especially the latest edition.) Second, it can be so hard to get out there and put your prototype in front of people, and even harder when they're not impressed or have lots of criticisms. But to be successful as an entrepreneur, you must learn to persist, iterating at each step and pivoting as necessary.
Walters: Ideas are worth little until you personally engage in the production of a prototype. The BeAM makerspaces are a fantastic resource for learning technical skills. The BeAM trainings increasingly include basic prototyping activities, and the spaces feature a wide range of materials and technologies useful for creating prototypes. The Carmichael makerspace (temporarily closed – possible reopening in the spring) is a particularly good resource for physical brainstorming. Kenan Science Library also has excellent collaborative spaces and resources for low-fi prototyping. Our course, APPL110: Introduction to Design and Making, is a full semester dive into human-centered design and prototyping. With extensive use of the BeAM resources, this course is designed to help students immerse in the design/prototyping process. Our primary objectives are to teach a sound, need-based design process, to encourage perseverance through challenging design/build iterations and to help students embrace that failures are an essential and valuable element of the process.