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In this two-part  essay, we first cover the concepts of pretotype vs prototype and hypothesis-based entrepreneurship.  In the second part, Use case: Social ethnodroids for pretotyping in language learning, we are going to apply this approach to the design of children’s language learning toys using an ethnographic robot called a social ethnodroid. See also another pretotyping experiment Hypothesis-driven: Nordstrom’s ‘flash build’ for app development

Design entrepreneurs never commit the fundamental error of going straight to the full-blown business plan. If you do, you may assume too many things that are untrue – unless and until you have proven/validated them.

The best way to quickly test your assumptions is by using a three-step process called PVP:

Pretotype, Validate, Pivot


What is pretotype, validate, pivot?

And what is the difference between pretotype vs prototype? PVP is a set of experiments, tools and metrics that helps you build a solution that people will actually want to use. Remember Savoia’s famous phrase: ‘Make sure you are building the right it before you build it right.’[i] This process makes sure you have found the right it. Today we call it hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship.

Definitions of pretotype and prototype
Definitions of pretotype and prototype

Pretotyping (basically ‘pretend-prototyping’) is the tool that allows you to cheaply and quickly put your idea into a form to see if it achieves product-solution fit. This way, product developers can churn through many ideas at a low cost and with minimum time investment (even overnight).

Basically, you create a series of low-fidelity mock-ups (virtual or physical) that you can use to see if they solve a user’s problem. A pretotype allows you to simulate the core experience of your idea with the smallest possible investment of time and money to see if customers will use it. Pretotyping helps you to fail fast enough and cheaply enough that you have time and resources to try something different.  For more on Pretotyping see this endnote.[ii]

How does this fit into hypothesis-based entrepreneurship

Image representing Hypothesis-Driven Entrepreneurship
Hypothesis-Driven Entrepreneurship

Hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship tests an identified opportunity using hypotheses and experimental tests to validate whether to persevere with an existing product or to pivot. Pivoting is a ‘course correction’ in product development when the design team decides to change one or another aspect of the innovation while keeping other aspects constant. This is all part of the process of validation, a scientific method that helps developers cheaply and quickly test (sometimes risky and unproved) assumptions about customers, product, and market. One experimental technique of validation is known as pretotyping.

For these experiments, we use pretotypes.  What is pretotype vs prototype? ‘Preto’ comes from the word ‘pretend’. So a pretotype is a ‘pretend prototype’. An actual prototype is something you produce right before you begin large-scale, costly product. The pretotype is a preliminary version. It may fail or not even work, but it gives us information from potential customers so that we can create a better one, one that satisfies more customer needs.

As Alberto Savoia, the father of pretotyping, says, a pretotype helps you to ‘make sure you are building the right “it” before you build it right.’ Using validation through pretotyping, one can verify whether the problem exists for potential customers, whether the product has the functionality to satisfy customer expectations, and indeed whether there is a market of people willing to buy or use it.[iii]

Understanding the difference between preto versus proto

There are a couple of great historical examples that illustrate the process of pretotyping. One is the famous PalmPilot (see Figure) from the late ’90s. It seems so obvious today that it was amazing no one thought of it sooner: a shirt-pocket-sized computer that keeps track of phone numbers, addresses, calendar appointments, a to-do list and memos.

Pretotype, prototype, product: The PalmPilot
To test his concept, entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins first created the device… out of wood! Today, we call it the Pinocchio test because Jeff was ‘telling a lie’ that everyone knew.

To test his concept, entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins first created the device… out of wood! Today, we call it the Pinocchio test because Jeff was ‘telling a lie’ that everyone knew. He brought out his fake PalmPilot at meetings and tapped it with his wooden stylus (a chopstick!), saying ‘When can we get together, let me put it into my device.’ He used different design interfaces and various button configurations made of paper glued on to the wood, and he carried his pretotype around for months pretending it was a computer. Only much later, after he had identified huge interest, did he build the prototype, which actually worked, but was much too big (see Figure 7.2). After much iteration, pivoting, validation and pretotyping, the device was market-ready in 1997.[iv]

Another famous historical example of pretotyping is IBM’s speech-to-text transcriber.[v] Back in the mid-1980s, engineers had the idea for a speech-to-text computer where you could dictate into a microphone and the text would miraculously appear on the screen. The prototype phase would obviously have cost millions. Before investing huge sums, to see if they had the right it, IBM asked focus group customers to try out a pretotype. The trick was that their words were being transcribed to screen by a typist sitting the next room. Users were amazed and initially thought it would solve a great pain they had: dictation. But the surprises were equally astounding. IBM learned that even though the customers were astonished, they did not like the solution for reasons that had not even occurred to the IBM team. The customers got sore throats, and they were concerned about privacy (they wanted a sound-proof booth!).[vi]

This is now called the Mechanical Turk testafter a fake chess-playing machine constructed for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.[vii] The mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, but in truth there was a Turkish chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. It is also called the Wizard of Oz test because we ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’.[viii]

What is the difference between pretotype vs prototype?

An actual prototype is something you produce right before you make the product. A pretotype is a preliminary version (first image). It may sound counter’intuitive, but you should put an unpolished pretotype in front of potential customers as soon and as often as you can. If you have truly targeted a real pain, then users will recognize the potential of your idea and want to know more. You need to show it to the real users that you identified in the opportunity identification phase, whose actual pains you understand and are trying to solve. Even if you are embarrassed by your pretotype’s appearance, it is important to engage with the users as soon as possible. Listen to their experiences and problems. Especially important is to find out the minimum number and type of features required to solve their pain points.

Savoia’s simple pretotyping questions

Get your customers/stakeholders to answer Savoia’s simple questions:

  • Does this solve problems that you have?
  • Is it better than alternative solutions?
  • Would you and others use it?
  • Would you buy it? How much would you pay?

Pretotypes and prototypes answer different questions.

What is the difference between pretotyping and prototyping?

PretotypesPrototypes
Is this the right thing to build? Should we build it at all?Can we build it?
Would people be interested in it?Will it work as expected?
Will people use it as expected?Will it continue to work and not fail?
Will people continue to use it?How will people use it?
Can we build a stripped-down mock-up?How fast can we make it?
Will people pay for it?Can we create a version as close as possible to the final product?
What are the minimum features to solve the pain?Can we show all the features the product will have?
How can we design it to fail fast and cheaply?Can we produce it fast or cheaply enough?
Many, many iterations before the final productFunctional and close to the final product
Cost and timeframe very lowTakes months or years and can cost millions
Will people use it at all?What will people use it for?

Now that you understand the difference between pretotype vs prototype, you have finished the first of a two-part essay on pretotyping and hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship.  Now to to part two [[Pretotyping a social ethnodroid to test children’s learning progress]] to apply this approach to the design of children’s language learning toys using an ethnographic robot called a social ethnodroid.

Cover of Frederick, O'Connor, Kuratko (2019), Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage) Excerpted from Asia-Pacific edition of Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage, 2019)

[i] Savoia, A. (2014). Pretotype it. Jama Software. Retrieved from https://www.jamasoftware.com/blog/pretotype/ .

[ii] For more on pretotyping, AnyShape (2017). Pretotyping – Fake it before you make it. AnyShape. Retrieved from https://makeanyshape.com/pages/what-is-pretotyping ; Hayden, R. (2017). Pretotyping – Pretending to prototype. Blender – Product Design & Development. Retrieved from https://www.blender.nz/2017/05/pretotyping-pretending-prototype/ ; Pretotyping – Techniques for building the right product. (2017). Startup Commons Global. Retrieved from http://www.startupcommons.org/1/post/2014/09/pretotyping-techniques-for-building-the-right-product.html ; Prevett, R. (2016). At a glance – Pretotyping. Disruption. Retrieved from https://disruptionhub.com/at-a-glance-pretotyping/ ; Rees (2012). The end of our Kodak moment; Savoia, A. (2010). Pretotyping: My favorite pretotype story. Pretotyping. Retrieved from http://pretotyping.blogspot.mx/2010/08/one-of-my-favorite-pretotype-stories.html ; Savoia, A. (2011). Pretotyping: A different type of testing. Google Testing Blog. Retrieved from https://testing.googleblog.com/2011/08/pretotyping-different-type-of-testing.html ; Savoia, A. (2015). How is pretotyping different from prototyping? Quora. Retrieved from https://www.quora.com/How-is-pretotyping-different-from-prototyping ; Savoia, A. (2017). Introduction to pretotyping. Pretotyping. Retrieved from http://www.pretotyping.org/historical-artifacts.html ; Singh, M. (2015). What is pretotyping? Agilious. Retrieved from http://agilious.com/what-is-pretotyping/ ; Zangrando, L. (2016). The pretotype innovation process. Pretotype Matters. Retrieved from https://medium.com/pretotype-matters/pm-weekly-the-pretotype-innovation-process-8f234062a544 .

[iii] Savoia, A. (2011). Pretotype It: Make sure you are building the right it before you build it right. Alberto Savoia. Retrieved from http://www.pretotyping.org/uploads/1/4/0/9/14099067/pretotype_it_2nd_pretotype_edition-2.pdf; Savoia, A. (2011). Pretotyping: A Different Type of Testing. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from https://testing.googleblog.com/2011/08/pretotyping-different-type-of-testing.html; Savoia, A. (2014). Pretotype It. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.jamasoftware.com/blog/pretotype/; Savoia, A. (2015). How is pretotyping different from prototyping? – Quora. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from https://www.quora.com/How-is-pretotyping-different-from-prototyping; Savoia, A. (2016). How ethical is pretotyping? Retrieved May 15, 2017, from https://www.quora.com/How-ethical-is-pretotyping; Savoia, A. (n.d.). Introduction to Pretotyping. Retrieved May 9, 2017, from http://www.pretotyping.org/historical-artifacts.html;

[iv] Jeff Hawkins (2017, February 19). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jeff_Hawkins&oldid=766274071; Savoia (2010). Pretotyping: My favorite pretotype story; Jackson, D. S. (1998, March 16). Palm-to-palm combat. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,987979,00.html.

[v] Kelley, J. F. (1983). An empirical methodology for writing user-friendly natural language computer applications. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 193–6). New York, NY, USA: ACM; Kelley, J. F. (1984). An iterative design methodology for user-friendly natural language office information applications. ACM Transactions on Information Systems, 2, 26–41.

[vi] 16       Hammer, S. (2016). How IBM saved millions by thinking small. LinkedIn Pulse. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-ibm-saved-millions-thinking-small-sebastian-hammer ; Hernandez, D. (2013, August 11). Tech time warp of the week: IBM speech recognition, 1986. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2013/11/tech-time-warp-of-the-week-ibms-speech-savvy-computer-1986/ ; Savoia (2014). Pretotype it.

[vii] Poe, E. A. (1836). Maelzel’s chess-player. Retrieved from https://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/maelzel.htm .

[viii] Akers, D. (2006). Wizard of Oz for participatory design: Inventing a gestural interface for 3D selection of neural pathway estimates. In CHI ’06 extended abstracts on human factors in computing systems (pp. 454–9). New York, NY, USA: ACM https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1125451.1125552; Höysniemi, J., Hämäläinen, P., & Turkki, L. (2004). Wizard of Oz prototyping of computer vision based action games for children. In Proceedings of the 2004 Conference on Interaction Design and Children: Building a Community (pp. 27–34). New York, NY, USA: ACM. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1017833.1017837

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