Friday, August 20, 2010

My favorite pretotype story

by Alberto Savoia

Jeff Hawkins was a Palm co-founder and one of the inventors of the Palm Pilot.  Legend has it that, before committing to develop the Pilot, Jeff made and carried a mock-up (a block of wood) in his pocket for several weeks.  According to a story on Time magazine:

"Hawkins, 40, Palm's chief technologist and Pilot's creator, designed one of the first handheld computers, the GRiDPad, a decade ago. It was an engineering marvel but a market failure because, he says, it was still too big. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, he had a ready answer when his colleagues asked him how small their new device should be: "Let's try the shirt pocket."

Retreating to his garage, he cut a block of wood to fit his shirt pocket. Then he carried it around for months, pretending it was a computer. Was he free for lunch on Wednesday? Hawkins would haul out the block and tap on it as if he were checking his schedule. If he needed a phone number, he would pretend to look it up on the wood. Occasionally he would try out different design faces with various button configurations, using paper printouts glued to the block."

This story embodies the core motivations and principles of pretotyping:
  1. The first-hand experience of spending years and millions to produce "... an engineering marvel but a market failure."
  2. Realizing that their mistake was not in building 'it' wrong, but building the wrong 'it' and to "... not to make the same mistake twice."
  3. The creation of a pretotype – not to test if the Pilot could be built, but to test if he would actually use if they built it.
  4. Using one's imagination (i.e. pretending) to fill in the missing functionality.
While mock-ups and non-functional prototypes are quite common in innovation, the act of pretending that the mock-ups are functional and using them as such (especially for an extended period of time) is much more rare.  Pretending is key to pretotyping.  As a matter of fact, before I hit upon the term pretotype, I came up with pretendotype.  I eventually settled on pretotype because pretendotype was a mouthful.  It's useful to remember, however, that the 'pre' in pretotype stands not only for earlier, prior to or before (as in "before you build it"), but also as reminder of the importance of pretending. 

The Pilot story is also a great way to illustrate one of the key differences between pretotyping and prototyping – and why we think it makes sense to introduce yet another word in the innovation vocabulary.  The picture above is a classic pretotype, the picture below (a Pilot prototype board, from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View) is a classic prototype.

The primary purpose of prototypes is to answer questions such as:
  • Can we build it?
  • Will it work as intended?
  • How small/big/cheap/energy-efficient can we make it?
  • ...
The primary purpose of pretotypes is to answer questions such as:
  • Would I use it?
  • Would other people buy it?
  • If they buy it, would they actually use it (more than once or twice)?
  • ...
The two pictures also help to illustrate that it takes considerably more time, effort and money to build prototypes than to build pretotypes.

The line between pretotypes and prototypes is fuzzy; and some ideas lend themselves to pretotyping better than others.  It would be difficult and not too useful, for example, to pretotype a laser before building one.  But I believe that, in all cases, it's worthwhile to spend at least a few minutes thinking whether or not there is an opportunity for pretotyping and what could be learned by doing so.

I hope you enjoyed this first post on our pretotyping blog and found it useful.  Feel free to comment and add your favorite examples of pretotyping.



  1. This IS my favorite example of pretotyping. I've had an idea for a bit where I considered fabricating something and pretending to use it. Had no idea someone coined a term for it.

    Sad to see there hasn't been any other posts since this first one.

  2. I agree with @Colonel Kernel, too bad you haven't updated the blog in a while, this is an interesting and useful tool.

    It would be nice if you were to update the description to show how this concept isn't entirely tied to UI considerations. I have found that 'paper prototyping', er pretotyping, has been enormously useful in library and API and library design; developers are users too and should be considered with any software architecture.

    This approach is a nice way of chopping away unnecessary fat from a library and getting it down to the essence of what's needed. It also is a nice way to test your metaphors.

  3. @Colonel @Ryan, thank you for your comments. Yes, we've been slow to add material - but for good reasons, we've been busy doing rather than talking. Besides, we are pretotyping the blog itself to see if people are interested in the subject. But I'll add something good today!