What Are IDEAs Made Of: Prototypes

Mike Rea

IDEA Pharma

Nothing comes out perfect the first time.

All the thinking in the world won’t automatically generate a solution that has ‘thought of everything’. That is why IDEAs need prototypes.

The MIT professor and author Michael Schrage introduces the idea of prototypes with a wonderful concept, called “The Magic Mirror”. This mirror allows you to see yourself 5kg heavier, or 5kg lighter, with a beard, with red hair, in ten years if maintaining / changing a current lifestyle, and any other command you give it. The important thing is not just that it’s clever – it is how much you would use the mirror, how often – how many different visualisations would you run past it? (Would you ask your partner to use it, too? Would you let your partner see you 5kg lighter..?) And, as importantly, what would you do with the results? Would you act upon them?

Each version of ‘you’ would be a prototype – something offered up for evaluation. We always illustrate prototypes further by providing an additional example: you ask us to develop a great coffee cup. Whatever we offer up, you are bound to have additional ideas to critique / improve ‘our’ coffee cup: it needs to be transportable, fit in a cup holder, look attractive on a coffee table, keep coffee hot for 2 hours, be recyclable, etc. What just happened is that you refined your brief to us in a way that would have been difficult had you just been thinking through ‘what you want’ in your next coffee cup. We also went away with ideas about how to make a differentiated, and ‘better’ coffee cup.

Think about the latest iPod. When it started as a square-ish white mp3 player, the idea of an App Store that would drive revenues, and the adoption of an iPhone, was a long way from Apple’s mind. However, over time, as the tech developed, Apple kept asking users what they might want. Unlike most other companies, however, Apple prefers to ‘show and see’ rather than expect the audience to do all the hard work – ‘if it did this, would that be cool?’

So it is with product IDEAs – the go-to-market strategies for a new product. The only way possible to find out what customers might want from your product, or to see how they might use it, is to prototype. Laying out several ways to ‘see’ your molecule is 180 degrees away from just laying out your product profile (base or optimistic) and then asking them what they think. Think around the problems with that approach – they can only imagine within a certain frame of reference (the data that you have collected and shown) how good the product is at one thing. They certainly don’t know enough about it to think about what else it might do… Whereas, one hopes, you do.


“The intention behind prototyping is not to pick ‘a winner’, but to improvise with the unanticipated in ways that create new value…”

The intention behind prototyping is not to pick ‘a winner’, but to “improvise with the unanticipated in ways that create new value” – once several prototypes have been developed, investigated with the audience (internal first, as a proxy, then external) and the strategic ‘So What’s’ have been examined, newer, better IDEAs can be built.

For example, if a physician comes back and says ‘all that QoL is nice, but I’d really be using this to drive ultimate efficacy’, or ‘the patch isn’t a way to manage GI tolerability, it’s for patients who are non-compliant’, or ‘that’s really interesting – the idea that depression and pain are often inter-related and interdependent, I hadn’t seen it before, but I recognise that’, you then have a brief to look further and to harness these observations to develop the product that way. You can understand all of the strategic ‘So What’s’ of each of those potential directions, and then choose a path with much greater conviction, and much greater differentiation, than before.

‘Not picking a winner’ is hard for a lot of people. The phrase that comes back most often from a prototype IDEA (internally) is ‘I don’t like’… In our workshops, ‘I don’t like’ has its own $1 swearbox, unless it is accompanied by a ‘because…’ The ‘because’ gives us something we can improve. Prototypes are never offered up and defended – they are for play, for manhandling and criticism, because the ‘because’ gives insight that couldn’t be gained any other way.

As revenues from recently launched drugs continue to fall (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/jun/28/big-pharma-new-drugs-report), it has never been more critical to IDEAte hard, and early. Instead, many companies are playing ‘follow the leader’ and hoping their product works out better. As the man says, ‘hope is not a strategy’, or as nicely paraphrased by the chef Anthony Bourdain, ‘luck is not a business plan.’

About the author:

Mike Rea is a Principal with IDEA Pharma, who enjoys taking a look outside the industry to learn how it can think differently. For direct enquiries he can be contacted on mike.rea@ideapharma.com and for more information on IDEA Pharma please see http://www.ideapharma.com/what/default.htm.

The next WAIMO piece will be in a couple of weeks.

Does pharma do enough drug ‘prototyping’?