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Four tips to prototype your IoT product on a shoestring budget

For every hit IoT product, there are dozens that unnecessarily met their demise.

Take Juicero, the creator of an unquestionably cool connected juice machine. Complete with a custom-built scanner, microprocessor and wireless chip, Silicon Valley’s darling juicer crushed sealed bags of fruit and vegetables to produce a drink.

Investors poured millions into the startup only to find that customers could squeeze the bags themselves to accomplish the same result more quickly. In his defense, Juicero founder Doug Evans was quick to point out that he spent years developing a dozen prototypes of the machine.

Some who hear Juicero’s story might take from it that IoT product prototyping just isn’t worth the trouble. True, prototyping an IoT product tends to be more costly and complex than other tech products. If anything, though, it’s more important with IoT products than standalone software. Prototyping is creators’ best tool for judging technical feasibility while also validating the product’s market fit — two areas in which IoT products are particularly likely to be tripped up.

Same results, fewer costs

To be sure, IoT prototyping is well worth the money. But if you’re concerned about costs, rest assured that there are plenty of ways to do it inexpensively and effectively:

  1. Build a simpler mousetrap. Your prototype does not have to be perfect; in fact, it shouldn’t be perfect. Identify and test only your product’s riskiest assumptions. For Juicero, for example, this should have involved testing whether users even needed the device to squeeze their juice. Think of your prototype as a test to see whether your product warrants further investment, not a production run.
  2. Test with a minimum of users. Don’t skip user testing because you think you need a big research department to do it. Find just five users to put your prototype in front of. Use their insights to cheaply tweak your design. For hardware components, in particular, post- or mid-production tweaks could cost millions. Let your prototype testers save you from your own blind spots.
  3. Focus on the service, not the features. Young IoT companies often try to load as many features as possible into their products. Instead, focus your prototype on the service your product will provide. Ultimately, you’ll wind up with a product that’s cleaner, easier to use, and cheaper to produce.For example, why did Juicero bother to embed a scanner and blocking system into its app? Couldn’t it have just used a QR code scanner to log the packets and check their expiration dates? Save money and reduce the risk of being scooped by a competitor by building a no-nonsense prototype.
  4. Manage the device from an app. Another common mistake greenhorn IoT creators make is trying to do too much on the device’s firmware. By their very nature, IoT devices are connected to a mobile or web app. Why not let that software handle interface control and processing instead? Trust me; it’s much easier to update an app than it is to push a firmware update to a hardware device. Taking this route will drop development costs and cycle times down the road.

Yes, prototyping takes time and money. But the alternative is to let the market test your IoT device’s most daring assumptions. Considering the costs of hardware production — not to mention the value of your company’s reputation — that’s one lemon that you don’t want to wait to squeeze.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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