Solving the Prototype Puzzle

Kelly Gebo

When Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik pieced together what would become the Rubik’s Cube, he wasn’t trying to design a toy. He wanted to build a device to help his students understand three-dimensional movement.

The first Rubik’s Cube was made from wood, rubber bands, and paperclips. The model worked, but didn’t solve his underlying concern. To make the movement easier to see, he decided to paint each side a different color — and that’s when things went wonky.

Rubik made a few turns and found himself completely stuck. He had scrambled the cube and couldn’t figure out a way to return it to its solved state. Can you imagine a more frustrating situation?

With no other option, Rubik spent weeks trying to solve his cube until he finally hit upon a solution — and a Eureka! moment. He realized he didn’t create an academic model; he’d built a logic puzzle.

I love the story of the Rubik’s Cube because it’s such a clear illustration of the right way to approach prototyping.

Many entrepreneurs and designers can become so focused on the prototype itself, they lose sight of its purpose. The true value of a prototype lies in what kind of feedback it generates from users.

A successful prototype answers questions. Does this product fix the problem it’s meant to solve? Is the interface intuitive? Is it better than other methods?

The answers provide rich data that drives the path forward. Sometimes, all that’s needed are tweaks to optimize the experience. Other times, the first version gets tossed out completely and we start at square one. But a fresh start with better data is still a step forward, and more importantly, you didn’t move too far down the wrong path.

In Rubik’s case, he embraced the logic puzzle and set about finding a way to make it better. He replaced the glue and paper clips with a more sophisticated internal mechanism. He guessed it would only appeal to STEM students, so he partnered with a chess model manufacturer to make 5,000 copies.

Then something strange happened.

While Rubik was showing his puzzle to math students, it began to capture the imaginations of others — literature students, children, office workers. Seeing that consumers used his puzzle for fun instead of a brain teaser, led Rubik to order another, much larger, batch of cubes. Within two years, he partnered with an American toy company that asked for an initial run of 1 million Rubik’s Cubes.

Like Rubik’s creation, every first prototype buzzes with the potential energy. It’s thrilling to see an idea come into being. But the best writing advice, “Kill your darlings,” applies equally well to early product designs.

Expecting a prototype to have the polished look and functionality of the end product is a path toward disappointment. The real excitement of a prototype comes from the first batch of user learnings.

thoughtbot’s Product Design Sprints help to bring new concepts to market in part by testing early product iterations with unbiased target users. Our dedicated Teams not only help build and test a prototype, we partner with you to sift through the feedback and uncover the path forward. Our goal is to take your idea and turn it into the best possible product it can be.

Erno Rubik created the best-selling toy of all time because he observed how people (himself included) interacted with the product. He abandoned what didn’t work and changed marketing strategies to target the right demographic.

thoughtbot can help you do the same. If you have an idea or product that could benefit from early-stage development help, we’d love to work with you.