How To Go From Idea To Prototype In One Day

We spoke with a maker, a developer, and a designer to learn how to go from idea to prototype in one day.

While waiting for her family to return with ice cream after an early-morning bicycle ride down Huntington Beach in Orange County, Sally Dunne noticed a gentleman ride by with a double cup holder attached to the handlebars of his bike. A coffee was in one holder and a juice was in the other. A cycling fan with a textile design degree, Dunne immediately thought how wonderful it would be if people could easily beautify the handlebars on their bicycles. She envisioned a cheerful bloom of flowers clipped onto the man’s bicycle handlebars. At that moment, her product Pedal Petals was born.

But until this point, Dunne’s story isn’t unique. Many entrepreneurs conceive of product ideas at the most unlikely times and in the most unlikely places. What does make her story unique is that less than 24 hours after conceiving her idea, she had created a fully functioning prototype and already made her first sale.

Even five years ago, creating a prototype in one day would have been much harder than it is today. As Dunne discovered, thanks to the advent of 3-D printers, a 24-hour prototype turnaround can be a reality. And 24-hour prototyping isn’t limited to makers creating physical products. Thanks to a number of specialized apps and services, developers can also prototype an app in one day if they know the right methods and tools to use.

We spoke with Dunne, a developer, and a designer to get their best tips on how you can prototype your product–whether it’s hardware or software–in just one day.


Keep It Simple

The reason Dunne was able to prototype her product on the same day she conceived it was because she kept it simple. “Pedal Petals are relatively simple products, made from just two parts, a clip and a flower,” she says. “By midmorning, I was back in my apartment drafting on Rhino a simple design for a snap-fit clip. By late morning, I had printed my first prototype of the clip on our home 3D Systems Cube printer. While the clips were printing, I popped to downtown L.A. to the silk-flower district and picked up a colorful, radiant array of blooms. Once home around 2 p.m., I simply attached the silk flower to the clip and photographed my first prototype, uploaded the first Pedal Petal to the sellers website Etsy, and actually made my first sale that very day.”

The relatively simple nature of her product lent itself to rapid design. Though she could have sat around imagining more advanced options for the first Pedal Petal, Dunne realized that would defeat the main goal of prototyping, which is to quickly evaluate whether your idea is on the right track. The more you can simplify and refine your idea, the easier it will be to prototype.

“Having a coherent idea with minimum components helps when you need to prototype an idea quickly,” says Dunne. “Your idea may be as inventive or as creative as you like, but keeping your preprototyping ideas and sketches simple and clean will speed up the prototyping process.”

That advice is something Tomas Laurinavicius thinks app developers wanting to prototype in 24 hours should follow too, especially considering how tempting it can be for a developer to keep piling on features–after all, they don’t need to worry about physical design constraints. Laurinavicius is the editor of Despreneur, a magazine for design entrepreneurs, and the coauthor of the Mobile Design Book, which collects his research on what makes dozens of apps successful.

“Write down a list of 25 features and functions you have in mind for your app and prioritize the top five and avoid the other 20 at all costs” if you want to prototype your app in one day, says Laurinavicius. “Creativity constraints force you to come up with the most brilliant ideas, so limiting yourself will make you think more of what you want to accomplish rather than [getting sidetracked with] all the possible ideas you can come up with.”

Don’t Strive For Perfection

Laurinavicius also says every maker should keep in mind this quote from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Laurinavicius says he often sees designers trying for perfection with their first prototype, which often stunts their progress and keeps many of them from ever making rapid prototypes.

“Just do it,” says Laurinavicius. “There is no right time to execute your ideas, you will never be ready, you will never have enough money, you will never feel confident that it is the idea that will change the world. If you keep waiting, the time will pass anyway. Prototype your app, fail fast, learn, iterate, and you will be getting closer to your goal.”

That’s something Dunne readily agrees with. “Don’t waste time initially aiming for an absolute faultless product,” she says. “Use the prototyping stage to do just that–prototype. Get your product to market or on the table in front of investors as soon as you can.”


If You Are Making Physical Products, Use A 3-D Printer

Dunne believes that if you are making a physical product, investing in a 3-D printer is well worth it. “I was able to rapidly turn my idea into a product in just one day [because] I had access to a 3D Systems Cube printer at home, so I was confident I could design a clip, 3-D print it, and attach it to a high-quality silk flower before the end of the day.”

When Dunne began Pedal Petals in 2011, many 3-D printers were still costly–but in recent years, as more competitors have entered the market, the prices of these devices have fallen. An entry-level Cube printer from 3D Systems, like the one Dunne used, is around $1,100. 3-D printers from MakerBot, another popular 3-D printer manufacturer, start at around $2,500.

“Having access to a 3D Systems Cube printer certainly makes life a lot easier when prototyping new products,” says Dunne. “You can efficiently customize your designs rapidly. 3-D printing makes the prototyping process immediate. If you have access to a 3-D printer, then you can go back and remodel or alter your designs and reprint until your part or product fits the ideal criteria. This is the advantage of using 3-D printing for prototyping–you can modify, redesign, and print as often as you like.”

But don’t worry if you don’t have it in your budget to splash out on your own 3-D printer. You can still design your product and upload your CAD file to Cubify.com, where it will be 3-D printed in materials of your choosing–including ceramic, metal, or even sugar.

Know Your Software Options

For app developers, the equivalent of a 3-D printer is a suite of software solutions that rapidly allow you to prototype your idea. One of Laurinavicius’s favorites is an app called POP (Prototyping on Paper), which works well for low-fidelity wireframes. POP allows you to draw the layout of the app on paper, take pictures of it with your smartphone, and use those pictures to make an interactive prototype in 10 minutes or less, so you can start testing and iterating your prototype before moving on to the visual design phase.

For making high-fidelity prototypes “that can really impress potential clients or an investor,” says Laurinavicius, use an app called InVision. Upload your designs and then add clickable hotspots that mimic touch interactions, transitions, and animations, which can help your rapid prototype achieve the feeling of a real app.

Laurinavicius also says you shouldn’t be afraid to hack the design process: “Visual design can take weeks to get into the desired shape, but there is a shortcut to excellent design by utilizing free mobile UI kits that are designed to help you prototype high-fidelity apps in no time.”

He suggests browsing Dribbble or Freebiesbug to find top-notch mobile UI kits that are available for free for personal use, and can be purchased for commercial use. “They can save you weeks of hard work or money you would need to pay for a designer.”

A final tool Laurinavicius recommends for developers who want to prototype an app in one day is Skala Preview. It allows you to “make amendments to your designs and instantly see them pixel perfect on your iOS or Android device,” he says.


Take Shortcuts

IOS developer Olivier Collet conceived of and prototyped his popular Off The Mind quick-notetaking app in just a day. In order for Collet to do that, it was necessary to take shortcuts in both the coding and design departments, he says.

“If you’re building the prototype using the platform’s official tools and language, it is good to research the third-party libraries that could help you build the prototype faster,” advises Collet. “Use popular libraries, as they usually offer more documentation, which will prove helpful. For example, AFNetworking on iOS is kind of a must-have for any app that requires retrieving data from the web.”

Collet also says that there are no reasons to spend time on your prototype’s design unless your app’s main feature is a distinctive visual component. “It’s faster to use the default components offered by the platform. And don’t spend time on colors, fonts, or icons–you can figure them out later.”

These suggestions may make perfectionists or purists take pause, but Collet says those people are missing the point–-and will miss their ability to prototype in 24 hours if they can’t get past it.

“It’s fine for a prototype to have issues and be ugly,” he says. “The goal of a prototype is to evaluate an idea. Once the idea is validated, you will iterate to improve the prototype and make it an app that can be shipped.”

Have you ever prototyped your idea in one day? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below!

About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, freelance journalist, and former screenwriter represented worldwide by The Hanbury Literary Agency. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books.

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