How Do You Build a Prototype? Stick With Just One Thing

    by John Clark
    October 7, 2014
    Lab interns finalize ideas.

    As our student startup teams embark on building a first prototype of a product idea, a common issue emerges: prioritizing what should go into the prototype. Something must go.

    Actually, almost everything should go.reese

    "Our students must come up with their 'one thing' to test. If two things hold equal importance (as with this group), they must pick only one thing to test at a time."

    So in the Lab, we ask students to answer this question: What’s the one thing you need to know right now?


    I feel like Curly from the movie “City Slickers” as he tries to explain the secret of life. Holding up one finger, Curly tells Mitch, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean $!%&.” We help students identify the one assumption they have that if incorrect, would make their product pointless. That changes everything.

    prove your assumptions

    For example, one group of students is working this semester on a project involving restaurant sanitation grades and food allergies. The students’ first inclination for the prototype was an interface that displayed the pertinent information about a restaurant.

    But that misses a big assumption. Would anyone even want to get that page? Is there sufficient perceived value for customers to take the first step and enter a restaurant’s name for information?


    If the customer will not take that first step, how (or even if) the data is displayed really doesn’t matter. It’s the one thing: Will customers provide the name of a restaurant they want to visit in order to get more information?

    To find out, students must conduct a simple test of a specific action to determine if customers want what’s being offered.

    You don’t need a fully functioning database to determine if customers want to search through it. You only need the input fields for an email address and search terms. Will customers feel tricked if you give them a “sorry, we really don’t have the database” page? Possibly, yes. But you should be willing to find that information by hand and get it back to them as quickly as possible.

    By doing so, you’ve proven there is enough value for the customer to take the first action and that she will give you something of value (albeit limited): an email address. When you deliver the results of your manual search, you have another opportunity to engage with the customer to learn more about what she needs and expects from the service.

    Just Pick One Thing

    The same holds true for a group of students working on a Teach For America model for journalists. Their first assumption was that students would sign up because they’re guaranteed a job. It’s a great assumption, but it must be proven. If students aren’t interested, the next step doesn’t matter.

    What about media organizations in which the students would be placed? Our assumption is that the organizations would take the students. That could be the one thing to test. As Curly told Mitch, “that’s what you have to find out.” Our students must come up with their “one thing” to test. If two things hold equal importance (as with this group), they must pick only one thing to test at a time.

    “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean $!%&.” When that’s done, you define the next “one thing.”

    John Clark has directed the Reese News Lab since July 2011 and leads courses in entrepreneurship for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as UNC’s minor in entrepreneurship program. Clark has extensive experience as a leader, programmer, research and development manager and startup founder. He is the former general manager of WRAL.com, led the early development of the nation’s first local television news application on mobile phones and co-founded News Over Wireless, now StepLeader Inc. Clark also spearheaded the development of an experimental datacasting service to deliver news and information through digital television subchannels. In 2001, he co-founded appcomm, inc. a local Internet services company. Clark has served on the North Carolina State University Student Media Advisory Board and was an adjunct lecturer of communication at Campbell University for eight years before returning to school for an M.B.A. Follow him at @johnclark.

    This story originally appeared on Reese News Lab.

    reese2Reese News Lab is an experimental news and research project based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of journalism school alum Reese Felts. The Lab develops and tests new ideas for the media industry in the form of a “pre-startup.” Teams of students research ideas for media products by answering three questions: Can it be done? Does anyone actually need this? Could it sustain itself financially? To answer these questions, students create prototypes, interview and survey potential customers, and develop business strategies for their products. Students document their recommendations on whether they believe a product will work and then present their ideas to the public.

    Tagged: assumptions prototype reese news lab startups

    Comments are closed.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media