Concept Development on a Budget
Proof of Concept Issue 11: How cheap concept development and prototypes can enable invention
This past week, Alan Cannistraro, a long-time engineer who had very impactful stints at Apple and Facebook, shared memories of the Remote app on iOS. If you have an iPhone, you might have used various iterations of the remote app on iOS, which allowed you to control your Apple TV with it. Cannistraro was the one who came up with the idea, prototyped it, and shipped it. As it alludes to in the Twitter thread, it was technical the first app shipped to the App Store. People were mesmerized that an idea like this was essentially created by one person.
Cannistraro is someone I feel lucky to call a friend and mentor. What always impressed and inspired me about collaborating with him is his ability to take an idea and start forming it into a concept. One might think on the surface that he'd be used to working in a large company mindset with tech giants such as Apple and Facebook. It is quite the contrary and he is a relentless iterator and operated as an internal one-person startup. He is an amazing collaborator, bringing out the best version of everyone, and has such a mindset to teach and share knowledge.
This thread among other moments inspired me to write this week about concept development—what attributes do people who can create proofs of concept have, and how do they get it done?
Concept development is one of the steps in new product development. Once there is an understanding of desirability (do people want this?), concept development is the detailed version of the idea to see if it is feasible and guide production. However, there are times when innovation happens when the concept determines the demand; creating something that people didn't know they wanted is a beautiful thing.
Let's look at a few examples of where cheap and scrappy innovations resulted in a concept being developed. There are loads of different industries to analyze and study, though, for this example, I'll look to video games and film—something I am familiar with and passionate about.
Example 1: Can we borrow your VHS camera?
The year was 1992. Street Fighter 2 has the monopoly on arcade fighting games. Martial Arts film stars were the craze and popular in the last decade of the 20th century. There was no greater martial arts star than Jean Claude Van Damme. A studio in Chicago called Midway was slated to work on the fighting arcade game starring the Muscles from Brussels. Ultimately, that fell through, but what continued is the idea of a fantasy fighting game that ended up being called Mortal Kombat.
You can find many clips of Daniel Pesina doing the recording of moves by Johnny Cage, in front of a green screen. The team spent time capturing footage and prototyping it in the game to get feedback on how things work. As they iterated, more footage was captured to take the learnings each time. As a YouTube commenter articulated so well, "you're telling me 5 people in a shady basement is going to start a franchise across the world?" That’s right. If you want to hear more about the story, check out Joshua Tsui's documentary called Insert Coin, a wonderful film about the era of Midway (Tsui worked there) which is coming out soon.
Example 2: Garbage Bag Queen
Sequels are hard, and there is nobody who has done it better than James Cameron. In addition to having “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” on his resume, he also directed Aliens, a sequel to the acclaimed Sci-Fi horror film by the legendary Ridley Scott. One of the most iconic scenes from the movie is the reveal of the Alien Queen (you’ve had enough time to see it by now). The antagonist was a massive xenomorph who appeared in the lair. To this day, the visuals are absolutely realistic and terrifying, though it did not start that way.
The first proof of concept of the Alien Queen turned out to be foam, garbage bags, and the production crew with sticks moving it around to test the functionality.
Mortal Kombat and Aliens are only two examples of how low budget concepts were brought to life in some of the most iconic and successful ideas. It didn’t start with a finished big-budget piece, but lean and cheap ideation to making it feasible.
(Note: My hope is to do more research on the production and processes of other industries in order to be more diverse in the learning. These happen to be two industries I spend a lot of time reading about.)
The attributes of a great concept developer
When you combine a high-level concept with a compelling narrative, you a story that people believe in and support. Through direct observations of peers and research, I found a few common themes of people who can take an idea and bring it to life.
Autonomous and self-discipline
This is the most important one. I believe autonomy drives these other attributes. People who can independently move things along often develop processes for themselves and other people to use. With this comes a lot of self-motivation. Let's be honest, it is very difficult to get things done without being in an environment when it's at stake.
Autodidactic and mastery of skills
As an art school grad, I believe the greatest skill I learned was how to learn. Since much concept development is multimedia and interdisciplinary, having a clear learning framework can help you create concepts quickly. People who are great at developing concepts often immerse themselves around other people to learn and try them out in an applied method.
Breaking big dreams into action
Really good concept developers do not necessarily mean people who are great visionaries. It's important to have a vision, but bringing it to life is often key. Alejandro Jodowrosky is a prime example of this. If you don't know the Chilean director, he once attempted to direct and bring Dune to the big screen. In the end, the film never happened because they blew the budget on vision work and weren’t able to get it to production.
Yes, many of those who continued on in their careers were heavily influenced by the concepts and went on to be innovators themselves. However, Jodorowsky's goal was to actually make the film and not simply serve as an influence for other people to bring his idea to life. Being able to bridge the spectrum of now and future is what great concept developers can do.
Subverting existing tools
Design tools are here to serve the process of creation and we should not be at the mercy of it purely because of its original intention.
Linda Dong, a former Apple designer working on many of the things we use daily (likely that we haven't seen yet as well) wrote a blog post once about how she used iAd Producer to build prototypes. A piece of software used to mockup and create advertisements became a tool subverted to prototype ideas. From this article five years ago, it inspired me to use iAd producer for prototypes of my own workflow.
Without a great story, the concept will fall flat, and people won't be interested. Xin Xin, now a healthcare designer at Google, is one of the best storytellers I've had on my team.
In many of our 1:1s, she'd go through the story with me. Prior to One Medical, Xin Xin was at IDEO and mastered the art of index card storytelling. Very few people are able to tell a compelling story at low fidelity as good as her.
Low fidelity concepts lead to high fidelity feedback
When you get into the details of things, it reduces the focus. Starting things at a low fidelity help the feedback focus on the high-level concept, allowing you to work at a higher level.
The person who often gets in the way of us to innovate is ourselves. The moment you have an iteration, get feedback on how it can be used. For example, if you’re creating a mobile app, run a build, even if it’s only one screen, play around with it, and get feedback. Putting your work out there, especially when it isn’t fully realized, is extremely scary. However, it’s scarier to never get your idea out there.
Try it yourself
Before I send you off to try, I'll give you a concept example:
Title: A new way to discover reading based on mood
Good Reads used to be my go-to app for tracking the various books I was interested in. In addition, it was something I relied on to discover new things to read. I love that my friends are on there and using it. However, since Amazon acquired it, much of the experience is focused on reviews and purchasing.
Introducing Livro, a new mobile experience for you to find something to read based on how you're feeling. Recommended by friends, not algorithms.
Here's how I can test if it's desirable
Send a survey to see if people even want a product like this
Show mockups to see if the experience is simple and intuitive
Here are some ideas on how I can build it:
Create a spreadsheet and use Glide to build a prototype to test with friends
Work with a friend in Swift UI and use Airtable for the database to test an iOS app
Use Webflow and Memberstack to build a book recommendation community
Now it's your turn. Best of luck with your idea. Creating a proof of concept helps you discover that moment where you say to yourself, explores that creates, “this is going to work.”