Learning by Prototyping

Prototyping is a fancy word for learning by doing. It’s methodology is to test a hunch through rapid development of a minimum viable product, getting the product in front of the ideal customer quickly. This often sounds like a clean and straightforward process but learning is rarely a linear path.

I am currently prototyping of a media publication about the future. I believe there is an opportunity to develop content that provides straightforward analysis on cutting edge topics and avoids the clickbait qualities systemic in today’s media landscape. While preparing to prototype this concept, I struggled to find “how to” guides on rapid prototyping a digital media company and have decided to document my journey for the benefit of others.

To test the concept, I’ve opted to create a bare bones version of the product to get content in front of any audience quickly. I chose Medium as the method of delivery because the platform provides a captive audience and empowers writers to build a publication within Medium. This seemed like a solid place to begin so I researched my first topic and published it. The article was called, What are Smart Cities?

I learned a tremendous amount from writing this article. Things like the importance of properly tagging content and the importance of pumping the article link to friends, family and other social media platforms. The article was not much of a winner as it hovers at a 20% read rate with an average of 37 seconds per reader. For an article that’s nearly 12 minutes long it couldn’t be more clear that my opening paragraphs need reworking. The article was also picked up by one of Medium’s major publications. I thought this was a great way to get exposed to a wider audience but in hindsight I believe it was a mistake in not looking for a smaller more niche place to publish.

There were many lessons learned from producing this first MVP. What became clear is that with each successive version there will be many things to track both qualitatively and quantitively, as well as many new actions to take in search of an audience. The challenge is that each new action comes with their own unique barriers to entry. These barriers present as a new metric I’m keeping my eye out for that I call, “time to learn”. Ie: how long will it take me to learn a new process or skill prior to implementing it on the next version of the prototype.

A quick example – I decided that it made the most sense to launch my own publication within Medium immediately. Why wait if my goal is speed of iteration? This spawned all types of new logistical needs such as learning how to operate the publisher dashboard, designing the User Experience and even creating a custom logo for the publication. These new challenges all have their own distinct “time to learn” costs. In some instances, these costs are much larger than they are immediately worth for launching the next version of the prototype.

This seems to be the dilemma with many decisions I’ve been making lately. The ultimate goal is iterating quickly on the content side of the project, optimizing for traction within the Medium community. Many of these lessons learned come with new features to implement that increase my time to learn and reduce “speed to iteration”. But if speed was not a concern, I could easily take my time to work through building a great logo and optimizing the UX of the publication.

I don’t have that time, my goal is speed.

As such, one of the grand takeaways from this first prototype is that iterative learning on the fly is not a linear process. Each iteration will create exponential opportunities to optimize something new and without clear cut priorities it can be easy to get bogged down. By clearly defining the priorities for prototyping and re-evaluating them after each round, I can ensure that speed is not compromised for red herrings.

With my media prototype, I have prioritized content production and research on a weekly basis, followed by establishing a scalable weekly process for advancing to new versions of the prototype. My goal – to build regular assessments to support reprioritizing workflow and ultimately help me to iterate as quickly as possible.

On to V2.

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