How different industries refer to prototypes

By | November 2, 2016

The following post is excerpted from my draft manuscript about Lean Media. Please leave comments below to help me improve the draft!

Looking at the Lean Media flowchart, some creators may be aghast at the use of “prototype” to describe early or incomplete versions of a work in progress:

Lean Media Flowchart 0.6, including idea, prototypes, and soft launch stages

The concern is understandable. The term comes from the engineering world, and suggests something that is mechanical or physical in nature. A prototype is essentially a basic working version of a product that is used to test concepts, materials, or performance. How can this term possibly apply to early versions of a media work?

There is actually a long history of media borrowing or sharing terminology from technical fields. Consider the following examples:

  • A model is a non-functional representation of a product that can help engineering teams visualize design elements and identify potential issues related to fabrication. The term is also used by photographers, illustrators and the publishers they work with.
  • Demonstration models are polished versions of products that can be shown to prospective customers in a showroom or exposition hall. The term is also used in the software industry to refer to a rudimentary application that has basic functionality which can be demonstrated to users or customers. In the music industry, an artist might record a “demo” in his or her home studio to distribute to prospective collaborators, record labels, or performance venues.
  • In the software industry, a wireframe outlines basic interface elements such as buttons and selectors. The term is widely used in the world of website design.
  • A software alpha is a working version of an application used for internal testing to identify bugs and rough edges. Beta software is more fully-featured and customer-ready, and is frequently available for customers to try out in real-world situations. The two terms are widely used in website and video game design.
  • Software engineers use a decimal-based numbering system to describe builds, or iterations of the product. Alpha versions might be numbered 0.1 or 0.2. A beta version of the software would be numbered 0.9, with patches indicated by an additional decimal (0.9.1, 0.9.2, etc.). The public releases would start at 1.0, and gradually incremented to reflect bug fixes, new features, or other improvements. Major new releases would occur at 2.0, 3.0, etc. Some publications and websites have adopted a similar terminology to indicate advanced coverage of a topic (such as the magazine Business 2.0). The system has parallels to the Opus numbering system, which assigns numbers to works of classical music in the order they are produced by composers.

Media terms for prototypes

However, not all engineering terms have media equivalents. Media professionals rely on their own terminology to describe works in progress. The terms are often unique to specific formats:

  • In the book industry, authors and editors work with outlines, drafts, and manuscripts. Publishers will generate printed proofs to review the text, typography, and binding.
  • In a recording studio, a take designates a single instance of a recording of a song without any post-production. A rough mix refers to a recording that has a minimal amount of post-production adjustments of vocals, instruments, percussion, and other sounds. The producer and/or engineer will carefully calibrate the final mix, before sending it off to a special engineer who creates the master that will be encoded for digital distribtution to the public.
  • Film professionals work with screenplays, scripts, and storyboards at the early stages of a production. Once shooting starts, the director, actors, and other people on the team can look at the dailies and rough cuts.

Because there are so many terms used across different mediums, I have opted to use “prototype” to describe early versions of new media prior to the soft launch. Not only is it easy to understand, it also conveys the iterative nature of Lean Media projects. The first prototypes will be very rough, but over many iterations may reach a fairly polished state. Polished prototypes make it easier to gather useful feedback from test audiences, but it is still possible to leverage early prototypes, as we will see below.

Understanding the other stages of Lean Media

The other terms used in the Lean Media flowchart are not difficult to understand.

  • The idea can be a simple proposal, description, outline, sketch, or wireframe that can be discussed by the core team and perhaps a small number of potential audience members.
  • You may have heard the term soft launch used in connection with the release of new software titles or physical products. Firms conducting soft launches quietly release their products to a small group of customers in order to gauge interest, tweak features, and adjust marketing before the formal rollout.

In a Lean Media context, the soft launch version is in a final or near-final state and is available to the public. It can quietly launched to a subset of the marketplace, such as a limited geographic area or a single distribution channel. Or it can be launched in connection with a major marketing campaign across the entire country. However, unlike media that takes the traditional big launch approach, creators using a Lean Media soft launch will pay close attention to audience feedback and make changes to the media as needed.

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