Prototype vs. soft launch

By | July 29, 2016

So I am working on a new chapter for my Lean Media book that covers the Lean Media flowchart (see an early version of the flowchart here). Conceptually I thought I was pretty clear on what the different stages entailed. A prototype was a rough or incomplete version of the media being developed. By the time the team reaches the soft launch stage, the media should be in a near-final state and ready for public consumption … and potentially further changes depending on the feedback.

But then I started to apply some real-world examples to the flowchart. In my draft chapter, I wrote:

To give you one example, in 2012 I soft-launched a series of how-to guides by releasing a single ebook in Amazon’s self-published marketplace. The first title, Dropbox In 30 Minutes, took only a month to prepare and had a very basic cover. It immediately started selling one or two copies per day, validating the idea of a series of guidebooks that could be read in just 30 minutes. I began to expand and improve the series, paying close attention to reader reviews, sales, and website metrics.

Dropbox prototype vs soft launch cover

A prototype book cover

But was this really a soft launch? While it was available to the public, it could by no means be considered in a “near-final state.” The writing and editing was fairly strong, but the cover was amateurish and the interior photographs, screenshots, and artwork were very basic. Working with a professional graphic artist, we completely overhauled the cover design of the series in late 2012.

Similarly, I have also covered the example of The Simpsons on this blog and in the book. I noticed that my writing actually referred to the early versions of The Simpsons (the animated shorts that appeared during The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989) as both “prototype” and “soft launch” versions. They were very public, but they were also very rough. In December 1989, The Simpsons was relaunched as a half-hour sitcom with full storylines, expanded character development, and much better animation. I originally called it the hard launch, but now I am not so sure.

I think what threw me off is the idea that prototypes are kept under wraps and only shown to small test audiences, as opposed to a soft launch, which is the first time the media is experienced by a public audience. But after thinking it through, I believe the main criteria should be the state of work, not whether it is public.

In other words, if it is available to the public, but is still incomplete or rough, it really is a prototype. Therefore, the initial launch of Dropbox In 30 Minutes in mid-2012 was actually a prototyping stage even though customers could see it on Amazon and purchase it. The same is true for the early Simpsons bumpers. They were very roughly drawn, and it was impossible to develop the family dynamics because they were only 90 seconds long. Therefore, they were prototypes. The soft launch came in December 1989 with the first Simpsons Christmas special.

I’ll devote another post to the hard launch at a later date. In the meantime, please feel free to leave your comments below.   

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