Five Benefits of Prototyping — DO try this at home!

Image... From prototype to finished product.

“So let’s try one & see how it goes.”

Building prototypes is a mainstay of formal PM (project management) practice. The reason? It just makes sense to test something out on a small scale and make sure it works before you commit a large amount of effort or money to the finished product. And while I’ve seen how well prototyping works in my business life, I hadn’t had much opportunity to apply it to my home life — until recently. That’s when we were able to put the power of prototyping to work in two complicated (and potentially expensive!) home improvement projects.

Project One: Replacing the Awnings

A little over a year ago my wife and I had our house exterior repainted. In preparation, we removed a bunch of ancient, beat-up awnings that provided shade and rain protection for several windows and doors. Now, having lived without them through months of blazing sun and a few rain storms, we discovered we really miss them! So we decided to replace them ASAP. We did our research and found some new-style, high-quality aluminum ones that seemed perfect. Then we chose a local supplier who could order them for us from the manufacturer, since we wanted to assemble and install them ourselves.

Now instead of placing the entire order for the eight awnings we needed, we decided to simply order one and see how much effort we were getting ourselves into. In short, we wanted to experiment with one as a prototype. So we targeted the least visible window of our house (in case the results were not so great), then took our measurements and placed our order.

A few weeks later our new awning arrived in two boxes and what seemed like hundreds of pieces. We worked our way through the assembly and installation process and we learned a ton. Here’s a list of our discoveries:

  • The “supplier” who ordered the awnings for us from the manufacturer provided absolutely zero added value. The sales rep was nearly impossible to communicate with, requiring us to push him repeatedly for order tracking, etc. RESULT: We placed our order for the rest of the awnings directly with the manufacturer, whose excellent customer service person helped us resolve several important technical issues over the phone. This was much better than having a disengaged middle-man!
  • Before we installed our prototype, we were able to carry it around the house and “test fit” it over a couple of hard-to-cover doors and windows. RESULT: Our order for the rest of the awnings was more accurate and we were confident that they would look good and work the way we wanted them to work.
  • The prototype arrived in lots of pieces, which I assembled on the floor of the patio. While the pieces all fit together well and looked great, the assembly process proved to be time-consuming and awkward and left me with a sore back.  RESULT: We decided to set up a very large, waist-height work table to assemble the remaining seven awnings. And we made sure that the table had a soft surface to avoid scratching the nicely painted pieces.
  • While assembling and installing our prototype, I learned that I needed many different power tools and drill bits, as well as some means of gently holding the pieces together to keep from scratching them during drilling/screwing. RESULT: To assemble and install the rest of the awnings, we were guided by a complete tool and materials list — no stop-and-go scavenger hunt needed! And this including having blue painter’s tape to stabilize the painted pieces and prevent scratching during assembly.

As you can see from the results above, we learned a lot from our prototyping!  So it was definitely a worthwhile step for our awning project.

Project Two: From Fluorescents to LEDs

A typical LED flourescent tube replacement as listed on Amazon

Typical LED fluorescent tube replacement as listed on Amazon

Our second project involved replacing seven large, under-cabinet fluorescent light fixtures that illuminate the granite counters in our kitchen. Installed during a major kitchen remodel in 2008, we’ve discovered that these fixtures are always burning up light bulbs, costing too many dollars for replacements and making too much e-waste from short-lived fluorescent tubes. The goal was to replace them with longer-lasting, more efficient LED fixtures. Again, we decided this would be a do-it-yourself project. And we suspected it was going to be expensive and a bit complicated, since the existing fixtures were fairly well hidden and embedded in the cabinetry.

Once again we decided to go the prototype route. I went to a local retailer who specializes in lighting equipment, discussed what we needed, and came home with a large new LED tube and a bunch of wiring and connection gizmos that I could play with to see what we were getting ourselves into.

By removing one of the fixtures and replacing it with the new, prototype LED, I learned the following:

  • Bad news: The new LED setup didn’t come with any way of concealing all the connecting wires. Good news: After disassembling the existing fluorescent fixture, I learned that I could “gut it” and save the outer shell for concealing wires. RESULTS:  I learned that the replacement was going to be far less invasive (no drilling or screwing of our beautiful cherry wood cabinets!) than we had feared.
  • For the prototype, the guy at the lighting store had given me some big long hunks of wire, “just in case I needed it.” Fortunately, the prototype required much less wire. RESULTS: I learned that I would not only need less new wire, but I could use much of existing wire for new LEDs — not much rewiring would be needed.
  • When attaching the “tombstones” (specialized bulb/plug receivers) for the LEDs I discovered that I could use heavy-duty, indoor-outdoor, double-stick tape to attach them to the existing metal fixture. Since this stuff was rated for up to 10 pounds, it would easily support the lightweight LED fixture. RESULTS: Once again, it seemed this replacement process was going to be far less invasive than we feared, saving our beautiful cabinets from more drilling or screwing.

    A "tombstone" receiver for an LED tube

    A “tombstone” receiver for an LED tube

  • When I installed the finished prototype and showed it to my wife, she immediately noticed that it protruded an inch or two further than the fluorescents bulbs. (Duh!… I missed that completely!) So I had to pull off the double-stick tape, rotate the “tombstones” 90 degrees, stick them back up, thus lifting the installed bulbs further up against the cabinets. RESULTS:  This adjustment not only concealed the new LED bulbs further up under the cabinetry, it also helped position the bulb so that it concealed the screws of the fixtures. All-in-all, it simply looked… and worked… better!
  • Installing the prototype LED fixture — like installing the prototype awning above — sent me on a scavenger hunt for hardware, tools and materials. RESULT: I was able to make a list and quickly assemble everything I needed to “mass install” the replacement LEDs.

Summary: Five Benefits of Prototyping

So the next time you are faced with a complicated or potentially-expensive home improvement project, remember the power of the prototype! As all those “results” named above illustrate, prototyping can help you and your “key stakeholders” (a.k.a your spouse or family):

  1. Determine the value (or “added value”) of the manufacturer, supplier or vendor, before you commit to spending a lot of money with them.
  2. Test your own, or the vendor’s work process and adjust it as needed.
  3. Determine if additional equipment, tools or materials will be required to get the results you want.
  4. Find out how closely the actual finished product is going to match your dream or idealized vision.
  5. Help you decide whether to completely rethink or abandon your project before you invest a lot of time, effort and money.

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