Planning & Forecasting
9 minute read

Using Pretotypes to Support a Business Case

Paul has spent the past 10 years designing digital product concepts for Australia’s largest banking institutions and government agencies.

When building a case for a new project in front of an organization’s executive team, a primary goal is to present the case in the best possible light. At a minimum, a business case needs to demonstrate an understanding of the project’s intended return on investment, budget, cost breakdowns, time frames, risks, and resourcing profile.

Typically, project managers address these items based on assumptions and formulas that often derive from corporate business case templates. Thus, the business case assessment ends up grounded in forecasts and assumptions.

These untested assumptions can compromise the accuracy of the information within the business case, regardless of the number of revisions made. There is a better way, however. A business case’s quality can be greatly improved, and thus its chances of success by completing the business case after concept discovery through the act of pretotyping.

What Is Concept Discovery?

Concept discovery is the process of creating and testing multiple solution alternatives (in the form of concept pretotypes - defined below) in order to determine the one(s) that best meets the needs of the organization, before commencing work on design and development.

Instead of jumping straight into what people think might be the ideal solution, concept discovery allows for an exploration and testing of multiple solutions quickly and cheaply upfront, thereby ensuring that work is done on the right problem and the right solution.

Concept discovery results in a series of learnings that can be transferred into the business case and shared with the project delivery team that will execute the project.

Differences Between Concept Pretotype and Prototype

The term pretotype was first devised by Alberto Savoia in his book Pretotype It as: “Testing the initial appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money.”

Concept pretotypes should only incorporate the absolute minimum features and screens since its sole purpose is to validate assumptions and determine the probability of success. They answer the question: Would people be interested in the product?

On the other hand, prototypes are a more detailed representation of a solution. It usually considers screen flows, interactions, detailed screen layouts, and in some cases, animation effects or color schemes. Prototypes are typically non-functional simulations, though some are indeed functional. They answer the question: Can the product be built?

Differences between a pretotype and prototype

Prototypes often take longer to put together and cost more to produce than do their (lesser-known) pretotype siblings. This disparity derives from the essence of pretotypes, multiple versions of which can be produced both quickly and cheaply.

For example, a recent government client of mine had a rather large laundry list of features that were deemed in scope for the first version of the product. The testing of a prototype with every potential user was not necessary to spot patterns and form insights into user behavior. Similarly, it was also unnecessary to capture every single feature in a pretotype in order to validate whether the concept was sound.

Therefore, we ended up focusing on four primary features, with two screens rendered per feature. We then produced a couple of variations on the design of these features. These proved more than enough to communicate the essence of the concept to its intended audience (and stakeholders) and subsequently test the shortlisted features that would “make or break” its success in order to derive necessary insights.

Benefits of Pretotyping to Support a Business Case

Concept pretotypes give the perfect starting point to begin learning about what works and what doesn’t, using data collected from simple tests and/or experiments. This process begins the de-risking of projects by developing a deeper and more accurate understanding of various components of project delivery.

Demand Validation

Gauging support for a project at this stage (pre-business case) allows for the incorporation of both quantitative and qualitative data into a business case. This data reinforces to decision-makers both the value of the project and its likely reception among its intended audience. Instead of finding out in the design phase during project execution, it can be understood well enough up front, and any research and testing conducted during the design phase can be used to delve deeper.

Clearer Backlog Prioritization

Based on the user results of the mini-experiments and tests, it will become clearer which items to deliver first and foremost and which can be scheduled for later. This can have a significant impact on cost and timing, helping to get a business case over the line. To extend the example from earlier, we realized that we could cut our laundry list of features by two-thirds, based on the fact that our shortlisted features would go such a long way in delivering the intended value proposition. This discovery ended up reducing the originally planned timeline for the first release by almost 50%.

Reveals Risks

Mini-experiments and tests can raise awareness of risks and issues prior to execution. On the flip side, certain risks or issues may no longer be relevant, bolstering the confidence of decision-makers in the business case. To again extend the prior example, we anticipated quite early on that the involvement of another government department would mitigate the risk of one of our main features. Thus, we ended up establishing a relationship very early on, so that we could secure their involvement and get a headstart in understanding not only how they operate but also any potential risks or issues. This collaboration proved invaluable throughout the project.

More Accurate Budget, Schedule, and Resource Estimates

Testing and experimentation may allow for the discovery that either additional resources might be required (based on feature prioritization, for example) or that the opposite may be true, as was the case with my government client. Either way, the business case will benefit from a more accurate assessment of costing and timing.

More Accurate Return on Investment Estimates

A solid understanding of all of the above (particularly cost and time estimates) allows for more accuracy in the return on investment for an organization. This information can instill more confidence in the project among decision-makers, or allow them to consider alternative courses of action. For my government client, the executive team responsible for signing off on the project had a high degree of confidence that the project would succeed, and the focus of the discussions for business case approval was mostly centered on execution details.

How to Start Using Pretotypes

Pretotyping is a design skill so if there are CX or UX designers on staff, then there is already access to most of the required skill sets. Implementing this process in an organization is similar to any change management but there are some specific items to be aware of.

Establish the Need for Concept Discovery and Highlight Its Value

It’s important for decision-makers and members of the project team to understand and support the value of the concept discovery process. To facilitate this, the points mentioned here can be included in a simple slide deck that can be presented at key meetings. From there, a plan can begin to be put together.

Develop a Plan for the Duration and Process of Concept Discovery

The following steps provide a baseline for a plan:

  1. Ideation workshop to define the problem or opportunity and develop numerous solution alternatives (in the form of concept pretotypes) to test. Use favorite design thinking models to assist (e.g., double diamond).
  2. Devise the experiments and conduct the tests with a sample size of users or customers.
  3. Gather and interpret results, develop insights, and determine whether concepts can be combined or eliminated. Capture the outcomes of the interpretation of these results and document them as learnings.
  4. Assign time and resources to this work. Concept discovery usually takes anywhere between two to six weeks, depending upon the nature of the project and work involved.

Secure Funding

By this stage, there is a clear indication of the value that the organization will receive from this process and with a plan for process and costs. Most organizations (especially larger enterprises) use a stage-gate approach to fund projects and have funds for seed activities, which usually involve pre-business case tasks.

Incorporate Learnings into the Business Case

In various sections throughout the business case, the concept discovery process can be referenced to support the information in the presentation. It’s a good idea to include, as an appendix, the details of the testing and experimentation process (e.g., testing type(s), sample sizes, tested items/features).


If an organization is new to concept discovery and pretotyping, in general, then it’s a good idea to master this approach with a few projects first. Later on, concept discovery can be embedded more permanently into the culture and methodology, i.e., the organization’s project delivery framework.

A Practical Pretotype Example

Let’s say there’s a directive from the upper management of an enterprise within the personal development industry to initiate a new project for a customer portal, one featuring the latest suite of the company’s products. The company wants to offer various personal development articles, as well as video and audio products, via this portal and would like clarity on how to best approach the solution.

For this example, there is an assumption that the organization has already adopted concept discovery, as well as that there are two solution alternatives for which experiments must be devised after a successful ideation session.

The shortlisted features for these solution alternatives have been deemed to be those that would best answer the question: Would people be interested in it? In addition, upper management wants to know the specific path forward with regard to the business model and prominent features to achieve maximum ROI.

The Solution Alternatives

Solution alternative 1 is a pay-per-product service. Solution alternative 2 is a subscription service with more social features and a community-building focus. The following features (and their corresponding wireframes) have been shortlisted for each pretotype.

Solution 1: Pay-per-product Service

Features Wireframes
Portal registration 1 x mockup indicating that the service has free registration but users pay per product.

This wireframe would be linked via their existing website, as it indicates that an account is required to view any products.
Online store with all personal development products categorized by focus area (e.g., health, wealth, relationships, etc.) 1 x mockup illustrating the main categories of products, with a few products listed per category and a "Buy" button alongside each (including cost indication)

This mockup (and the remainder of them below) would include an indicative breakdown of global navigation items.
Personalized wish list 1 x mockup of a detailed product description containing a preview and reviews section and an “Add to Wishlist” button

1 x mockup of the item added to the wishlist.
Advanced search to locate anything across the portal 1 x mockup of a search screen, with advanced search criteria, to initiate a search (with the second half of the mockup illustrating search results)
Playback product audios and videos on-the-go 1 x mobile mockup with custom playlist categories

Solution 2: Subscription Service

The subscription service will have the same features as the pay-per-product solution, with the following exceptions, modifications, and/or additions.

Features Wireframes
Portal registration 1 x mockup indicating that the service is subscription-based, with the different subscription packages on offer

In this solution, users will see this screen after they see what’s available in the online store.

Additionally, the online store mockup for this solution pretotype would have an "Add to Playlist" instead of a “Buy” button.
Follow friend’s playlists 1 x mockup showcasing a listing of friends and their playlists

The detailed product description wireframe would also show which friends also have the product in their playlists.
Accountability mates dashboard 1 x mockup showcasing progress reports and results from friends and other customers who have added the same products
Personalized wish list This feature would not be required for this solution.

Conducting an Experiment

An A/B experiment will be conducted between the two concept pretotype solutions, with around 12 participants partaking in the experiment, comprised of both existing and non-existing customers.

The experiment focuses on how well the intended features are received, with anticipated usage frequency followed up by an interview at the very end of the session in order to understand whether customers would indeed want this service. Furthermore, the data will be utilized to determine which of the two solutions they prefer.

Incorporating Learnings into the Business Case

The outcomes of the experiment give a solid indication of which direction to pursue, and now a summary of the findings between the two solution alternatives can be shown in the business case, along with detailed information about the preferred solution and its advantages.

This provides decision-makers with the certainty that they need to move forward with the project. Furthermore, it allows for a solid understanding of what is to be built and how best to go about it.

Concept discovery allows for more accurate business cases, backed with real research (giving business cases the best chance of success). However, the icing on the cake is that concept discovery helps organizations become more innovative. More innovation means increased opportunities to create new sources of revenue, capture new customers, discover new ways to delight existing customers, and ensure that an organization maintains a competitive edge.

Understanding the basics

What is the difference between pretotyping and prototyping?

Concept pretotypes should only incorporate the absolute minimum features and screen, while prototypes are a more detailed representation of a solution. Prototypes often take longer to put together and cost more to produce than do their pretotype siblings.

What is a prototype and what is its purpose?

A prototype is a more detailed representation of a solution. It usually considers screen flows, interactions, detailed screen layouts, and in some cases, animation effects or color schemes. Prototypes are typically non-functional simulations, though some are indeed functional. They answer the question: Can the product be built?

What are the advantages of prototyping?

Prototyping allows creating a simulated and scaled-down version of a product that allows users to visualize the final product and provide early feedback.

When would you use a prototype?

Creating a prototype makes most sense when the costs of product development are very high and changes to final designs are expensive.

What is pretotyping?

The term pretotype was first devised by Alberto Savoia in his book Pretotype It as: “Testing the initial appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money.”