Integrating prototyping into your product development process can be transformational. It can make for a richer experience, bring the team closer together and cut down on time.
But what exactly is a prototype? Why do we need a prototype? When should we make them and test them? And how can a sample model really benefit us?
In this article, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about prototyping and just how to go about putting one together yourself.
But first things first -
What is a prototype?
Long story short, a prototype is an early sample created to test a concept or process. They’re typically created to evaluate the accuracy of assumptions made by the designers in the design process.
Prototyping is a crucial part of the design process and is practiced widely across design disciplines. Many designers make prototypes to test their designs before investing in the final product. Because of this, creating a prototype is really the step between the formalization and evaluation of an idea.
The point of a prototype is to have a tangible visual representation of the solutions discussed throughout the design process. Instead of repeating the information discussed in the ideation phase - a prototype acts as a model that takes into consideration everything discussed. This way the design team can see the beginning of the ideas brought to life. Having this model allows designers to validate their concepts by sharing their prototypes with users quickly - so they can resolve any concerns that might still be present.
The feedback from users is crucial and often shows flaws in the prototype which can then be reworked for a stronger final product. Rather than working off assumptions, the user testing phase on the prototype gives the designer facts, so they can rework and alter their product.
Prototypes send designers “back to the drawing process” to refine their work and strengthen their ideas. Because they fail early, prototypes are incredibly important. Creating and testing a prototype can save a business energy and large costs.
A recap of design thinking
So now that you have a good understanding of prototyping let’s run through design thinking once more so you have a well rounded idea of the process as a whole and exactly where prototyping fits in!
Design thinking is a non-linear iterative process that teams employ to understand users and create strong products and services. This process challenges assumptions, redefines problems and creates innovative solutions to prototype and test. All in all it involves five phases— Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.
These stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps. Design Thinking is great for tackling problems that are hard to follow or unknown. This process helps the team to reframe the problem in a human centric way and creates a product or service that feels intuitive for the end user.
Why is prototyping so important in the design process?
Good designers create with the end user in mind. So when the time comes to make the final product, the designer wants to make sure that they’ve hit the nail on the head with their understanding so they can begin to solidify their ideas.
But how does a designer confirm everything they want to put into practice without a final product? By making a prototype.
With a prototype a designer can try their idea with users and see what’s working and what isn’t.
Why not test with a finished product?
It’s a valid question, but all in all it would be pretty pointless to produce a finished product for the users to test. By the time a finished product is completed - a lot of time, money and energy has been spent. If a designer were to test the completed product, and discovers negative feedback, they would then be stuck with the very difficult task of implementing these new findings.
Whereas, with a simple, scaled down version of the product, the designer can observe, record, judge and measure the responses, behaviour and reactions of the user. If the observation is not what the designer had hoped for, or there are flaws - the designer still has the ability to go back, alter and fix, which would not be possible with an end product.
Prototypes allow designers to think about their solutions as a tangible product rather than an abstract idea. Prototypes also encourage learning from failing, as failures are quick and cheap. This also promotes excitement and risk as less time and money is invested into bad ideas.
Tim Brown, CEO of the international design and innovation firm IDEO put it best:
“They slow us down to speed us up. By taking the time to prototype our ideas, we avoid costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long.”
– Tim Brown
How does a prototype help you create human-centred design solution?
Early research isn’t everything. While empathising with users by learning about the problem and experimenting with ideation sessions may generate what seems like a world-class solution, testing is still crucial for success.
Design teams can easily become fixated on the research they have conducted but this can curse them with knowledge and create a bias towards their ideas. This means that they might miss crucial information because they are so involved in what they are doing. A fresh pair of eyes on the product - especially someone who would be the end user - can fill in most of the gaps that a designer could experience when creating their product.
By prototyping and then testing, designers can reveal the assumptions that they have made and uncover helpful insights that they can then use to improve their solution.
They can also use prototyping as a form of research earlier on in the process. By prototyping earlier on, designers can explore problem areas, products, services and so much more.
“When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.”
All in all, without input from your end-user, you won’t know if your solution is on target or not, and you won’t know how to evolve your design.
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Types of prototyping
Prototyping is generally separated into 2 main categories. These categories are low-fidelity prototyping and high-fidelity prototyping.
Let’s break both down for you real quick:
Low-fidelity prototyping can be considered the more basic of the two categories. The model created might be incomplete or only incorporate a few of the features that the end product would have. Low-fidelity prototypes quite often won't be made of the same material as the finished product, instead they’ll be made of wood, paper or plastic. These prototypes are cheaply and easily made or simply just visualisations of the end product.
Examples of low-fidelity prototypes:
- Wizard of Oz
Pros of low-fidelity prototypes
- Can change them very quickly
- Allows the designer to see a whole overview with minimal effort
- Not resource heavy - anyone can make a low-fidelity prototype regardless of experience level
- Fosters design thinking
Cons of low-fidelity prototypes
- Not realistic
- Prototypes that lack the look or feel of the product may lack validity
- May not be appropriate for what you are creating for
- May remove control from the user as the designer would probably have to explain certain parts
High-fidelity prototypes look much closer to the end result. An example of a high-fidelity prototype could be a 3D plastic model that has moving parts and allows the users to feel the function of the product. This would be considered high-fidelity rather than low-fidelity because this would give the user a closer experience to the end product than let’s say, a block of wood. As for software prototypes, a depiction of the product made in Sketch or Adobe Illustrator would be considered high-fidelity rather than a storyboard.
Pros of high-fidelity prototypes
- More engaging for the user.
- Users are more likely to navigate the product alone without needing a step by step explanation from the designer.
- The closer the prototype is to the finished product the more confidence the designer can have as to how users will react to the final product.
- Stakeholders can instantly see the end product and will be able to judge more detail aspects of the final article.
Cons of high-fidelity prototypes
- They take longer to produce
- Because of the realistic aspects - users will be more prone to asking questions about characteristics that you don’t need observing as they won’t be in the final product (e.g color)
- After spending so much time on the prototype, designers tend to want to not implement changes that users mention due to a lack of time.
As you can see from both the pros and cons of low-fidelity prototypes and high-fidelity prototypes, low-fidelity prototyping is usually the preferred method for the starting stages of the design process.
Both prototype options are often used on the same product, with low-fidelity prototypes for the beginning stages and high fidelity prototypes towards the end when testing questions become more refined.
Eight common ways to prototype
Sketches and Diagrams
Any sketch, even the absolute messiest can create a wonderful low-fidelity prototype.
Sketching diagrams, mind-maps or the structure of your ideas can really help others to get a well-rounded idea of what you aim to achieve. With sketching you can draw out the various touch points that affect a user’s journey and you can also detail what processes happen when different touch points are pressed.
Anyone can sketch out an idea and it’s a great way to run through the initial stages. As these prototypes are disposable you can really narrow down so much without expending too much energy or time.
Paper interfaces are made using multiple sheets of paper and sketching movable elements and interactive features on different sheets to create a more in depth look.
Digital products like mobile apps, websites and screen based products often require a quantity of prototypes in the run up to the final design. Paper interfaces are handy in the beginning as they are incredibly malleable. With paper interfaces you can replace different sheets of paper, sketch over previous ideas or cut out elements and move them around the prototype.
Everyone loves a story and storyboarding is a great way of guiding people through a user experience journey. Storyboarding is a technique derived from the film industry and allows you a quick and cheap way of walking stakeholders and users through a product.
While it’s great to be able to understand a user journey - storyboarding isn’t great for fine tuning the details of products as they tend to be broader in nature and focus less on the smaller details.
Now we know what you’re thinking - and yep, it’s great news, Lego is for adults too! Using lego can be incredibly helpful in creating a prototype. It’s versatile and able to spark imagination. It’s easy, cheap and can be put together and taken apart in no time at all.
You can use Lego to simulate a users journey all the way through to creating rough prototypes of products.
Role-playing is considered experiential prototyping, meaning that it allows your design team to explore the system you are targeting physically. Role-playing by re-enacting scenes and situations you are attempting to improve can help the team to get a better understanding of what is working and what isn’t. Role-playing also works wonders for reflecting on the product as you can remember experiences more vividly when you physically experience them.
Role-playing can take many forms but the best is when you simulate the physical environment of the user. You can use props, use audio simulations such as music and use objects around your workplace to bring more realism into the scene.
These are considered high-fidelity prototypes. Physical models can be made out of a wide range of materials, such as paper, cardboard, clay or foam and can be a range of sizes.
The purpose of the physical model is to go a step further than a sketch and bring the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional. This brings all the detail forward and brings a sense of realness. This allows for much stronger user testing as it can spark discussion about the form factor of the solution.
Wizard of Oz Prototypes
Wizard of Oz prototypes are illusory based prototypes. What this means is that the functions are faked in order to save time and expenses but to give the same effect of a finished product.
For example, if testing software with users, the designer would hit computer driven responses when the tester hit certain touch points. Here the designer is mimicking what the final product would do but is actually controlling it as it hasn’t yet been finalised.
It’s important to note that during this prototyping method the designer is with ethical boundaries - there is no “tricking” for immoral gain.
Now this one is a world apart from the others mentioned. Instead of building a prototype to test on users - designers will ask users to create something within set constraints.
During this process designers can see what their users prioritise and how their minds work, which gives them lots of insight into the assumptions the designers’ themselves could’ve made. Designers can use user-driven prototypes to gain empathy with users or to fine-tune certain details of the product once they have an idea in place.
What prototype should I build?
Are you building a product or service and don’t know which prototype is the best fit for you? Ask yourself these questions:
What’s your idea about?
Make a note of the most important fundamental aspects of your idea. Work out what needs to be tested.
What questions do you want answered?
Work out what you want answered. For example, if you want the product to feel comfortable to hold, consider making a physical model of the prototype that is the same size as what you envision the final product to be. However, if you are creating a software and want to see how easy the software is to navigate consider paper interfaces.
What prototype fits the project best?
For each question, think about the kind of prototype that would fit the best. Which one would answer your questions in a way that makes sense to time, cost, and insight. If possible, hold a brainstorming session with your team so you can really get to the best option.
Jump right in!
We’re all about starting before you’re ready here - so jump right in! Designer’s work stronger when they get the ball rolling - overthinking can really put a kink in the works. So narrow down to what you think would fit best, but don’t agonise over it.
Don’t deliberate too hard over what to build and how to build, just get moving and get testing - actually testing your prototype will do so much more than letting yourself get stuck on such a decision process.
And prepare yourself - your first few prototypes might be total fails but that’s OK. It’s all part of the process - and what can feel like a step-back really is a step-forward in terms of knowledge - and eventually success!
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Steps to consider when prototyping
Take advantage of the knowledge you don’t have
Now we know this sounds strange - but before you get familiar with you know not to be possible, think about what you would do if there were no constraints.
What do you find exciting?
What do you find exciting about the project? Think about the first thing that comes to mind and then ask your team the same question. What makes you and the team excited might easily be what makes a user excited too - so keep that at the forefront of your mind.
Translate your excitement into prototypes
Imagine your prototype as a teaser to a product that is about to come to life - use this thought to generate excitement for both the team and the users.
Use your client's current product content as a starting point. Having something they can easily recognise and understand is a great way to bring them into a design conversation.
And there you have it! Everything you wanted to know and more about prototyping! What did you find the most eye opening portion of this article? Let us know down below in the comments!