How to start prototyping (and why you should).

Justin Daab Design Thinking

Everything is a prototype.

If we’ve learned anything from watching the progress of evolution in the natural world, it’s that everything, no matter how established, is a prototype for a more highly adapted successor. That isn’t meant to be a life-or-death warning of doom; it’s meant to say that prototyping is part of the natural order of exploring, evaluating and optimizing ideas.

And, as you’ll see as we move through this blog, prototyping doesn’t have to involve creating elaborate physical models, programming or spending large sums of cash (though all of those are viable prototyping methods).

How to get started prototyping.

In its simplest form, a prototype is simply any externalized creation for understanding if an interaction or experience will work the way you imagine it will. That could be something as low fidelity as using multiple stacks of sticky notes to prototype a website navigation or a pencil sketch to work through visual design problems. Or, it could be as high fidelity as launching an actual business in a limited-geography test market.

The best prototypes deliver the greatest amount of tangible feedback in the least amount of time for the lowest investment (perhaps one of just a few areas where you can get good, fast AND cheap). Outside of those criteria, there’s really no wrong way to prototype. That being said, here is a list of the most common methods, use cases, tools, testing methods and relative costs (not included, but just as valuable: Play Doh™, pipe cleaners, cardboard boxes, string and rubber bands).

Prototyping Quick Reference Guide

Low Fidelity Medium Fidelity High Fidelity

Type (Relative Cost) Best Use Case Standard Tools Basic Testing Method
Paper ($) Early concepting, quick iteration on a feature level, general user interaction exploration Pencil, paper, Post-it® Notes Internal, informal interviews and discussions
Digital Sketches ($) Blocking content zones, understanding relationships of content or navigational elements Sketch/InVision, Axure, InDesign Internal interviews
Interactive Digital Sketches ($) Understand flow of experience from object to object, page to page, interaction to interaction Sketch/InVision, Code, Axure, InDesign Internal and external qualitative interviews
Stories/Storyboard ($) A simple, cheap way to portray the flow and touch points of a new experience. A story or storyboard enables both stakeholders and potential customers to imagine themselves in the midst of your concept Pencil, paper, Post-it® Notes Internal, informal interviews and discussions, first interaction with users
Physical Model Build ($) Solicit feedback from your users and provide a springboard for new ideas. Tinkering with a physical model can lead to new insights about your design, too Magazines, paper, cardboard, clay, pipe cleaners, tape, tinker toys, Lego® blocks Iterative hands-on creation with your team, putting a model in the hands of your users for feedback
Wireframes ($$) Understand volume and quality of content, labeling, wayfinding, features and functions Sketch/Invision, Axure, InDesign Internal and external qualitative interviews
Interactive Wireframes ($$) Understand volume and quality of content, labeling, wayfinding, features and functions, initial concept testing Sketch/InVision, Code—HTML/CSS/JavaScript, Axure, InDesign Internal and external qualitative interviews
Skit ($$) Depict a process, service or even how an object gets used Team members, users and props: clothing, signs, photos, boxes An effective skit can solicit corrections and enhancements from your users, right on the spot
Design Flats ($$$) Understand brand expression, viewing of final form, user sentiment Sketch/InVision, Photoshop, InDesign External qualitative Interviews
Functional Front-End Prototype ($$$$) Confirm learnings from earlier prototypes and prep for launch into development, test-drive final form Code—HTML/CSS/JavaScript External qualitative Interviews
Test Center ($$$) Specific location that allows your customers to interact with a new product or service in a controlled space Team to design and create the mechanics needed, users, video or ethnographers Can be conducted where users are located for ethnographic study or a special space designed for the tests (Beta testing in the software world)
In-Market Product/Service/Business ($$$$) Building a prototype that is a complete product, service or business allows you to test not only User Desirability but also Technical Feasibility and Business Viability and how choices in one area affect another All aspects of the product, service or business $

Why you should prototype.

Aside from the aforementioned gut-check benefits of bringing your internal understanding to life, prototyping provides a number of operational and financial benefits:

Understand the problem more clearly.

Engaging with prototypes allows you to walk a mile in a user’s/customer’s shoes, so to speak. Whether you’re creating physical, digital or virtual prototypes, the more hands-on (or minds-on) you can make your ideas, the faster you’ll know if the solution resonates with or achieves its intended result for the intended target market.

Build consensus/resolve ambiguity.

Conceptual experiences, even when described in great detail, can be interpreted quite differently by individuals. Prototypes allow all parties involved to see and experience the concept in a similar, if not identical, fashion. It helps everyone to more clearly understand what problem they are solving and what outcome they are all striving to achieve.

Improve speed to market.

The more iteration and refinement you can achieve in the low- to mid-fidelity stages of the prototyping process, the faster and less expensively you can make those changes. It’s much easier to cut new cardboard, scribble new sticky notes, make new sketches or twist another pipe cleaner than it is to reprogram, machine new parts or retool a production line.

Limit exposure to risk.

Ideas are great, but execution is everything. If it wasn’t obvious from the previous three points, prototyping is not simply about refining and optimizing ideas; it’s about managing risk in the design and development processes. Prototyping can help surface issues early concerning the desirability, feasibility and viability of a product or experience.

So, go forth and make stuff.

Always remember, in prototyping, anything you can do or use to test out your idea is fair game. Grab any scrap of paper, twigs, rocks, crayons, clay, you name it, and start cobbling whatever materials you have on hand to bring an approximation of your idea to life, ASAP! In the long run, it will most certainly improve your end product.

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