Prototyping: fake it first to perfectly make it later

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prototype tools

Releasing a product to the market without testing it or creating a sample of it is a huge risk to take. So often products which reach the market without successful prototyping experience expensive re-work and end up back on the design-process table. That’s a budget-draining expense that you can avoid if you made a prototype of your potential website, mobile app, or any type of product before releasing it to the users.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is a real-life version of a vision, an idea or a result of a well-thought design process. Transforming that idea or a particular sketch you drew on a napkin into a functioning product is what prototyping is all about. Most, if not all products, start off as a prototype before the final outcome.

Successful products, applications and websites we see in the market have been through various prototyping processes before they were actually released to the users. As Michael Schrage explains in his book, the importance of prototyping can be linked to identifying design problems and missing links in the design process, which at the end of the day are crucial to making any product usable.

How to build a prototype?

Building a prototype may be a lot simpler than you think. Whether you are a scientist, an innovator or a website designer, the availability of prototyping tools are abundant. Some ideas are rather simple and can be transformed into a prototype using DIY materials at home and maybe a toolkit. But prototyping depends on multiple factors such as the nature of the product or application, size, structure, complexity, components and more.

There is no clear single path to prototyping. You can choose one or more methods for this process or even hire an external team to create one for you. But it is important to remember that the main purpose of prototyping is not reaching perfection, but rather looking for faults and glitches to remove before launching the product.

According to Nielson Norman Group, a prototype methodology can fall into the category of high-fidelity or low-fidelity. The prototype hypothesis, depending on the detailing or simplicity can be placed on the spectrum of fidelity. For example, a simple prototype sketch is considered as low-infidelity whereas a fully-functional software program will fall further towards high-fidelity.

1. Sketching

Sounds old-school? It is one of the oldest and most commonly used prototyping techniques used all over the globe and can be found used in industries ranging from software development to textile and from manufacturing to automobiles.

Sketching can allow you to give your team members a simple and basic idea of what the product or software will look like. We all know that a picture speaks a thousand words. And being visual creatures, we are more likely to easily comprehend a picture as compared to a longer form of text.

A simple sketch or a detailed diagram can help you and your team visualize the actual product. And all it takes is a simple pen and paper, a cost-friendly technique we can’t disagree upon.

2. Wireframes

When it comes to digital designing and software or application development, wireframing is another popular prototyping technique that takes the top spot. This can be described as a low-fidelity technique which acts as the visual architecture or framework of the actual product. In other words, it is a blueprint of the product idea. Wireframing can be simple, using lines, boxes, borders, and other forms of content. This method is mostly preferred over others as it focuses on the information architecture, functionality, designs, usability and interactions. You can also make changes on-the-go without having to worry about starting from scratch, re-coding programs or other technicalities.

3. Detailed Prototypes

As the term suggests, a detailed prototype is more realistic and interactive. In other words, it falls closer to the actualization of the product as compared to sketches. Researchers across the globe have invented various ways for detailed prototyping. One such example points towards the usage of Legos or building blocks. Surprised? CEO of the international design firm, Tim Brown states in his book that Lego toys can stimulate creativity. This method was then used in the developing a prototype for an insulin injection device (Brown, 2009).

What is prototype testing?

The core purpose of a prototype is to be able to identify and fix all the unexpected glitches and problem-areas.  Before you roll out the final version of the product, you want to make sure the product functions as it is supposed to and offers complete usability. Think about it this way, is it cheaper to scrap away a prototype sketch or an actual product? Prototypes can be designed, tested, re-designed and re-tested until you come across the perfect creation ready for commercial use.

There are various methods for prototype testing. Some are used mainly for high-fidelity prototypes while others are more suitable for low-fidelity prototypes. Some common testing methods include:

  • Sample users
  • Observers
  • Facilitator
  • Interactive prototype with test features
  • Problem discovery
  • Eye tracking
  • Focus group

If your product requires user interaction, you can opt for interactive prototype testing which basically refers to ensuring your product meets a minimum feature-criteria and offers usability. On the other hand, observers can be picked from within the team to evaluate and observe usability and interaction of a product prototype with users without mediation. Testing can help you not only understand the flaws of the product but can also give a useful insight into expected production costs. Focus groups and sample users may be able to provide useful suggestions to help improve the final product.

Get help with cost-effective prototype tools

Prototyping has become a lot easier over the decades. With advancement in technology, game-changing applications and web platforms, every-day beings can create and test prototypes with ease. You don’t need a massive budget for this process nor do you need experts to do the work for you.

Some of the most popular prototype tools that you can use are:

  • Axure
  • Adobe XD
  • Webflow
  • io
  • UXPIN
  • Hotgloo
  • Solidify

Though the features may vary for each of the above-mentioned tools, most have built a reputation for being extremely user-friendly and affordable. Depending on the kind of prototype you are working on, you can get a hold of a prototype tool and ensure your product testing is issue-free.

Key takeaways

Prototyping and testing still play a crucial role in the development of any product, website or mobile application. The more time spent on prototyping and testing actually helps reduce time and money wasted on re-designing.

Before you pick a prototype method, testing technique or tool, evaluate your goals, ideas and budget to find the most appropriate path to prototyping.

The availability of prototyping tools can be great for beginners as well as experts who want to create/test prototypes without going over budget. So why limit your vision and idea to a piece of paper when you can take the next step and create a tangible product.

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