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We conduct user studies in all stages of development, showing our participants everything from sketches to finished products. All kinds of prototypes pass us by. But more often than not the product is practically finished even though conceptual questions are still floating around. By then it is too late, or painful, to make necessary radical changes. Instead, these questions have to be intercepted the moment they arise.

Visualizing a conversation

Triangle of Learning, prototyping and testing

Prototyping is a way to bring your idea(s) to life. You can start moulding, adding or removing material until it takes shape. This is necessary to ensure a successful product. Bringing your idea to life as early as possible gives you the opportunity to share and gather input from your team, manager and stakeholders in order to improve.

This also means you can involve your consumers by showing your prototype during a user study. To discover whether they understand and value your idea. The earlier the better. A prototype — albeit paper or digital — simulates a conversation” between your concept and consumers. Does it develop naturally, like between long lost friends? Or is it filled with awkward silences and misconceptions? This insights will help you craft your idea into something worthwhile, into a valuable asset to your consumers lives.

Criteria for a successful prototype

Using your prototype in a user study can be tricky, because the quality of your prototype and the level of detail you present determines the feedback participants will give you. Sketches answer conceptual questions while clickable prototypes reveal interaction problems. Based on your questions and the development stage you are in you have to carefully examine which elements are needed in order to conduct a successful study. You do not want to use too much time but also not rush it.

  1. Flows instead of a set of pages
    Frequently teams work out a set of seemingly random set of pages and request a user study. But this will prompt random feedback, because participants do not have something to work towards. Consumers do not visit your website to look at some pages. They have a certain goal in mind. They follow a certain flow, or user story if you will. And this is what you need to prototype.

    By prototyping the most important user stories — powerful building blocks of agile projects — or flows or dialogues you will gather valuable insights. It becomes apparent if it flows naturally or whether key elements are missing. Participants can follow a route towards their goal and show you what they need.

  2. Take your content seriously
    It is baffling, but content is often (unconsciously) considered inferior. Prototypes are filled to the brim with lorem ipsum’. It is baffling, because content is the only reason consumers visit your website. Your content has to be top notch. And in order to achieve this you also have to prototype your content.

    Get rid of your lorem ipsum’, regardless of the development stage you are in. It does not longer exist. Instead ensure the content — ranging from plain texts to tables and tools — is realistic. This does not mean it has to be final. After all, you are still prototyping. Just keep it real.

    There can also be a ridiculous discussion about whether it should be mobile or content first. Unsurprisingly we think you have to combine those from the very start.

  3. Limit the visual designs
    Often a lot of time is used to make a prototype that fits the brand or adheres to the style guide. Apparently it has to look as real as possible” in order to grasp the look and feel” and overall experience”. Bullocks! Participants are perfectly capable working with sketches or wireframes. They often prefer it, because it looks clean and simple”.

    Limiting visual design does not mean excluding it entirely. It certainly has to be used to establish visual hierarchy. Participants need this to make sense of your concept. But more than that is overkill. Especially when you are at the start of your project. Look at it like this, you will free up time by sticking to the bare minimum which then can be used to take another look at your content.

  4. Ignore the conditions and possible constraints — for now
    Do not go to the legal department in advance. Do not make a list of (technical) constraints. Do not try to ensure a green light on all possible stops. This blocks all your creative juices which you need to develop something new and groundbreaking.
    Give yourself (and your team) time and freedom to experiment. To play. To innovate. Take full advantage of it. Discover and determine whether your idea has potential. When it is getting definitive you can visit the departments. And if you do it right you have gathered all the munition to withstand any objection.

  5. Use the right tool at the right time
    You have to keep it as simple possible, as long as it answers your questions. Nothing more, nothing less. Use a paper hand drawn prototype if you have conceptual questions. Participants can click’ by tapping and you will play’ the computer, showing them the following screen. Or use Invision or Marvel when you have wireframes through which participants can click. Or a programme like Axure to incorporate interactive elements such as expandable panels, mouse-over states, etc.

  6. Make it feel realistic
    As real as possible” is not the same as make it feel realistic”. Participants cannot know they are working with a prototype, regardless of how it looks. They have to be able to see, feel and play around — of course within certain boundaries. At least they have to have the feeling they can do whatever they want. So please, no ridiculous powerpoint presentation where participants have to hit the next”-button. Or a prototype’ where the next step automatically pops up, whether they clicked in the right place or not.
A person giving feedback to another person about a prototype

Improving your idea by combining prototyping and user testing

We do not say it is easy to create a really effective — not necessarily perfect — prototype. But it will help you in creating amazing products and services your consumers cannot live without. By embedding user testing in your development stages, by using your prototypes in user studies, you ensure you are on the right track. You can mould, test, mould, test and repeat until the desired result is reached.

  • Bjorn Post
  • Joris Leker