Let’s start off with a scenario: you are working on a new digital product, service or feature. You have already decided the strategic direction and outline for the concept. Now you are creating a prototype that must lead directly — except for a few optimizations — to the final product. Sounds familiar, right?
Using prototypes this way, is a missed shot. A missed shot to create an outcome that solves a real problem for customers. One that is worthwhile.
Prototypes are a great tool to discover what people need, what they dream of, what their goals are, and what frustrates them — to name a few things. It is a tool to define, test and learn from opportunities and ideas, and eventually get to the right solution. In other words: prototypes are particularly valuable when the solution isn’t set in stone yet. Then why do many design teams only start prototyping once they already decided on the solution?
A prototype is more than you think
When talking about prototypes, the industry mostly refers to a representation of a final product or feature that a team is working on. This definition is limited. A prototype is much more. A prototype is anything tangible that enables you to get feedback on an aspect of the solution that you are working on. It is a tool that helps you learn. Which means is doesn’t have to be a smooth clickable Invision demo. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even have to be a representation of the final product. It might as well be a storyboard, video or even a competitor’s website.
4 examples that show the value of prototyping early
If you only start prototyping after you set the solution in stone, you miss a hell of a lot opportunities to discover the value of different ideas early on. You miss the chance to have customers inspire you. Prototyping earlier could have prevented you from investing time and money in that one feature that didn’t catch on after is was already built… Let’s make the value of prototyping more concrete:
#1 Prototyping avoids misunderstanding.
Imagine: you’re working on a new concept with your team. You’ve had countless meetings on the strategy. Endless discussions about key features, interactions, and essential flows. After hours you leave the stuffy meeting room believing that everybody’s on the same page. A few weeks later, the opposite turns out to be true — chances are you can relate to this scenario. People’s associations are influenced by their own context and previous experience. In other words: talking without making things concrete, always leads to different interpretations of the same concept. Making a visual representations (a prototype) of what you talk about right away, tackles this issue. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It is about having a shared truth. Leaving the room with an abstract but tangible backbone of the discussion, ensures everyone moves in the same direction.
People’s associations are influenced by their own context and previous experience. In other words: talking without making things concrete, always leads to different interpretations of the same concept.
#2 Prototyping helps to make decisions.
Wordy conversations and discussions often lead to procrastination of decisions. It is easy to flip this: enter a meeting with the goal to make something concrete. This helps keep the meeting focussed and effective. Making decisions fast, prevents designers from finding themselves staring at an empty artboard due to insecurity and lack of direction. Leaving too many options open for too long, means time gets lost. And that’s a waste. Especially when you realize that you can only find the right solution by experimenting. So you better start somewhere. Today. Make decisions, make things tangible and discover whether or not it was the right call.
#3 Prototyping creates a culture of curiosity.
A prototype allows you to perform short experiments and learn about business context, your customers, and the feasibility of ideas early on. By using prototypes in an early stage, you change the team’s mindset. The stubborn focus on the final product shifts towards a focus on learning, validating assumptions and discovering the real problem that customers experience.
#4 Prototypes help you get better insights.
Prototypes are a handy tool for all sorts of research. Designing prototypes for concept- or usability tests is an obvious choice. But they add a lot of value to more explorative forms of research as well. For instance, you could perfectly enrich in-depth interviews or focus groups by working with products of competitors, have participants prioritize a collection of features, or have them react to sketches of concepts. This allows you to learn about the relation between solutions and needs of your target audience in an early stage.
Prototypes come in many different shapes and sizes
There are levels to prototyping. Plenty of levels. So once you have decided to prototype more often, a new challenge will surface: creating the right kind of prototype at the right time. This starts with a clear goal and a specified target audience. From there, you decide on the form and the amount of detail you want to give the prototype.
- Set an objective. In broad lines, a prototype is a tool to learn about the needs and desires of your target audience (desirability), convince stakeholders of the economical value (viability), or to make an estimation of the technical possibilities (feasibility). Three different goals with each their own set of requirements for your prototype.
- Define your audience. The user of the prototype is not always the end-user of the product. Depending on the objectives, the users could also be business stakeholders or technical agents. This influences your prototype heavily. Different target groups come with different requirements. To give you an example: the end-user would probably not be able to imagine your concept and give feedback based on a flow chart, while your technical stakeholder is perfectly able to. In turn, technical stakeholders can’t really estimate which database connections are needed based on a slick promo video. And that promo video? That might be very valuable to get input from your end-users.
- Minimal effort, maximum result. With the objective and target group defined, you are ready to decide on what to make and, more importantly, what not to make. Now it is up to you to create a prototype that answers to your goals, and at the same time, costs you the least effort to make. Is it really needed to design the entire feature, or would a landing page suffice? Is it necessary to design every page pixel perfect or are the three most important pages enough? A prototype has to offer you a platform to get the right insights. Nothings less, but especially: nothing more.
- Don’t blindly go with your favourite design tool. Let go of your favourite software. Start off with a marker and a piece of paper and decide — based on your plan — which software is most suitable. Don’t use complex design tools when simple tool like Keynote offer enough functionality. This way you prevent yourself from the temptation to work on unnecessary details for the simple reason that your tool offers you the possibility. It also works the other way around: by picking your tools carefully, you prevent yourself from being limited by your own skills and software.
- Dare to let go of your own product and assets. The best prototype is not always the prototype that perfectly reflects the status and possibilities of your final product. Especially when you design new features, a new concept or a visual redesign, you save a lot of time by not integrating it directly into the real product (with high fidelity assets). Prove the value first. Your prototype can be one screen you designed yourself combined with interactions of competitor’s websites. Not working towards your final product directly comes with a huge advantage: it makes it easier to let go of your darlings when you move in the wrong direction.
The pitfall of perfection
You set your goals, you know to whom you want to show the prototype, and you decided on the shape and size. The finish line is in sight and the only thing you have to do is speed up. However, on your way to the finish line there is one last pitfall: the pitfall of perfection. We’re designers ourselves, so we know how tempting it is to make a slick visual design. But keep in mind: by spicing up your design with details that aren’t essential for the learning experience, you can actually thwart your own goals. Let us give you two examples:
- If you want to learn about flow and functionality, it’s not smart to create a pixel perfect visual design. For the simple reason that a smooth visual design triggers reaction on details and distracts from the bigger picture.
- Conveying a new visual style by bringing it to life in a detailed web page, leads to discussion on functionality. It won’t be about look and feel anymore, but rather about content and features.
Perfection is time-consuming and, in many cases, it keeps you from getting the insights you need to move forward and make the right decisions. Our advice? Spend your valuable time on doing another research iteration, instead of creating a perfect picture. Understanding the world of your customers and stakeholders allows you to build solutions that make a difference, not just pretty pictures.