GuidesProduct developmentWhat you need to know about digital prototypes

What you need to know about digital prototypes

Last updated

30 March 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

Thomas Edison is one of the world’s best-known inventors, but even a few of his inventions failed. 

Edison’s first patented invention was an electrographic vote recorder. This device allowed public officials voting on bills to cast their votes to a central recorder, which would automatically tally them. 

When he presented the functioning vote recorder to Washington, he received a different reaction than expected. 

Politicians weren’t interested in the device. They thought it would hinder the vote trading and maneuvering process during a legislative session. It was a lesson well learned for Edison. 

Before expending your resources, prototype your idea to evaluate the validity of how well customers will receive your solutions in the marketplace. 

What's the point of inventing something if you won’t be able to sell it?

Let’s learn about digital prototyping, its principles, and its benefits. 

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an early presentation, simulation, model, or physical representation of a product's features and appearance. You use it to test and validate a basic idea or design. 

It’s not the finished product but a means to confirm the validity of its performance within the marketplace. The intention is to eventually develop it into a final product. 

What is prototyping?

Prototyping is a process that helps you solve problems without wasting resources and time. The different prototyping processes can use any representation method. 

Examples of prototyping processes are:

Rapid prototyping

Rapid prototyping is the most basic, fastest, and most affordable prototyping method. You create a model of a design, knowing that you will use it for a short time and throw it away. 

Extreme prototyping

Web application development uses extreme prototyping and focuses on building the UI components first. 

Incremental prototyping

In incremental prototyping, a company’s departments simultaneously develop pieces of the product, evaluate them, and combine them into a cohesive final product. 

Implementation prototyping

Implementation prototyping involves building a prototype that covers the bare minimum of features, which you can expand upon later.

Digital prototyping explained

A digital prototype is a visual representation of a product that users can interact with. It is not a fully functioning and developed concept, but it contains enough of the final concept to get valuable user feedback. 

You create this to eliminate the guesswork of customers' reactions to an idea before expending significant resources.

Digital prototyping principles

The point of prototyping is not to spend too much time on the process. 

You start by dissecting the problem you're hoping to solve. Examining the issue allows you to generate a variety of ideas that may solve it. 

You develop these ideas into a hypothesis or a tentative answer that you can evaluate through testing and data collection. 

Let’s imagine you've discovered a problem with signups on your website: They’re not at the level you expect. Various causes could include:

  • The loading time is too slow

  • You're asking users to sign up before looking at content

  • Password requirements are too complicated

  • You ask users for credit card information for free trials

  • The signup form isn’t on the landing page

Looking at this list, we can see possible solutions to the problem. From there, you would generate your hypothesis. 

The hypothesis could be that moving the signup form to the landing page will generate 15% more signups. 

You can now prove or disprove this hypothesis by creating and testing a prototype landing page to determine if signups increase, decrease, or stay the same. 

Different types of prototypes

Types of prototypes include:

  • Wireframes

  • Functional prototypes

  • Diagrams

  • 3D printing

  • Mockups

  • Storyboards

  • Physical models

  • Fake-functioning prototypes

  • Sketches

These prototype methods are inexpensive and ideal for deciding whether to proceed with a product’s development. 

When should you use each

You can use sketches, wireframes, or semi-functional prototypes to create prototype web pages and mobile apps. 

Wireframes are basic visual representations of the final webpage. They usually consist of geometric shapes and lines representing the project elements. 

Sketches and wireframes are low-fidelity prototypes, meaning they are non-interactive rudimentary outlines without design elements like colors, fonts, and images.

Prototypes that closely resemble the finished product are high-fidelity prototypes. These semi-functional prototypes require more time to create. 

An example of a digital prototype in design

Prototyping is essential in the design thinking process, which aims to define and solve customer problems. 

With a digital product, like a new online storefront, prototyping can begin with the most basic sketches, giving an overall structure to the landing page and structure of linked pages. 

After initial feedback, those sketches can evolve into wireframes, providing more fidelity. 

Finally, designers can represent all feedback in the digital designs, which include more finishing details like colors and fonts for a final round of feedback. 

Once the designers have incorporated all feedback, they can build the designs into the product.

Who should prototype?

The prototype process is not just for designers and engineers. Anyone with an idea can prototype. Whether you're in product development, human resources, or marketing, sometimes you need to go further than just telling others about your ideas. 

Prototyping allows your audience to visualize your concepts and provide reactions. This data can confirm your concept’s viability, helping you confidently pitch your ideas. 

The benefits of digital prototyping

The benefit of digital prototyping is solving problems so everyone is satisfied with the result, with little wasted time and financial resources. 

Here are more benefits that can raise your product development to another level:

Gains commitments from stakeholders and investors

Digital prototyping helps stakeholders and investors understand proposed features and products. They demonstrate how they will impact the business and customers. 

When you're asking for funding, stakeholders and investors need a visual representation of your solutions and how your customers will receive them. 

It's easy to do

Producing diagrams, sketches, mockups, and storyboards requires very little effort but still enables clear visualization of features and appearances. 

Other prototyping methods may need more effort, but the effort expended is much less than building the full product without using prototyping. 

Saves resources for better uses 

Depending on your prototyping method, it can cost nearly nothing. You can create digital prototypes using as little time and financial resources as possible, saving money and time in the long run. 

You can allocate the resources you save during the prototyping process on other product or feature development phases.

Gets ideas to the customer quicker with better results

Creating and testing digital prototypes validates solutions and identifies problems quickly before the building phase. 

Based on the data you collect, the development of a product or feature can continue seamlessly and with confidence. Once the feature or product is available for customers, you’re less likely to get surprising reactions.

Generates new ideas

While digital prototyping can validate ideas, the data you collect might disprove an idea. 

During the data collection process, you might discover better solutions, which can get you back on the right track.

How do you get started with prototyping?

The idea is not to get feedback or suggestions on how you could design or build something better. The purpose of prototyping is to get a reaction to a basic idea. 

The first step is determining the problem or needs you want to address for which customers. 

Once you've established those, examine what you want to accomplish with the prototype:

  • What values or functions will you test? 

  • What final deliverables are you aiming for? 

It's also important to know how much time you have to allocate to the prototype because this may determine the method you'll proceed with.

After establishing those guidelines, you’re ready to start working on the visual component of the prototype. You can create it with pencil and paper, marker and whiteboard, or computer-aided design (CAD) software. 

Keeping the customer in mind, map a user flow and the process for completing it. 

The user flow diagram represents how users will solve their problems or needs by interacting with a product or feature. 

Each user flow diagram will also show how potential interactions with a product or feature will relate to the behavior and expectations of the user or customer. 

Once you map the user flow, you can sketch a basic structure or layout for a product or feature.

Best digital prototyping tools

In addition to pencil and paper or marker and whiteboard, software tools can help you create digital prototypes quickly and thoroughly. 

Some examples of tools for website and mobile app prototyping include:

  • Axure RP

  • Origami Studio

  • Principle

  • Mockflow

  • Adobe

  • UXPin

  • Framer

  • Webflow

  • Mockplus

Some of these software packages work best for different skill levels. 

For example, Origami Studio is a free software package that allows digital prototypers to create complex animations and user interactions without writing code. 

At the same time, Framer provides a platform for increased creativity for code writers. 

Successful product development starts with digital prototypes

Knowing when and how to prototype can provide many advantages for your business, like allocating your resources more productively. 

It also helps you avoid creating a product that doesn’t solve a real problem. 

Having the discipline to prototype before rushing into the development phase can prevent problems rather than wasting time and resources dealing with issues as they occur.

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