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What is prototyping?

Last updated

23 March 2023

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

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Designing a product is a multi-phase process that allows an individual or a team to develop an idea into a tangible product or service. Prototyping is an important part of this process that occurs in the mid- to late-development phases. It is a pivotal point in bringing a product or service to life.

Practically every industry utilizes prototyping, and designers may use different types of prototyping as a product evolves. A prototype allows you to see what works and what doesn't so you can detect any potential issues before a new product goes to market. 

Prototyping helps businesses save time and money. If you're unfamiliar with the process, it's important to learn more about the goals of prototyping and the different forms of prototypes. 

What is prototyping?

Prototyping is the process used by design teams to bring concepts to life. It is the act of crafting a simple, experimental model of any type of product. By using multiple forms of prototyping, design teams can gather essential feedback throughout the development process to help improve the end product.

While all types of businesses can benefit from prototyping, the process is different for physical and virtual businesses. Prototyping a physical product may evolve from 3D drawings to DIY models before contracting a functional 3D model. Conversely, prototyping a virtual product, like software or an app, is more likely to begin with functional sketches and evolve to partially or fully functional demo products. 

In both cases, prototyping can be accomplished with the assistance of an external company. Physical businesses can invest in a working prototype using 3D printing or manufacturing. Virtual businesses often use prototyping tools that allow the developer to create screens, navigational elements, and interactions to provide a solid representation of how a virtual product will behave. 

What is the difference between sketches and prototypes?

Sketches are some of the earliest representations of any product, but they aren't really prototypes. A sketch is purely visual. It's designed to illustrate a concept more effectively than verbal descriptions. 

In most cases, a sketch is fast, cheap, and disposable. A prototype (even when presented on paper) represents the functionality of the end product and is intended to gather user feedback.  

What are the goals of prototyping?

Creating a prototype is the process of bringing a product idea into the physical world. The goal is to prove that what was designed is possible. By creating a functional prototype, you can achieve organizational goals that range from improving your product to gaining support from stakeholders, and everything in between. 

Reasons for prototyping

Businesses create prototypes to develop a product in ways a simple design can't. Design teams prototype for a variety of reasons depending on the design phase of the product and the goals of the company. 

These are some of the most common reasons for prototyping.

  • Consider improvements throughout development: By developing early prototypes, design teams can gather information that will allow them to make changes to the original concept instead of committing to a potentially flawed version.

  • Establish proof of concept: In theory, a product idea will work perfectly without physical or digital problems. In reality, this is rarely the case. Prototyping provides proof that under the right conditions, a product will work as intended. 

  • Identify user pain points: To consumers, a product is a solution to a problem. When a design team works under the same concept, they're more likely to meet the needs of the product's ideal users. By creating a prototype, teams have a tool to get insights into the user's world, which can present added uses or potential accessibility problems.

  • Allow for user testing: Your users are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to your product success. Developing a useful prototype enables you to present it to users and gather feedback.

  • Minimize design errors: Functionality and optimal usability aren't necessarily the same thing. Changing incremental measurements or minor UI effects in a product when it nears completion is an expensive process that can cause delays. Prototypes help design teams eliminate flaws before product development and launch. 

  • Engage stakeholders and users: A prototype provides a tangible product that investors can see and use. This type of interaction is more engaging than an idea that isn't fully formed. 

  • Improve time-to-market: Creating a prototype takes time, but repairing flaws and improving product usability take longer. Prototyping improves time to market by providing information that streamlines the development process. 

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What are the different forms of prototyping?

Prototyping ranges in technique and materials used. These different forms are referred to as fidelity, which is the level of detail and functionality of a prototype. Companies use different levels of fidelity to establish different scenarios for improving their product. By knowing what each type includes, you will know when and how to use them.

Low fidelity prototypes

Low fidelity prototypes are the quickest, lowest effort prototypes a team can create. They are often used during early design phases to help identify technical risks and test the workflow. Often called paper prototypes, low fidelity prototypes usually represent an incomplete representation of your product. They can help identify usability issues early. 

Pros

  • Low cost: Usually created with only pen and paper and designed to be developed rapidly, low fidelity prototypes are inexpensive in both labor and materials. 

  • Fast: Paper prototypes are created quickly, making them great for brainstorming.

  • Easy to make changes: Multiple versions are often created in one session, allowing design teams to quickly make changes and develop improved versions. 

  • Improves team collaboration: When teams work together to develop paper prototypes, members experience increased engagement and develop a sense of ownership of the product. 

  • Honest user feedback: Since paper prototypes are cheap and easy to make, users are more likely to provide honest feedback about shortcomings.

Cons 

  • Lack of realism: Paper versions of a product limit the user experience in comparison to digital mock-ups. 

  • False positives: Limited realism requires the user to imagine the concept of a fully working design. As a result, they may feel more positive about how the finished product will work, inspiring the design team to think they're closer to the finish line than they truly are. 

Medium fidelity prototypes

Medium fidelity prototypes are a bridge between low fidelity and high fidelity prototypes. Often called wireframes, these prototypes are realistic mock-ups of a product in black and white. 

User experience (UX) features are added at this point to improve usability and gain a clearer picture of the final product. Medium fidelity prototypes are used to focus on the functionality of the design without distractions of color, logos, and other final design aspects. 

Pros

  • Increased reality: The digital interface creates more realistic conditions for user testing, resulting in more accurate feedback. 

  • Quick development of new versions: Since these mock-ups don't have all details applied, designers can quickly apply improvements to roll out new versions. 

  • Limited details: Without fine details, designers can test out the user function and navigation without users and team members getting bogged down in approving the small details. 

Cons

  • Incomplete representation: This still isn't the best representation of the product, so it can lead to a lackluster impression. 

  • Limited usability: Medium fidelity prototypes are usually designed to test out specific product goals to avoid extra expenses. As a result, they can disappoint since they don't feature the product's full functionality and aesthetics. 

High fidelity prototypes

High fidelity prototypes are realistic versions of a product nearing the final stages of development. Usually produced digitally, these prototypes include most of the features of the final product. 

Along with UX features, high fidelity prototypes include colors, branding, animations, fonts, etc., to deliver the most realistic version of a final product. If earlier prototypes have done their job, high fidelity prototypes will only present the need for smaller, less expensive changes to a final product.

Pros

  • Engaging: Stakeholders and users have a full concept of how the actual product will appear and perform. 

  • Realistic: Users get an experience that mimics the final product, resulting in the most accurate feedback.

  • Increased collaboration: This is the prototype that allows stakeholders and team members to judge how well it matches users' needs and solves their problems. With more features to consider, this stage invites the most feedback. 

  • Allows for final testing: High fidelity prototypes present a way to accurately test the final product before going into the developmental phase. 

Cons

  • Time-consuming: All details are added to a high fidelity prototype, making it a time-consuming endeavor to create. 

  • Expensive: These prototypes take more expensive materials and tools to create.

  • Limited user feedback: When users think you've spent a lot of time and money creating a prototype, it feels more like a complete product. This knowledge may result in reluctance on the user’s part to provide critical or negative feedback.

Benefits of prototypes

When you consider all the time and effort that goes into prototypes, the process may seem overwhelming. Yet, without prototyping, design teams have a limited view of the potential issues that can arise in the finished product. 

Prototyping provides many benefits that make a finished product the best it can be, including:

  • Improved understanding: Most people process visual information more effectively than verbal or written information. A prototype can provide a clearer concept of the product for the design team, users, and stakeholders.

  • Thorough planning process: Repeated prototyping throughout the planning process allows development teams to recognize unnecessary elements and add useful features.

  • Increased engagement: The prototyping process increases engagement among team members. High fidelity prototypes increase engagement of users and stakeholders, making them useful for attracting investors. 

  • Saves time and money: Prototyping takes both time and money. However, the feedback and results derived from various prototypes can streamline product planning and development to eliminate time-consuming and costly errors, meaning the return on investment (ROI) is high. 

  • Enhanced quality: Prototypes allow developers and users to test a product's functionality and user-friendliness. Feedback during the prototyping process allows developers to eliminate flaws and improve the product's usability.

The prototyping process

Before beginning the prototyping process, you will have identified potential users, defined their problems, and developed a solution to solve their pain points. In any industry, the general prototyping process will evolve from sketches to low fidelity prototypes, then to wireframes before being upgraded to a high fidelity prototype to represent the final product. 

Creating paper prototypes

Paper prototypes allow you to create a rough animation of your product fairly early in the design process. They can be created using blank paper, templates, and even mock devices made of cheap materials like cardboard. Digital sketch tools may be used if the process includes remote collaboration or presenting the prototypes to stakeholders or testers. 

To create paper prototypes, gather plenty of cheap paper and pencils or pens. Start with a warmup by quickly designing many versions of the same screen. Once you have ideas to expand on, sketch one screen per piece of paper to create user flows in sequence. 

As ideas evolve, you can create rough animations by sliding pieces of paper to create a more realistic flow of how the interface will work. Create several paper prototypes to explore different ways of solving a problem. Take the best offerings from each version to develop a final paper prototype that yields the most successful example of the product. 

Website prototyping process

A website prototype can be any demo of what a website will look like when it goes live. However, even low fidelity website prototypes require complex ideas and structures. 

These steps outline the website prototyping process:

  1. Research similar sites to find patterns and trends that define industry standards

  2. Define the goals of the website

  3. Define the information architecture that will inform website navigation

  4. Determine the scope of the project, including time, resources, and cost

  5. Create a wireframe

  6. After testing the wireframe, it's common to work with a designer or to use a prototyping tool to develop a high fidelity prototype of your website

Prototyping is an exciting part of the design process that brings an idea to fruition. It serves as a collaboration tool for design teams and proof of concept for potential investors. Prototyping provides design teams with essential data that can be used to create the best product possible.

Without the prototyping process, businesses would lose thousands of dollars and hours of time repairing errors at the final building stages of product creation.

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