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GuidesProduct developmentRapid prototyping: A fast and effective way to test your ideas

Rapid prototyping: A fast and effective way to test your ideas

Last updated

2 April 2023

Reviewed by

Sophia Emifoniye

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Creating any product is a long process that requires significant time and monetary investments. Before you introduce your idea to the world, you need a way to test it and make sure it will perform as intended. 

A prototype will allow you to test a product before it's complete. However, developing a complete prototype can be expensive, and if it doesn't work as expected, you'll have to start again from scratch.

Rapid prototyping provides businesses or entrepreneurs with a way to develop a quicker, less expensive model that they can alter and retry as needed. You can use rapid prototyping to test manufactured or digital products to discover usability issues or design flaws.

By creating multiple inexpensive iterations, rapid prototyping allows designers to test a product multiple times. This guide describes exactly what rapid prototyping is, explores different types, and outlines what defines a rapid prototype as successful.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is the process of quickly creating a scaled-down version of a product that you can use for testing and validation. The process is designed to be quicker and less expensive than creating a final version of the product with every intricate part and function in place. Often, rapid prototyping focuses on one function of a product at a time.

The term rapid prototyping comes from the manufacturing industry. When manufacturers design parts and products, they need a way to represent the actual product to stakeholders and ensure specific elements will work as intended. 

In manufacturing, rapid prototyping describes the process of creating a single 3D product or a single part of a product. You can then test the prototype product or part before manufacturing it in large quantities. 

Similar to manufacturing, software designers need a way to test products like apps and websites to see how they function. Digital designers create working versions of different software products to allow users to test function and user-friendliness before developing the finished product. Each new product iteration or prototype created during rapid prototyping may be used to choose visuals or test different product functions.

What's the difference between prototype and rapid prototyping?

A prototype is a proof of concept of an idea. It's a mock-up or an early version of an end product. While manufacturers may produce only a single prototype for a specific part or product, digital products like apps and software may go through several prototypes before reaching a finished design.

Rapid prototyping is the process of quickly creating a prototype, conducting testing, and refining the product based on feedback. You can use this process to test individual parts or functions that you’ll later thread together to produce a high-fidelity prototype to reflect the final product. Rapid prototyping in the digital space often means creating several iterations quickly to define issues and repair errors.

In the most basic sense, a prototype is a completed physical product, and rapid prototyping is the process used to create that product.

What are examples of rapid prototyping?

In the digital space, you can use rapid prototyping to share ideas and flesh out concepts without a major time or financial investment. There are several different ways to achieve this. Some examples of rapid prototyping in UX may include: 

  • Sketches: In the early design phases, you can use sketches to choose graphics or nail down a concept.

  • Photos: Photos of sketches can be uploaded into design tools to develop digital designs.

  • Wireframes: Graphic design details are usually developed through hand-drawn or digital blueprints, referred to as wireframes.

  • Digital mockups: A digital mockup may be used to illustrate finished graphics or may have some user functions for testing.

  • Digital prototypes: During the later phases of the design process, digital prototypes have graphics similar to the end product and specific usable features for user testing.

How much does it cost to rapid prototype?

Cost is one of the biggest benefits of rapid prototyping. It's designed to provide software developers with an inexpensive way to test ideas and correct errors before they release a product to the public. 

The actual cost of rapid prototyping will depend on the type of prototype you use. As prototypes become more advanced, costs will go up. For instance, early sketches will only include the cost of paper, while a digital prototype will take a longer period of time than the use of software or tools. 

What are the different types of rapid prototyping? 

While rapid prototyping in manufacturing ranges from 3D printing to machining, digital prototyping falls into three major types: 

Paper prototyping 

Sketching is used in the early design phases to quickly explore design alternatives. You can use layering or cut-outs to represent moving parts in paper prototyping. This process is also often used after creating digital prototypes for the rapid communication of new ideas.

Digital prototyping 

Digital designs are typically created later in the process and used for creating an interactive design. Rapid digital prototyping requires minimal or no coding, so it can be completed quickly. Digital prototyping typically requires the use of digital tools.

Native prototyping

When it's time to test products on real devices, native prototyping is required. This process requires developers to write code that will allow the prototype to work on a specific device. Some of the same code may be reused in creating the final product.

Selecting a rapid prototyping process

By design, rapid prototyping follows a general process of generating a prototype, reviewing results, and refining the product based on feedback. The process works in a circular fashion with each new iteration. 

Choosing your exact process depends on your goals at the prototyping stage of the journey. For example, it wouldn't make sense to create a high-fidelity digital prototype during the early design phases. 

Take these steps to select your rapid prototyping process with each iteration:

  • Define your goals for the process. What do you want to test with the prototype?

  • List the procedures that will be required to achieve your goals. 

  • Identify your test groups.

  • Choose a method you'll use for analyzing test data.

  • Determine the fastest and least expensive prototyping technique to effectively meet your goals.

Prototyping tools

Rapid prototyping works because it allows developers to quickly and inexpensively create multiple iterations of a future product. Since developers use these models for learning and development, a polished product isn't the goal. Still, to conduct accurate tests, digital products require clear graphics and usable features that will function properly. Reaching these goals in digital prototyping requires specialized tools.

Digital prototyping tools range in ease of use and abilities to meet a variety of needs. With simple uploads and features like drag and drop, web developers can quickly create prototypes that meet their current needs. When choosing prototyping tools, it's important to consider how they'll interact with your existing tools and applications. 

Defining a prototype scope

It's easy to think of a prototype as a fully functional version of an app or website. However, this isn't the goal of rapid prototyping. By creating prototypes in hours instead of days and then stringing them together, development teams can reach testing more quickly and iron out mistakes. 

To develop the scope of your prototype, it's essential to ask all the right questions and plan carefully.

  • What needs to be prototyped? Define the best goal for testing your product. You may need to ensure complex interactions work properly or test new functionality.

  • How much should you prototype? Rapid prototypes are not designed to represent a polished product. As such, you typically test functions in phases. A common approach is to begin by testing the functions that will be used most. 

  • Find the story. You should develop individual goals in conjunction with the full picture. After identifying the areas that you’ll prototype, you'll need to weave them together into one or more coherent paths that might match the user experience. 

  • Plan your iterations. Rapid prototyping highlights the value of building a project piece by piece. This approach can cut costs and lead to a finished product faster. By developing a plan for iterations that will occur in the future, you can determine what you need to achieve in each prototype. This usually means beginning with broad goals and defining more intricate processes in later iterations.

  • Choose the appropriate fidelity. High fidelity is used to develop finished graphics. It's not always the best choice for rapid prototyping. Rapid prototypes can use high or low fidelity. To keep costs low, choose the fidelity level that will match your needs at the lowest price point. 

The prototyping spectrum

Rapid prototyping can be completed throughout different phases of the development process to achieve various goals. To limit costs and time investment, prototypes are generally produced with the lowest level of quality to meet the developer's current needs. The prototyping spectrum ranges from low-fidelity to high-fidelity.

Low fidelity

Intended for speed, and typically used during the early design phases, low-fidelity prototyping is often completed on paper or a whiteboard. 

It's an excellent choice during conceptualization phases for brainstorming or gathering early feedback from users. 

These prototypes are usually static and have low visual precision to place focus on how the system will be used.

Medium fidelity

As the project takes shape, developers use medium-fidelity prototypes to flesh out the behavior of an application or website. 

Medium-fidelity images are generally more refined and may be completed on paper or a digital interface. 

Medium-fidelity prototypes include wireframes or early digital mock-ups that have limited functionality. The goal is to determine whether user needs will be met and the mapped experience will be optimal.

High fidelity

When the project is nearing completion, developers use high-fidelity prototypes to lace functionality together and simulate the final product. 

High-fidelity prototypes are the most realistic and therefore require the most time to create. 

High-fidelity prototypes are digital versions of a final product with quality visuals and interactive features.

Selecting a fidelity level

There is no single approach that is correct for selecting a fidelity level. However, since rapid prototyping highlights the importance of speed and cost savings, low-fidelity prototyping is often used during the early design phases. 

As the product becomes more advanced, the fidelity level increases to match the needs of the design team and testing requirements. 

What are the advantages of rapid prototyping?

Prototyping is a process that allows you to test the ideas of a functional product to ensure they work as intended. Rapid prototyping ensures you don't spend a lot of time and money on a prototype that ultimately could fail. 

There are many advantages to conducting rapid prototyping when developing a digital product: 

  • Quick prototypes eliminate miscommunication during the brainstorming process.

  • Visual mockups represent important features of a digital product.

  • Conducting rapid tests helps determine the usability of separate functions and provides clear feedback for necessary changes.

  • Visuals, code, and digital concepts can be reused from one successful iteration to quickly create the next.

  • Continually testing work allows developers to ensure they're building a product tailored to fit real user needs and wants.

What is a successful prototype?

To determine whether a prototype is successful, it's important to remember the purpose of rapid prototyping. At its core, prototyping is a process designed for testing and gathering feedback.

The process is cyclic by design: build, test, gather feedback, refine, and build again... 

A successful prototype is one that enables the design team to learn more about the product and make improvements. 

Rapid prototyping is a process that finishes only when the product is complete. We can deem prototypes successful when they effectively emulate how an application or website will look or function. 

Without the process, a design could go from idea to completion without any proof that the product will work as intended. 

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Successful rounds of rapid prototyping provide software developers with the opportunity to make an excellent first impression.

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