What's the Point of Prototyping?
5 minute read
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James Fox

Last week, our Head of Product Iain and I gave a talk to MA Advertising students at the London College of Communication about prototyping and design sprints. We thought we’d reproduce some of it here too.

What’s the point of prototyping?

The road to product glory is littered with the broken bodies of those who didn’t want to – or thought they didn’t need to – test their assumptions. It’s sometimes simple to generate ideas in isolation and to get swept up in their possibilities, perhaps even more so when working in a group. But testing your assumptions early and frequently is the best way to ensure that you’re producing something your users genuinely need and want.

Of course, your product or feature will eventually test your assumptions with your users, but creating a prototype ahead of launch allows you to shortcut that process. Minimising the time and cost of gathering user feedback should be at the top of your list of priorities.

In some cases you may be pushing technology to its limits. For example, before we brought the browser-based 3-D experience for Force Over Mass, we created a series of prototypes to determine the most best javascript library to deliver the experience on mobile and desktop devices.

Finally, and no less importantly, prototypes are the best way we know of to tell and indeed sell, a story. If a picture tells a thousand words, then a prototype is even better.

When should I prototype?

Always. As part of continually optimising your product, you’re going to keep generating ideas for new features and product pivots. Ideally you’ll have access to user data to inform not only your decisions, but your solutions. Prototyping is the ideal way to do this, and opens up the possibility to do some A/B testing too.

Prototypes of your initial product should come right after you’ve gotten as far as committing an idea to paper.

How do you create a prototype?

The simple lean philosophy is that your prototype needs to be good enough to gather feedback from users, it’s as simple as that.. It can be tempting to get carried away creating a pixel-perfect branded design, but your aim should be to minimise the time and effort that goes into achieving your goal. We tend to use a few simple tools to create prototypes at Ideas Made:

Keynote

Recommended by Google as part of their design sprint process, Keynote is a great way to rapidly pull together a basic prototype of your feature or service. It’s very simple to create a brochure-style experience, but can also be used to go a step further and test interactions if you wish to.

Using a resource like Keynotopia can add even greater flexibility. Using templates for devices, interfaces and icons makes it really easy to layout a product in reasonably comprehensive detail.

Wordpress and other template website builders

Higher fidelity brochure ware is possible for those with the coding and design skills to create sites in Wordpress. There are tonnes of themes available that can be customised, removing a lot of design effort. It’s important not to get carried away with the design element and to concentrate on the feedback instead..

Allowing users to sign up to express interest is a great way to validate your idea. Find a cheap way to direct traffic to your site, and then look at sign-up conversion rates to give yourself a quantitative measure. Even better, couple this with an A/B test of features or propositions to hone in on what users really want. We did this for our own product Covet.

Marvel and other prototyping services

Perhaps best known as a great tool for UX-ers and designers, Marvel is great for those used to working with Sketch or Photoshop. You can easily stitch together a shareable interactive prototype for mobile or web from your designs.

Marvel also allows you to grab hand-drawn sketches and pull those together into even quicker prototypes for some lo-fi testing - meaning you can grab a few pieces of paper and a Sharpie and you’ll be good to go.

Hardware prototypes

We’ll leave the more complex hardware prototyping tools for another post, but suffice to say that the rise of beginner tools like Raspberry Pi and Arduino have made it far easier to create electronic prototypes.

It’s also worth noting that creating a ‘prop’ can be a useful tool in your prototype armoury. Putting something physical in people’s hands is a powerful way to get their feedback.

However you choose to create your next prototype, remember that it’s all about creating something that’s good enough to get user feedback. Whichever method you choose, you’re likely to uncover unexpected insights and ideas that will improve your product in the long run.