Prototypes bring to life the experience behind user experience.
Prototyping can expose usability flaws lurking under the surface and save money later down the line, but only if designers get the process right.
What do we mean by prototyping?
In software development, prototyping is the process of building a simulated user interface that will be used for further ideation, evaluation, and, obtaining user feedback. The idea is to offer testers a low-cost, but fully-functional build that behaves as close to the final product as possible.
Building a prototype allows developers and designers the chance to understand the customer’s needs better.
The customer has the chance to experience the product at an early stage, making it easier and more cost-effective to make any adjustments.
What isn’t a prototype?
When we talk about prototyping, we often see mockups and wireframes thrown into the same conversation. While helpful, mockups and wireframes are not prototypes and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.
Wireframes are the software equivalent of a building’s blueprint. They are illustrations that use lines and shapes to outline each screen with annotations to explain functionality, much like a flow chart.
UX teams use wireframes to establish workflows and develop concepts before committing time and resources to refinement. They tend not to be shared outside of the team, as there is little to no value in others evaluating the wireframes.
Mockups are a more accurate visual representation of the final product. They fully incorporate the design details such as colour, contrast, content, icons and so on.
Mockups are high-fidelity designs that incorporate more features than a wireframe, as such it can be shared with others to get valuable feedback before heading into the prototyping phase.
UX teams often use mockups for presentations to stakeholders or clients as they offer a visual representation of features and design concepts. Mockups can also be useful in some usability studies where full functionality isn’t required.
Why is prototyping important?
Most people are able to go through life never having to worry about the product design process.
We can simply look at the final product and appreciate its functionality or price, making purchasing decisions based purely on those factors. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why prototyping is an often overlooked practice.
Consumers don’t see the dozens of prototypes that went into creating a final product. Each version is created to identify issues and improve functionality before it ever reaches the market.
This is one of the most important reasons for prototyping, as the more issues found and solved during the prototyping phase, the better.
Finding and fixing issues late in the development phase can be costly and time-consuming. Catching them early can cut down on the work teams have to do, avoiding crunch and reducing overhead.
Create innovative products with less risk
Prototyping is especially useful when it comes to introducing a brand new product. Humans can have a tough time trying to understand a new concept or idea. Prototypes offer a visual and interactive tool that allows the user to fully understand the product with hands-on experience, rather than looking at bullet points and feature lists.
With each prototype, teams have the ability to push the product to users for testing. This allows the target audience the chance to experience the product before it hits the market and gives development teams feedback based on actual usage.
It’s easy for designers or teams to experience a level of blindness as they work through the development stages. Without feedback from the real end-user, it can be difficult to ascertain how it will perform when it goes to market. UX prototyping affords the opportunity to do this.
Prototypes are incredibly useful tools when it comes to attracting potential investors. Projects often face financial struggles and gaining a new investor can be the boon the team needs to get the project to a mass-producible stage.
Understandably, investors aren’t looking for a list of bullet points, or an idea that might work.
They’re not always in the business of taking risks. Offering them a functioning prototype they can get hands-on with can be just the thing they need to understand the product vision (and get behind it).
Types of prototyping
There are four main types of prototyping that are used by development teams.
Each offers a different end result and which type you use depends on how your team works, what your objective is and how flexible your budget is.
Rapid prototyping is one of the more commonly used forms of prototyping.
It gets its name from the ease and speed with which the prototype can be modified to reflect user feedback.
Rapid prototyping is often referred to as “throwaway prototyping” as the prototypes serve no other purpose than to be a representation of the project and where it is at a specific point in time. It can literally be thrown away once the testing period is over and feedback has been collected.
Despite being discarded after use, a rapid prototype will still go through several feedback cycles and modifications. This is to ensure that the product is the best it can be at every development stage.
Evolutionary prototypes are far more advanced than other forms of prototypes. It’s a functional piece of software, not just a simulation.
The evolutionary prototyping process starts with the bare minimum required to run the application. It won’t do everything the customer will need, but it’s a starting point.
Essentially, you’re creating the minimum viable product and working from there.
As development continues, features and functions are built and added to the prototype. Over time, the prototype evolves into the final product, hence the name.
Incremental prototyping is commonly used for enterprise-level software that contains many different modules and components that come together to form a complete package.
With incremental prototyping, developers build separate, small prototypes in parallel. So if the platform includes communication and product management tools, one team would work on the communication side while another team works on the product management tools.
Each individual prototype is built, evaluated and refined separately. All of the pieces come together only when it’s time to put together the final product. This can be problematic though, as the look and feel of one module may be drastically different to another, creating a mishmash.
Those looking to use incremental prototyping should establish clear guidelines to ensure cohesion between modules.
Extreme prototyping is most commonly used for web development and breaks up the prototyping phase into three phases:
- Build: HTML wireframes are created to simulate the presentation layer. These web pages have limited interactivity, just enough to show users the various user journeys through the application.
- Transform: The wireframes are converted into fully functional pages.
- Code: Implement the services layer.
With extreme prototyping, the user interface is designed and developed before any of the underlying technology is implemented.
Build your prototype with Thunk
We could just design a product for you and walk away, but that’s not how we work. We know the prototyping process like the back of our hand.
Reach out to the expert developers at Thunk today and see how we can help turn your vision into a reality.