Prototyping: Bringing an Idea to Life
It can be easy to get carried away with exciting ideas or to give in to clients’ demands too much, but without prototypes you run the risk of building experiences that don’t work for your users or clients. Prototyping keeps you in check. To sum up its value, the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ has been adapted to say ‘a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings,’ or ‘a prototype can paint a 1000 user stories’. Prototyping has become an essential part of the workflow for modern UX and UI designers and, now, it’s one of the most important stages of the product design process.
A prototype, which can be defined as a draft version of a product, allows you to test ideas and concepts quickly and give stakeholders — for example, team members or the client — the opportunity to physically interact with your design. That way they can learn what a design will look like and how a certain feature will work before it’s been fully developed. Crucially, as it’s cheaper to make changes before any code has been written, prototyping prevents you from going too far down the line without realizing your assumptions were incorrect.
In this article, we’ll look a little more closely at the benefits of prototyping, what types of prototypes you can choose from, and when in the design process you should use them.
The benefits of prototyping
There’s only so much you can achieve with wireframes. They’re great for creating a structure and visual representation of the user interface and defining the user flow. Interactive prototypes, on the other hand, make your ideas tangible and testable. They enable you to explore visual designs you’re working on in ways that would be impossible to achieve with just static wireframes: you can show the intention behind a feature or the overall design concept before investing more time and money into development, easily present across multiple devices, incorporate real content and data, bring in users straight away to test and validate designs, and receive detailed, valuable feedback early on, increasing the chances of successful features.
Prototyping can be used effectively to uncover edge cases and help avoid issues later on in the process, saving you a lot of time, money, and stress. Evolving your ideas throughout multiple iterations of a prototype means you can work much more rapidly and collaboratively, refining your designs and making your product feel more intuitive as a result. Prototyping also often kickstarts insightful conversations and builds a stronger understanding between designers, developers, and engineers (who get a better idea of what’s possible to implement), clients (who get a better idea of what you’re working on and feel more involved), users, and anyone else who may have a say in the final product. In the end, prototyping is a great way to speed up the approval process.
Types of prototypes
Theoretically, prototyping comes after empathizing, defining, and ideation in the stages of design thinking (and before testing), and it can take time until you’re ready to put your ideas into a prototype. However, it’s important to realize that these aren’t sequential steps and that prototyping can be used as part of various stages in the process. Also, there’s no single right way to build a prototype, and prototypes can be pretty basic. They range from rough paper sketches to very polished high-fidelity interactive prototypes, created with tools like Adobe XD, that look, feel, and function like a real product.
All of the different types have a purpose, and you should aim to match the fidelity of your prototyping with the fidelity of your thinking, the stage of the design process you’re in, the available resources, and the goals of the prototype.
These are especially useful at the beginning of the design process, as they help teams to experiment and try out various initial ideas. They often spark discussions and can be used as a first step to collaborate and communicate early ideas to stakeholders.
The purpose of these prototypes, which can already incorporate real content and clickable screens, is to validate the user journey and information architecture. They could be useful to give the client an initial idea of the user flow and to test specific interface elements. Benefits are that they are quick, easy, and affordable to create (making it a breeze to test early and often) and that they support collaboration. They’re not as aesthetically pleasing, however, and might require a bit of imagination to really understand their functionality.
Finally, these interactive prototypes are much more refined. They can be responsive and already include detailed animations and smooth transitions. A realistic high-fidelity prototype is usually created (with a software tool or HTML and CSS code) once the team has a very good idea of the finished product and wants to show stakeholders what it has been working on to finalize the design. It’s also very useful for testing and validating designs with users to gather critical feedback.
Choose the fidelity based on where you are in the design process. If you create a very detailed early prototype, you may invest too much time and effort (and love!) into a version that won’t make it through to the final design.
Prototyping leads to stronger products
Prototyping, when done quickly and frequently, is a very time and cost-effective way to refine digital products and make sure everyone involved is on the same page. The type and fidelity of your prototype always depend on the project specifics and personal preferences; but they can be a great asset in any stage of the design process and help improve collaboration especially between designers and developers and with stakeholders. Also a great tool for user testing and accelerating the final sign-off, prototypes have firmly established themselves as an essential part of the product design process. Prototype with the needs and requirements of your clients and users in mind and you’ll build a stronger product.