No matter what product you’re working on, whether it is a website, mobile app, landing page, it’s always important to validate your design decisions before you ship them to users. Some product teams postpone validation until they have an almost complete solution. But this is a very risky approach. As we all know, the later we find the issue, the more expensive it becomes to fix it. Fortunately, no matter what stage you’re in the design process, it’s always possible to create a tangible representation of your idea—a prototype— and test it.

In this article, I want to discuss the practical tips for gathering valuable product insights using your prototype. 

What is Prototype?

The best way to think about prototypes is that they’re a representation of a finished product. This representation should have only essential details that help you validate your hypothesis. Prototyping allows us to quickly build on ideas generated in the ideation stage and observe how people (your team members, stakeholders, or real users) interact with them. It’s worth remembering that interactivity is the critical difference between prototypes and wireframes/mockups. Prototypes allow test participants to interact with design like making an action and seeing a response.

What can you test with your prototype?

Basically, anything. You can test entire user flows or individual pages or measure the general feasibility and usability of a product before building and designing a fully-functioning product.

Lo-fi and hi-fi prototypes: when and how to test each?

There are two types of prototypes – low fidelity prototypes and high fidelity prototypes. The level of fidelity describes the level of detail.

Low-fidelity prototypes are good for concept validation

“Are we going in the right direction?” is a fairly common question among the product teams, especially at the early stages of the product design process. The only way to find an answer to this question is to create a tangible solution and test it.

Creating a tangible solution shouldn’t take much time. Paper prototyping is a quick and cost-effective technique that is perfect for assessing high-level user journeys.  Designers can draw something on paper, then create a digital version of the designs and create a connection between screens using a prototyping tool.

screenshot of various screens and how they are connected
Creating connections between various screens. Image by Adobe XD.

Here are a few questions to ask during a lo-fi prototype evaluation:

  • Do you understand what it does?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • Does anything seem out of place or unnecessary?

Quick tip When it comes to evaluating design directions, it’s worth presenting not only a single idea, but a few alternatives and let the test participants decide what version of design they like the most.

Hi-fi prototypes are good for evaluating complex interactions

At the time when you have a clear understanding of where your design is going, you will need to find the best possible solution for each interaction. It is the perfect time to start creating hi-fi prototypes. Using hi-fi prototypes allows you to evaluate complex user interactions (such as a particular user journey like purchasing items in an eCommerce app) and get their reaction on particular design decisions (i.e. color that you use for primary call-to-action buttons).

When it comes to creating hi-fi prototypes, modern prototyping tools allow turning lo-fi prototypes into hi-fi. Basically, all you need to do is add more details.

Here are a few questions to ask during a hi-fi prototype evaluation:

  • Do users like the visual design?
  • Is there something that looks strange or confusing for you?
  • Does anything distract you or get in your way?

Basic rules of prototype testing

When it comes to prototype testing, it’s possible to define a few fundamental rules that will be applicable for all testing sessions:

Have a clear goal for testing

Before you start testing your prototypes and gather feedback, you should be sure about what exactly you are testing for. It’s worth defining a goal (or goals) for testing.

Test early, test often

Redesigning a prototype is a lot easier (and less expensive) than reworking a finished product. And testing shouldn’t stop once your product ships. Whenever you have an idea of how to make the user experience better, you should create a prototype and test it with your users.

Let test participants contribute ideas

During your testing session, you should allow your test participants to contribute ideas on how to make the prototype better. Encourage test participants to provide useful critiques by using the “I Like, I Wish, What If” method

“I Like, I Wish, What If” method allows test participants to share their feedback in a critical but positive manner. In “I Like…” statements, the test participant is encouraged to state what s/he likes about the prototype. In “I Wish…” statements, users are prompted to share ideas of how the prototype can be improved.  Lastly, in “What If…” statements, the user can share his/her suggestions about the overall design. The insights you gather by using this simple technique can be used in the future states of your prototype.

The one thing that makes this technique special is the way it gathers feedback. Test participants provide their feedback constructively and positively, in the format of an open discussion.

Have a moderator

Testing with prototypes might require additional interviews with test participants to get them to talk about their thinking process while using the prototype. That’s why it’s always recommended to have a moderator for such testing sessions.

Ideally, you should have two people who run the testing sessions—a moderator and a recorder. The moderator is responsible for keeping the session on-track – s/he guides the test participants through the tasks. The recorder is responsible for recording notes, quotes, and any observations.

Test with the right people

Testing won’t provide any valuable insights if you conduct it with the wrong people. Generally, it’s recommended to test your design with people who will use it (your target audience).

Be neutral when presenting your ideas

When you present your prototypes to your users, refrain from trying to sell your idea. Remember that prototyping and testing are about finding ways to improve your idea, and selling your idea can be detrimental to that goal.

Be open-minded

When test participants provide negative feedback about your prototype, refrain from trying to defend it. Instead, ask clarifying questions to understand what exactly is wrong with your solution, and how you can improve it.

Communicate limitations

Testing a prototype is different from testing a finished product. Make sure you inform test participants before the test about the limitations of your design. It will make testing more focused.

Iterate

All the information you gather from prototype testing should be put into action. The product team should use the insights they gather when creating a new version of a prototype. It’s better to form a habit of iterative design.

Conclusion

Prototype testing is a lot more than just an approach to validate your design decisions. It’s a way to make the design process more flexible. When you form a habit of testing your design decisions, you help you make more data-informed design decisions.