Under pressure to get new products to the market before the competition, companies too often rush or even skip the process of validating preliminary models or prototypes. A lack of pre-launch analysis and testing, however, almost always translates to designs, functionalities, and other elements that miss the mark when it comes to capturing, and as importantly, retaining your target audience’s attention.
Although diving into full-fledged development before seeing the solution in action might seem like a time-saving strategy, doing so puts the integrity of your product and overall brand at risk. In a crowded marketplace, all it takes is one small bug or an extra step in a process for users to abandon your app for good. This could easily sink what you thought would be a successful launch, wasting your company’s valuable time, effort, and resources.
Prototyping your app or digital platform is one of the most effective ways to ensure a finished product that is vetted, data-driven, and positioned for maximum user adoption and overall project success.
Keep reading to learn how prototyping builds ROI throughout the product lifecycle and how to select the methodology that best serves your project needs
What prototyping means for your business
In the world of product design, prototyping refers to the practice of using a representative model to conduct testing and iteration on an app, platform, or other digital experience before it is released to the public. Prototyping offers a concrete demonstration of the product’s strengths and weaknesses, driving improvements in UX/UI design, functionality, visual elements, and more. It allows teams to arrive at clear, objective answers to these and other questions:
Does the product target a demonstrated and specific customer problem?
Is key information easy to find, understand, and act on?
Which features would optimize the app or platform’s mobile/responsive design?
Is the experience visually and emotionally engaging to the user?
Are there unnecessary features that could be cut without losing value?
How is your product different than competing solutions?
How well does the product cater to the desired audience’s needs and desires?
Does it deliver a solid user experience?
Prototypes can be used in virtually any industry or design scenario, and as we’ll discuss in the next section, they come in an almost limitless range of forms. Whether it’s a rough hand-drawn sketch, an interactive HTML rendering, or anything in between, a prototype is intended to help confirm key hypotheses before committing to a final design.
When used in a strategic, customer-focused manner, product prototypes allow companies to achieve:
One of the most compelling benefits of prototyping is the relatively low time, cost, and technology commitment required to derive significant value from it. Improving on a prototype is far more affordable than reworking a product that is already in the final stages of development — or worse, has already been launched. Testing assumptions and features on simulated models allows companies to allot their development budgets as efficiently as possible.
Prototyping enables your team to identify and fix potential problems upstream in the process before investing the time and expense of detailed digital development. This keeps future rebuilds and troubleshooting to a minimum and helps prevent frustrating user experiences, off-base functionality, and other issues that could give your audience a negative impression of your brand and make them less likely to try your products in the future.
Prototyping isn’t just about decreasing risk; it’s also about adding opportunities for teams to brainstorm and experiment with new ideas for improving the customer experience. The freedom to explore creative solutions in a low-investment setting enables UX and UI designers, developers, organizational stakeholders, and even end users to help push your app to the next level.
Shorter time to market
Some companies are concerned that taking the time to create and validate product prototypes could create delays in their processes. The reality, however, is that prototyping increases overall efficiency by facilitating rapid iteration and dramatically reduces the need to re-do existing work. Prototyping provides the ability to test many different solutions (or specific parts of them) within a tight time frame, adding up to swifter and more successful projects.
Early user feedback
Depending on its level of detail and completeness, a prototype allows you to observe how real users respond to and interact with your product in progress. Using a prototype to conduct testing, surveys, interviews, and other research generates valuable input, allowing your team to make the pre-launch adjustments necessary for optimal UX/UI design.
When it comes to gaining the support of company leadership, investors, and other decision-makers, there is no substitute for tangible evidence that your product will succeed in the marketplace. Prototyping helps provide this assurance. And data gained from prototype testing, not to mention the ability to try the app firsthand, bolsters confidence in your product’s value proposition.
Choosing the right prototyping methodology
With these opportunities in mind, it’s time to select the prototyping strategy that best targets your product validation goals. For creating and testing prototypes, there are many effective models, each with strengths at different stages of the product journey.
For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on two main factors: the format of the prototype (paper, digital, or HTML) and its level of completeness (low, medium, or high fidelity). The specific context of your prototype will determine which one(s) will best deliver the answers you need.
Formatting: what tools are required to illustrate the concept?
All it takes is a pencil, paper, and a few minutes to start bringing an idea to life. Paper prototyping is best suited to the early stages of design when teams are assessing bigger-picture concepts and solutions. A quick, low-fidelity tool, paper prototyping can include simple representations of screens, user pathways, and interactions. Paper prototypes can be created any time, anywhere, and can be discarded with no risk of lost investment.
More realistic than paper prototyping but less time-consuming than HTML, digital is the most common medium used by today’s design teams. Many different tools are available for creating digital renderings of products, from specialized prototype development software to presentation tools such as PowerPoint. Digital prototypes can vary significantly in their level of detail (or fidelity), making them useful for a wide range of products, teams, and budgets.
If a project is nearing completion and the design team has strong coding abilities, HTML prototyping can provide a robust demonstration of most or all parts of your app. An HTML prototype is testable on almost any device or operating system, enabling the user to interact with it without running outside software. Developing an effective HTML prototype demands significant resources, but delivers high ROI by providing the foundation for the final code.
Formatting: what tools are required to illustrate the concept?
The least detailed (and least expensive) option on this spectrum, low fidelity prototyping is helpful in assessing early visualizations of the user experience. Low fidelity prototypes are usually created on paper, but can also include role-playing and other activities. Although a low fidelity prototype represents a solution that is far from complete, it can reveal findings that meaningfully improve subsequent versions.
As its name suggests, this is the middle ground between a rough sketch and a nearly complete product. Medium fidelity prototypes are appropriate when the design team is starting to make more detailed refinements to concepts that have already been validated. This methodology provides a closer resemblance to the finished product but still is not detailed enough for final testing.
High fidelity prototypes, typically created with HTML, can demonstrate your product’s full design and functionality. This form of prototyping provides all the realistic details needed to test responsive design and complex user interactions. Though less costly than developing an end product, investing in a high fidelity prototype is generally only justifiable when the product has gone through several stages of testing and needs only minor adjustments.
Done right, prototyping your app, platform, or digital product yields enormous value relative to your company’s investment. Whatever type of product you are working on, and however close it is to completion, the ability to test out your concept in a low-cost, low-stress way brings invaluable clarity, cost savings, and peace of mind to the product development process. The wide variety of available methodologies gives you the flexibility to implement the right model at the right time — and an expert partner like Morphosis can help you do it.