"If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings".
a quote by IDEO
On average a new product is launched every minute of the day. How do we know what will work?
All too often we hear stories of a product built for months in isolation. Only to be launched and fail. It might be unusable or it might not serve a need. Here is where prototypes can help you test and iterate before you spend any more resources building the wrong product. Prototyping will transform your assumptions about the solution into something substantial that will generate insights and close your knowledge gap.
Instead of relying on your gut or having endless discussion within a team, a prototype is something that you can put in front of your users to get immediate feedback. Through your prototype you will find where your customers get stuck, get frustrated, are surprised or, if you’re lucky, even thrilled. Prototyping is the precondition for building a good experience that matches the needs of your customers. In combination with user testing it is the best way to make sure that your product satisfies the needs of your customers and the market.
A prototype in its universal definition is anything that can be put in front of a human and be tested, debated and improved. In that sense everything is a prototype of some sort. Seeing products as prototypes of their future self will help you and your team to leverage prototyping as a mindset, not just a tool.
Why do we prototype?
Prototyping is often only viewed as an activity you do with your users. If you restrict yourself to only using prototyping for user testing you are missing out. Prototypes can have many purposes and advantages for you, your product and your team.
Kathryn McElroy in her book Prototyping for designers points out that four main reasons why we prototype are to test, to communicate, to advocate, and to understand.
We simplified our reasons for prototyping into three areas: to understand, to communicate or to improve.
You don't understand the problem enough until you spend some time resolving it. Prototyping is often used to better understand the problem at hand. The target audience is usually your team, other stakeholders and experts working with you. The purpose is not to test, but to facilitate a process where we explore possibilities and limitations of the product. Usually a prototype can uncover hidden problems and limitations that we would otherwise miss. We use prototyping regularly during the product discovery process. In combination with exploratory research it’s often used to start a project on the same page. This is not to say that using a prototype to better understand the problem excludes talking to your users.
The old saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Often designers will create prototypes to showcase an alternate user flow or to clarify a specific interaction with the team. Using prototypes as communication helps everybody be on the same page.
A prototype used for communication will guarantee you that everyone sees your idea the same way. Other stakeholders, your users or your team will not be left to their own interpretations of your idea.
By far the biggest impact a prototyping can have is to foster a mindset of continuous cumulative improvements. Creating prototypes and testing them with customers will help you increase your confidence level that the product will serve a specific purpose and customer segment. Prototyping to improve a product is not just for the early stages of your product development cycle, but should and must become an integral part of your entire product development cycle. As you progress through the cycle your prototypes will become more advanced and sophisticated.
Don’t hesitate to start small. Often a quick sketch, a few slides in a presentation or a mockup will do. Any new information is better than no information at all.
It’s important to understand the purpose of the prototype beforehand. A prototype can serve different purposes or numerous prototypes will serve only one purpose. Understanding the purpose of the prototype will help you adequately plan the execution and understand what the prototype can or cannot accomplish for you.
Start today - from an activity to a prototyping mindset
Early stage research is important, but it is not the whole story. Regardless of the thoroughness of your research, prototyping is still crucial for success. Often teams get invested into research artifacts. This can result in creating biases towards a specific solution. Prototyping will help you to understand if the solution is viable and help you to correct course if it’s not. That way you and your team can save resources and time that might be wasted on building the wrong solution.
Prototyping at its core is a mindset of continuous cumulative improvements. It should not be something that you do just once or twice in a product development life cycle. Prototyping in combination with user testing can be an unpleasant activity. Many founders are avoiding or postponing it because they feel like they are not ready. They almost feel ashamed of showing an unfinished and unpolished solution to their customers.
One of our mantras is learning by doing and what better way to create a bias towards action and foster a culture of creativity, then encourage everyone on your team to start exploring, thinking, understanding, communicating - to start prototyping.
Remember that prototypes are disposable and are there only for you and the team to better understand the problem, to communicate your idea or to improve your solution. The success of your product relies on you being vulnerable and hungry for feedback. As you start to see how all the improvements affect your product usability, desirability and viability you will also start seeing the long term benefits of prototyping. Your hunger for feedback and knowledge will grow larger and suddenly everything will become a prototype to you.
- Everything is a prototype. Every current product version is an opportunity for getting feedback and generating improvements.
- We prototype to understand, to communicate or to improve. Understanding this will help you to better frame expectations and goals of your prototype.
- Showing unfinished and unpolished product ideas is difficult for everyone. Once you start, the long-term benefits of prototyping and user testing will outweigh that feeling to a point where you will see everything as a prototype, as an opportunity for continuous improvement of your product.