Prototype Early and Often

Here’s why prototyping early and often is the best strategy.

It’s been said that one hour of prototyping can save you days of meetings and misunderstandings. Not only are prototypes fairly easy to create, they’re also highly shareable and can be incorporated into any stage of the design process.

When choosing the appropriate fidelity and medium, prototyping can be highly effective in achieving goals, delivering data and aiding in your decision making process.

What Is a Prototype?

Today we are seeing an incorporation of prototyping directly into the design process to help visualize and craft user experience.

So what exactly is prototyping?

In the simplest terms, prototyping is using visuals to describe design and development specifications. It details how a product (or system) should look and behave. A prototype can be as simple as a series of hand drawn wireframes to more complex clickable and tappable prototypes.

What’s more, prototyping is often considered the ultimate decision making aid. And, given the myriad options for prototyping tools, designers are now better able to prototype for questions they need answered.

Choose Your Level of Fidelity

The fidelity of a prototype has the most influence over its effectiveness. Simply put, fidelity refers to how realistic the prototype is and how closely it resembles the final solution.

Fidelity is multidimensional. A prototype can lie anywhere on a spectrum for each of these dimensions, depending on the stage of the design process and the goals of the prototype. Not only can you have a prototype that looks like a realistic product, you can also have it work like a realistic product.

These two dimensions of fidelity are referred to as “visual fidelity” and “functional fidelity.” Variation along these two dimensions of fidelity can help determine the most effective and successful methodology for prototyping.

Low Fidelity

From sticky notes to storyboarding, low fidelity prototypes are typically a good approach when looking to satisfy goals like gathering initial requirements and communicating with stakeholders and where focus is on the user, context of use, flow of events and supplementary methods, such as workshops or interviews.

Other low fidelity prototyping tools include paper prototypes (also called paper mockups) and wireframing, which is significantly less costly than coding.

High Fidelity

The typical goals of high fidelity prototypes are to visualize requirements in detail and discover usability issues, especially with interaction and behavior. High fidelity prototypes are often used to develop UI specification and can show the real system of behavior in an interactive manner.

In some cases, detailed, high fidelity prototypes can be built just as quick as low fidelity ones, given the right tools. High fidelity prototypes include presentation software (such as Power Point or Keynote) and clickable/tappable prototypes using software (such as Adobe Illustrator, Balsamiq and Axure Pro).

Why’s of Prototyping

As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words and whether you’re trying to work through a design, communicate a concept or sell an idea, the guiding principle is “plan a little, prototype the rest.”

To this end, prototyping can be used to:

  • Improve design decision making- consider alternate designs
  • Communicate concepts- visualize ideas in front of users and stakeholders
  • Gather user feedback- test usability before requirements get implemented
  • Gauge technical feasibility- see interactions before they are built
  • Fine tune an idea- communicate and refine functionality and design

One last tip to remember: when in doubt, prototype only what you need. And, of course, prototype early and often.


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