A prototype is a sample version or simulation of a product that is used to evaluate a process or concept. The intention of creating a prototype is to test and validate ideas before they are communicated to stakeholders and ultimately, the product development team. Prototypes can be as simple as a storyboard sketch drawn on paper that captures the user experience or as detailed as a full-scale mock-up.
What makes up a prototype?
A fundamental reason for developing prototypes is their ability to pinpoint and solve user experience issues. Indeed, the involvement of end-users in the process allows UX teams to optimize the user experience as the product takes shape. This ensures that solutions can be implemented as required, which allows the company to avoid expensive last-minute fixes.
Prototypes must possess four core characteristics:
- Interactivity – this describes the degree of functionality that is open to the user. For example, it may be fully functional, partially functional, or view-only. Good prototypes should also be able to carry out the functions of the product itself.
- Precision – a good prototype should have a precise shape, size, or material quantity. Precision is expressed as either low-fidelity (process simulations) or high-fidelity (realistic, working simulations).
- Representation – the prototype should also be a good representation of the design, not only in terms of appearance but also in the way the product works.
- Evolution (improvisation) – this describes the entire lifecycle of the prototype. Some are created and tested before being discarded and replaced with an improved iteration. Other prototypes may be created and successively improved upon over time to form the end product. The best prototypes are improvised with the least amount of effort.
How does prototyping work?
While exact procedures will vary from one organization to the next, there are three general steps to prototyping. These are discussed below:
- Prototype – the team starts by building a visual and functional prototype based on requirements set forth by the client. User experience and design best practices are both considered at this stage.
- Review – here, the developers share the prototype with their teams and evaluate it according to how well it satisfies the needs of the client. The prototype is then shared with the client who may provide additional feedback to the team’s initial evaluation.
- Refine – when feedback is provided, the developers can then set about improving or refining various aspects of the prototype.
Note that there is a common misconception that the process only needs to be completed once or twice and at the end of the design process. Depending on the complexity of the design, the team may be required to cycle through four or five prototyping sessions or continue to iterate until all stakeholders are satisfied.
- A prototype is a sample version or simulation of a product that is used to evaluate a process or concept. Prototypes help teams pinpoint and solve user experience issues earlier in the process and avoid expensive fixes later on.
- A prototype possesses four main characteristics: interactivity, precision, representation, and evolution (improvisation).
- Prototyping involves a three-step process where teams develop a prototype, seek client feedback, and then refine the prototype according to that feedback. The process should be repeated multiple times, particularly for more complex products.
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