What Is A Prototype? Prototyping In A Nutshell

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Key takeaways:

  • 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.

Connected Product Development Frameworks

New Product Development

Product development, known as the new product development process comprises a set of steps that go from idea generation to post-launch review, which help companies analyze the various aspects of launching new products and bringing them to market. It comprises idea generation, screening, testing; business case analysis, product development, test marketing, commercialization, and post-launch review.

BCG Matrix

In the 1970s, Bruce D. Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, came up with The Product Portfolio (aka BCG Matrix, or Growth-share Matrix), which would look at a successful business product portfolio based on potential growth and market shares. It divided products into four main categories: cash cows, pets (dogs), question marks, and stars.

Ansoff Matrix

You can use the Ansoff Matrix as a strategic framework to understand what growth strategy is more suited based on the market context. Developed by mathematician and business manager Igor Ansoff, it assumes a growth strategy can be derived by whether the market is new or existing, and the product is new or existing.

User Experience Design

The term “user experience” was coined by researcher Dr. Donald Norman who said that “no product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.” User experience design is a process that design teams use to create products that are useful and relevant to consumers.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A cost-benefit analysis is a process a business can use to analyze decisions according to the costs associated with making that decision. For a cost analysis to be effective it’s important to articulate the project in the simplest terms possible, identify the costs, determine the benefits of project implementation, assess the alternatives.

Empathy Mapping

Empathy mapping is a visual representation of knowledge regarding user behavior and attitudes. An empathy map can be built by defining the scope, purpose to gain user insights, and for each action, add a sticky note, summarize the findings. Expand the plan and revise.

Perceptual Mapping

Perceptual mapping is the visual representation of consumer perceptions of brands, products, services, and organizations as a whole. Indeed, perceptual mapping asks consumers to place competing products relative to one another on a graph to assess how they perform with respect to each other in terms of perception.

Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping uses flowcharts to analyze and then improve on the delivery of products and services. Value stream mapping (VSM) is based on the concept of value streams – which are a series of sequential steps that explain how a product or service is delivered to consumers.

Read the remaining product development frameworks here.

Main Free Guides:

About The Author

Scroll to Top