Prototyping: Turning Digital Product Ideas from Zero to Hero

Debunking myths about prototyping, a brilliant design artefact in the service of digital product development.

Tamás Tőkés

Digital Designer & Visual Problem Solver

Prototypes have been a part of digital product development for quite a while now, but it hasn’t been long that they got the attention they truly deserve. Every industry has its own myths and misconceptions that work as a sort of retractive force, and therefore withhold genuinely good opportunities that certain methods and tools could offer. Design, and come to that, prototyping is no exception.

But before we dive in why prototyping is a victim of unjust myths, let’s clarify what digital product development means. It’s the steps that are taken to bring a product to life, starting with the idea that is turned into a product strategy, following with the design, marketing, and last but not least, the development – or how others may address it, the coding part. Now that’s been established, let’s continue with a short definition of what prototypes are. In a nutshell, they are simulations of real products that are used for testing and gathering feedback by giving users a much more involved experience than a few image exports of the designed interface. This way, prototyping helps companies in validating their product ideas and bringing them closer to the ever so desirable product-market fit. Sounds good, right?

Sadly enough, these brilliant design artefacts that contribute to gaining rapid feedback and precious user insights, are often a tough sell, because people don’t exactly know what they are, or much worse, they give credit to rampant untruths about them.  

In the following few paragraphs, I will try to debunk the most common myths, as I walk you through the basics & benefits of prototyping.

Different prototypes for different purposes

As for what concerns the different types of prototypes, we can talk about low-fidelity and high-fidelity alternatives, or if you ask me, everything in-between because a prototype’s main purpose is to simulate the current state of a specific product. You might be asking: what is a low-fidelity and a high-fidelity prototype? If we want to keep it simple, a low-fidelity prototype is the most basic prototype that only contains sketches, and its focus is on clarifying the main flow of the product, without concentrating on any visual element. On the other end of the scale, in a high-fidelity prototype, you will need to have the finished user interface (UI) design which is the visual part of your product, as well as the user experience (UX) logic, which covers every step of the product flow to make sure that users don’t reach a dead-end. Basically, a prototype is a dummy version of your end product because it doesn’t have any code in the background, and there are also a few limitations to it concerning free navigation.

Low and High Fidelity Prototype Example
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that a prototype will never be as interactive as the final product because it lacks some features that will be added later, in the development process, and so it should not be put in normal wear and tear conditions.

Myth #1: Wireframes will do just as fine

Many think that using wireframes is perfectly sufficient for demonstrating the basic info architecture and visual hierarchies of a product, and one can find all the answers to design-related questions. While wireframes are indeed a very useful tool that helps teams understand how particular pieces of content will fit into space and they correspond perfectly well to the prototyping premise, they are not all there is. Wireframes are static, greyscale design artefacts, while other forms of prototypes are all about colour and interaction. Prototypes have different goals and purposes: some are best for validating an early concept with sketches, others are destined to allow designers to present their ideas, and some serve the intent of seeing a future product in action. That being so, one mustn’t use wireframing interchangeably with prototyping, and always carefully consider what form of prototypes would fit their purpose the finest.

Prototyping as a team interest

Prototypes, when treated the right way, provide value for the whole product team. Think of it like this: in the automotive industry, prototypes allow engineers, mechanics and different technologists to figure out what products appeal to consumers, to convince stakeholders to invest in new products, and to ensure that all vehicles will be relevant for the end-user. Running through the entire automotive design and development cycle, prototyping makes sure that everyone is on the same page. A prototype for a digital product works in a similar way. As the visual representation of a design, it helps to coordinate designers, developers, stakeholders, users and clients to work together efficiently and encourage a continuous reevaluation of concepts, designs and user experience in the interest of producing the best possible solution. That could also save a lot of effort because prototypes don’t need to be supplemented with 200-page specification documents that developers are usually given: they speak for themselves, so to say, and makes it a whole lot easier to execute the development process with fewer amounts of paperwork and requests for clarification.

Myth #2: Prototyping is a design tool meant to benefit only design teams

Some treat prototyping as a benefit only accessible to designers and the design part of digital product development processes. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. Great product development processes are participatory and collaborative and yeah, you guessed right: prototypes play a huge part in all that. Prototyping can promote synergy in a project team in a lot of ways: it helps stakeholders understand ‘what’s being at stake’, it contributes to conducting better ideation sessions and also make it easier for developers to get a better grasp of product requirements.

Prototyping saves you money and time

Prototypes directly affect the most important components of a project: resources, time, and budget. How? Well, it’s quite simple, actually.

A prototype will basically be a clickable user interface that will help identify missing or unnecessary elements in your product. Its purpose is to test the product before starting to invest money into development. Besides, making corrections on your product in the prototyping phase takes up less time and effort than it would take to modify the same element once it’s developed. In other words: you save time by implementing a prototype in your work process, and that equals less money spent.

Take a look at the graph below. You can see that in both of the outlined cases, there are 4 change requests (CRs). Not sure what a change request is? A change request can occur at almost any step of the process. It's the phase when you receive a specific part of the project and check whether it meets your expectations or not. If the latter, you can ask for changes, and that’s what’s called a change request. Usually, a project contains a predefined number of change requests to ensure that the project doesn’t get out of hand. Taking into account that a CR that’s dealt with in the design phase takes up less time than one in the development phase, you can also see that the project with no prototype needs more time to finish and usually slips out of the initial deadline.

By interacting with a prototype, you can easily spot most sorts of issues and correct them with less effort & money spent.

Project development with the help of prototype

Myth #3: Prototyping is an expensive and time-consuming practice

Companies often don’t understand why they should spend extra money and time on something that might even be discarded at some point of the project. The truth, however, is that prototyping safeguards companies from spending that extra money. While there’s a possibility that companies may save money by jumping straight to development, the more common instance is that they lose money when they face that the market doesn’t react to their product as keenly as it has been expected. In the end, the time invested in correcting usability problems after your product’s been released will inevitably exceed the development time of a prototyped product.

Development costs with the help of prototype

Test and validate business ideas with prototyping

Innovation processes always bring a risk of failure. By building a prototype, you can quickly identify the approaches that don’t work, so you can focus on the ones that do. How? – you might ask. Well, primarily through usability testing. Usability testing is a method used to evaluate how easy a digital product is to use. The tests take place with real users to measure how ‘usable’ or ‘intuitive’ a product is and how easy it is for users to reach their goals. The various benefits of this method include:

– better understanding of how our product works and avoiding confusion;

– testing all the main user flows in real time;

– detecting usability issues and bugs before coding;

– gaining sufficient feedback from your team and test users to be able to provide them with a seamless experience.

Myth #4: In case of having clear product requirements, prototyping holds no value

When people have groundbreaking product ideas – or at least they think they do –, they tend to fall into the trap of believing that they know exactly what their target audience wants. Then they invest considerable amounts of money to build the product without implementing the prototyping phase. This practice carries great risk because no matter how good our product requirements may be, there is always a possibility that some – if not all – of our ideas are flawed. And when our product is flawed, it will hardly be successful. That’s why every idea needs to be validated and the best way to do that is to take those product concepts, make them tangible, and test them with real users in real time.

See, there’s a lot to gain from using prototypes. From sketches to clickable mockups, prototypes can provide value at almost every stage of the development process, depending on what you’re after, of course. In line with all these, we, at Cognitive Creators, are consequently trying to help companies discover what they want in the first place, put their ideas into people’s hands, understand and stay focused on their users, receive valuable feedback even for more abstract concepts, and ultimately, bring a product out in the world that’s not just relevant and intuitive, but also loveable.

If you think prototyping would benefit your business too, check out our prototyping service offerings.

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