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  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

Remarkable reasons for prototyping

Successful design results from a series of conversations with materials. It's not the artifact, it's feedback iteration. You build some prototypes, evaluate them, and then use what you've learned to drive the next design.

Often people think about prototypes as just being a quick version of the real thing. And in many ways that's true, but different prototypes help you figure out different things. It's important to have a goal. A classic novice mistake with prototyping is that you'll start out with one idea and refine, refine, refine, refine, then be done.

If you're using prototyping well, you'll explore multiple alternatives. At each stage in your prototyping process, you've got a question. And then from there, you'll have new prototypes with new questions. Because prototypes are questions, what matters is the quality and quantity of the information that you get back. So as you go in time with your prototypes, you can think about how much are you learning, as a function of time

The advantages of prototyping:

  • Giving all stakeholders a clear picture of the potential benefits, risks, and costs associated with where a prototype might lead.

  • Adapting to changes early—thereby avoiding commitment to a single, falsely-ideal version, getting stuck on local maxima of UX, and later incurring heavy costs due to oversights.

  • Show the prototype to your users so they can give you their feedback to help pinpoint which elements/variants work best.

  • Have a tool to experiment with associated parts of the users’ needs and problems—therefore, you can get insights into less-obvious areas of the users’ world.

  • Provide a sense of ownership to all concerned stakeholders—therefore fostering emotional investment in the product’s ultimate success.

  • Improve time-to-market by minimizing the number of errors to correct before product release. When user expectations from the product are established, UX designers move to the design phase. An effective design phase is both highly collaborative (it requires input from all team players involved in product development) and iterative (meaning that it cycles back upon itself to validate ideas and assumptions). Prototypes are often used in the final, testing phase in a Design Thinking process in order to determine how users behave with the prototype, to reveal new solutions to problems, or to find out whether or not the implemented solutions have been successful.

Low-Fidelity vs. High-Fidelity Prototyping

Fidelity refers to the level of detail and functionality you include in your prototype. Usually, this will depend on your product’s development stage. The level of fidelity you choose should be appropriate for presenting to users in user testing so they can give focused feedback. Consider the differences:

  • Low-fidelity prototyping involves the use of basic models or examples of the product being tested. For example, the model might be incomplete and utilize just a few of the features that will be available in the final design, or it might be constructed using materials not intended for the finished article, such as wood, paper, or metal for a plastic product.

  • High-fidelity prototypes look and operate closer to the finished product. For example, a 3D plastic model with movable parts (allowing users to manipulate and interact with a device in the same manner as the final design) is high-fi in comparison to, say, a wooden block. Likewise, an early version of a software system developed using a design program such as Sketch or Adobe Illustrator is high-fi in comparison to a paper prototype.


Example: Paper prototypes

Pros: Fast and cheap; easy to make changes and test new iterations; allow a quick overall view of the product; encourage design thinking since prototypes are visibly not finalized.

Cons: Lack of realism, so users might have a hard time giving feedback; maybe too basic to reflect the user experience of the finished product; can oversimplify complex issues; lack of interactivity deprives users of direct control.


Example: Digital prototypes created on software.

Pros: Engagement; testing will yield more accurate, more applicable results; versions closest to the final product enable you to predict how users will take to it in the marketplace.

Cons: Longer/costlier to create; users are more likely to comment on superficial details than on content; after hours of work, you the designer are likely to dislike the idea of making changes; users may mistake the prototype for the finished product and form biases.

Some designers split high-fidelity prototyping into:

Mid-fidelity - Prototypes have basic digital interactivity or be slick wireframes

High-fidelity - Prototypes far closer to the final version.

Overall, you should always commit to prototyping with the users’ needs in mind, particularly with an eye for user flow.

Creating and Comparing Alternatives

Let your users compare alternatives, create multiple prototypes, each with a change in a variable so that your users can compare prototypes and tell you which they prefer (and which they don’t). Users often find it easier to elucidate what they like and dislike about prototypes when they can compare, rather than if there was only one to interact with.

It’s important to show, as opposed to telling. Let your users experience the prototype. Avoid over-explaining how your prototype works, or how it is supposed to solve your user’s problems. Let the users’ experience in using the prototype speak for itself, and observe their reactions. When users are exploring and using the prototype, ask them to tell you what they’re thinking. Observe how your users use — either “correctly” or “incorrectly” — your prototype, and try to resist the urge to correct them when they misinterpret how it’s supposed to be used. Always follow up with questions, even if you think you know what the user means.


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