If there's one thing the lean startup movement has taught us, it's that the amount of time available to prove the value of a product is precious and fleeting.

As a result, we use rapid prototyping in software testing and product development, which helps us justify the time and investment required to fully realize the product, and ultimately supports our clients’ quest for a competitive edge.

What rapid prototyping is and why you should use it.

Rapid prototyping is the practice of quickly mocking up or building the future state of a product in order to quickly get design feedback during the development process. Once direction around critical decisions is clear, the prototype is constantly changed or remade based on feedback, analysis and interaction that would be difficult to obtain through theoretical discussion.

While rapid prototyping is a start toward justifying the time and investment it will take to fully realize a product, we always validate these concepts by running critical product decisions through a gauntlet of tests that leverage data to objectively determine a winner. Using quantitative data helps safeguard the product’s success from the emotional attachments and biases that can come from idea originators.

By examining the product through the lens of concepts like ease of implementation, impact it would create and confidence level, we're able to create lots of experiments without getting fixated on one we simply feel would work.

While there's no framework for the process, there are some things you should know as you begin to adopt it.

Truth #1: There are many ways to do rapid prototyping - choose the best tool for the job.

Because we build both software and electronics, we employ a wide variety of techniques, but all of them fit into one of the five basic categories listed below.

1. Static Comps

Static comps are click-through images that look and feel like real, functioning products, but don’t actually do anything. When using comps, a test user might explain or demonstrate which button they would tap to perform a given task. For example, a mockup of a user interface posted to the Web can show the output of a certain input that will be returned programmatically in the fully-baked version.

2. Paper Prototypes

Do you recognize this?



If you answered “an iPod,” you’re right on the money.

The first iPod prototype was made of paper printouts and cardboard taped together to give users an idea of what the scroll wheel would feel like in their hands.

Today, 3D printing may be replacing most hand-built cardboard prototypes, but in some cases, this low-fi to hi-fi approach is every bit as effective as it was to the iPod team in 2000.

3. 3D Printing

One of the most significant technologies impacting the practice of physical prototyping today is 3D printing. With the help of our 3D printers, we are able to quickly mock up the product and secure instant feedback as to whether or not it feels right. This helps us prove out user experience concepts without adding a ton of additional effort.

Whichever approach you take to physical prototypes, the purpose remains the same: The physical emulation technique puts the product in your users' hands and cuts down on how imaginative they need to be to understand what using the product would be like.

4. Clickable Prototypes

Clickable prototypes are comps linked to other comps in order to emulate functionality. Also known as scripted or HTML prototypes, clickable prototypes have a few distinct advantages, including the fact they are easy to build and they can be deployed quickly to any user with web access. There are several products that can help you easily create robust prototypes, keeping development work at a minimum. These are outlined in our post "Why Prototypes Matter in Interaction Design". 

On the down side, clickable prototypes require the user to follow a specific path, and deviating from it can “break” the experience.

5. Functional Prototypes

While functional prototypes are the most time consuming approach, they enable real world user feedback that can be extremely useful for guiding the product team in identifying features that should be added or improved. However, because they involve actual builds with design and development time, the process can lead to feature creep if not managed correctly.

At Dialexa, we wire up these prototypes with data harnesses and event tracking to help prove out the concept and inform additional features, but we're careful to trim off what isn't necessary while focusing on the elements that are most critical to product success. Discerning what stays in and what should be cut is best managed by people with a unique set of design, development and data skills, which brings us to the next truth.

Truth #2: Assets and Attitude are Essential...and "T-Shaped" team members are hard to find.

Rapid prototyping is not for the faint of heart. Having a positive, buoyant attitude is important because it involves accepting feedback that may run contrary to ideas that you’ve become attached to. You're likely to get it wrong more than once before you get it right so it’s essential that your team remains fired-up about pursuing new ideas when feedback warrants it. Maintaining a positive ‘can-do’ attitude will help you to avoid becoming myopic about a particular approach and allow you to stay focused on the product’s end goal.

To be successful, you also need to have team members with a special set of skills. Developing a prototype requires the technical knowledge to run tests across a wide variety of areas that may include 3D modeling, visual design, UX design, front and back end development, data analysis, and more.

We have found that the best people to lead our prototyping efforts are intellectually curious ‘life-long learners’ who are T-shaped, meaning they have deep knowledge in one or two areas such as software engineering or systems integration, but also have a broad understanding of other disciplines like design, UX, etc.

As you can imagine, these folks are hard to find - but they’re generally worth the effort because their ability to see a product from a variety of perspectives is invaluable for understanding what feedback is meaningful, and for coming up with different ways to approach problems. Without a doubt, a leader's abilities in these areas can make or break a product from a cost and timing perspective as well directly impact product adoption.

Truth #3: Methods change. Best practices don't.

While methods will change as new technologies and testing approaches emerge, best practices generally don’t. Here are a few principles that we use to guide our own prototyping:

  • Identify a single goal and/or win condition, then ruthlessly trim features that don’t support it.
  • Design your tests as thoroughly as you design your product. Because prototyping is meant to uncover and/or support important decisions about the product’s direction, the information that comes out of it should be as clean as possible. Make sure that your test subjects are representative of the planned user population and that you control any extraneous influences that might artificially skew their feedback.
  • Give your team room to breathe. Allow them to test a premise in multiple ways to get the information they need to make the right product decisions. What's more, having the space to experiment may enable your team to find better, faster and cheaper solutions.

If you’d like to learn about how this fits into our overall product development process, get our “Guide to New Product Development Process for Software” by clicking the image below.

Get Farther Faster with a free copy of our Guide to New Product Development Process for Software


Be in the know.

Sign up for updates.

Click to Comment