A prototype is a simple model or a mock-up of a concept, idea, product or service. It is used to test or validate design assumptions that were made to construct the prototype quickly and in a less expensive way than developing a full-fledged product or service. The prototype also gives an idea of how to refine or alter it to move closer to the finished product or service offering.
Simple sketches, storyboards, mood boards, paper or cardboard models, or a skit of a service offering are all examples of prototypes. This means that a prototype doesn’t always have to be tangible. In fact, a prototype doesn’t have to be complete either. A small part of a proposed product solution or service offering can just as easily be prototyped to test. The point of prototyping is to bring ideas or concepts to life and explore the real-world acceptance, impact or value that idea or concept can have. Prototyping also helps in thinking through, building an understanding of customer or user experiences and bridge the gap between the solution devised and the user needs. Prototypes also help poke holes in design research that would be difficult to spot before developing the actual product or service. A service prototype can also be called a pilot.
During the preliminary stages of design, the researcher spends a lot of time in design research to figure out the potential solutions to a problem that the target customer segments are facing. The researcher may get attached to the solution that has been arrived at by this research which could involve multiple design research methods such as surveys, interviews, focus and unfocus groups to name a few. However, there may be insights that could have been missed or biases that the researcher may have added to the research during this process. It is, therefore, important to test out these solutions through prototyping to collect a form of feedback and incorporate changes before designing the final product or service for launch in the market for a wider audience.
Prototyping can be time-consuming, so an expedited version of prototyping i.e. Rapid Prototyping can also be used to speed user testing, feedback, and tweaking.
|Regular Prototyping||To test and validate possibilities by building relatively inexpensive mock-ups so designers can test solutions devised to solve a problem before the final product or service specifications are frozen|
- In-depth testing is possible.
- Time can be spent to recruit the right users, collect extensive feedback and tweak the prototype.
- Can be time-consuming.
- Testing and tweaking the concept may involve costs
|Rapid Prototyping||To demonstrate possibilities quickly by building relatively inexpensive mock-ups so designers are able to obtain quick feedback from which they can tweak the idea or concept to meet user expectations|
- In situations where time is of an essence, rapid prototyping can be very effective in designing mocks and then quickly testing the mock with potential users.
- Rapid prototyping is usually in the form of sketches, storyboards or paper prototypes so are relatively inexpensive to regular prototyping.
- The findings may not be as in-depth as in case of regular prototyping.
- Feedback about some aspects such as the material with which the product is built or the experience of using the actual product or service may get missed with a rapidly designed prototype.
Advantages of Prototyping
01 Validation of research findings
Research conducted during the early stages of a project does not tell us everything about the optimal solution. A lot of positive feedback or glitches are discovered only once we test. By Prototyping and then testing those prototypes, we can uncover far richer insights and validate findings from initial research.
Prototyping can be used to test different kind of ideas, concepts in different forms as well as applicable at different stages of design and re-design process.
03 Issues and Error Identification
Prototyping allows identifying issues as well as errors or biases that may have been introduced into research during the early stages of solution formulation.
04 End-User engagement
Prototyping helps to engage with potential customers and get first-hand feedback on artifacts. This also gives deeper insights and a better idea of the value that can be captured from a proposed solution.
Disadvantages of Prototyping
01 Added Time and Costs
Prototyping is not as inexpensive as it sounds. Even though Prototyping helps to make informed decisions about the design direction for a product or service, it is still an additional cost as recruiting users, testing, making alterations and testing again can take up a lot of time as well as investments not initially anticipated.
02 End-user recruitment
The kind of testing involved and the quality of feedback collected depends a great deal on the end-users that are recruited to test a solution. If for some reason, the recruitment isn’t accurate or doesn’t involve a large set of users then important insights could get missed.
Think Design recommendation
No design activity is complete without a prototype. In our understanding, Prototyping has been around since product development has been around and that means a few centuries by conservative measures. What is helpful at this point is to understand why and how prototyping is done:
Why: Prototyping is done to test the design intent before investing in producing the design. In simple terms, it is a step before actual product development/ engineering.
How: Prototyping can cover a full spectrum from the expression of intent to a batch produced with as much detail as the final product. Let us discuss a few shades in the spectrum here:
- Prototype: A prototype is a provocative prototype if that is used to assess the intent even before the design; usually expressed in words or doodles.
- Low fidelity prototype: The primary intent of making a low fidelity prototype is to reduce time to test, cost to test and increase alternatives to test.
- High fidelity prototype: A high fidelity prototype is something that is a near representation of the final product in its material and finishes.
- MVP: This is analogous to batch production in the physical world. There are many perspectives to developing an MVP and our thinking on this subject can be read here.