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Reach out to your users with prototyping

Would you like to develop digital products and services that people enjoy using? Prototyping allows you to get fast and early feedback from the users. The advantage: Problems can be solved much more quickly and easily, enabling you to develop products with a high level of acceptance and to secure your investment. In this UX Buzzword Jungle, Lisa and Kilian explain when to use prototyping in your project and what to keep in mind when doing so.

We guess you know what it’s like: You have a great idea but for others it seems too abstract and hard to grasp. Or you are unsure whether your idea can actually work. Prototyping can be a convenient method to assist you in the development of products and services by testing an idea quickly and cost-efficiently. Prototypes can be considered as a preliminary stage of the finished product: In the course of a project, a prototype becomes a finished product. It allows you to quickly make your idea palpable, tangible and easy to grasp for others, with only little effort. Together with your team, you can develop a first understanding of the idea. Does it make sense? Does it work? And where does it have room for improvement?

Why prototyping?

You may ask yourselves: Why waste so much time on prototyping if you could start implementing straight away? But the later you adapt your product or service, the more time-consuming and expensive the changes become. Every cent that is invested into prototyping pays off many times over.

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With prototypes you can test the features and design of your product or service while it is being developed. You get feedback at an early stage, which allows you to make cost-efficient changes or dismiss the idea altogether. This ensures that you develop user-centered products and services that offer added-value to your users and are easy to use. But there is more to prototyping: It helps developers gain an understanding of the underlying questions, and directs their focus to the resulting benefits the product will have. They gain new insights, explore their development scope and have a chance to evaluate their ideas.

Develop. Decide. Develop again.

Prototyping can be a great means of support in any innovation development phase.

Quickly visualizing ideas and making them palpable helps to understand the scope of action right from the start. This is especially important whenever user groups are strictly defined and solutions have to be exactly attuned to existing processes.

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In the design phase, prototypes support you in taking your ideas to the next level. There are no rules about what the prototype should look like as long as a minimal version of the physical product or a usable solution of a service is created with little effort. This step results in a minimalistic depiction of the basic functionality or the basic idea. As time goes by, the solutions become more and more refined.

In the testing phase, the target group will evaluate your solutions using the prototypes. Based on the feedback provided, you can then iteratively optimize your idea.

Our pro tip: Build prototypes as early, as quickly and as cheaply as you can. The less time and effort you put in, the easier it is to let go of an idea if, for example, you get negative feedback or uncover feasibility problems. If you are nearly done developing your product, however, such decisions are a lot harder to make.

Visualizing ideas

Now there is one question: What could such a prototype look like? As a first step it is important to define exactly what question the prototype should answer. Because a well-defined question is a key prerequisite for building a cost-efficient, targeted prototype. It decides on how refined and extensive the prototype’s functionality has to be. Then it is time for the implementation. The so-called fidelity describes how much resemblance the prototype has with the final product. Depending on the development stage to be tested, a low-fidelity or high-fidelity prototype can be used. Low-fidelity prototypes are useful in early stages of the development cycle while high-fidelity prototypes are used in later phases. Since the focus of the latter is on evaluating details such as the visual design or animations, they are much more refined.

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Have you defined your question and an idea in mind? Then these are possible methods that you can use to create a prototype:

  • Paper and play-doh: If you want to run a quick test on an initial idea, paper, Lego® or play-doh prototypes are enough. Haptic prototypes allow you to test the product handling and form factor while sketches enable you to draw up structure and contents of a software product. Such prototypes can be implemented quickly and cost-efficiently.
  • Click dummy: For interaction and design tests, you will need clickable prototypes. Axure, for example, is a software you can use for creating clickable wireframes. It gives you a first idea of how the website will work later on.
  • Fake magic: Natural-language interfaces can be made palpable using Wizard-of-Oz prototypes, in which the test lead simulates the system’s reactions, in this case the voice response.
  • Live test: Role play is very useful to test services. It gives the observers realistic insights into the user experience of a service.
  • Short story: You don’t need to be a cartoonist or artist to visualize stories using a storyboard. By combining several paper prototypes to form a storyboard, the behavior of a digital interface can be depicted.
  • Spatial awareness: The physical prototype makes your prototype palpable, sharpening the spatial awareness. Mock-ups are examples of such prototypes. They can be used to play through different scenarios in order to test new functionality and uncover potential problems.
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Just get started

It might seem time-consuming, and the fear of the blank page might seem overwhelming—but prototyping is worth it! At first glance, creating a prototype only steals your precious time. But you will soon realize how much it can save you by avoiding that enormous development efforts are put into inadequate ideas. Because every development loop costs time, money and nerves. Another benefit of prototyping is the emotional factor for everyone involved: Witnessing and experiencing your own idea come to life can be thrilling and engaging!

The authors

As a Senior User Experience Consultant, Lisa has been accompanying customers from various industries on their way from the idea to the finished product or service for more than 10 years. In this role, she mainly designs and evaluates suitable user interfaces. As a member of UID’s “Facilitating and Consulting“ team, she also supports the project teams on their way to an innovative and agile working environment. In this process, she uses the co-creative LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method to promote new processes and ideas and to make the cooperation inspirational.

Kilian Röhm is a User Experience Consultant at UID. He actively contributes to designing the digital world by iteratively creating and improving digital systems and services together with his clients and his team. In this process, he takes on the perspective of the client and the user to gain insights that allow him to tap the full potential. In addition, he researches user-centered human-robot interaction and shares his expertise by giving presentations at various conferences.