As a certain renovation specialist said, "It doesn't matter if it's straight, it doesn't matter if it's crooked, the important thing is that it's even."
Well said. And also very accurate when we think about UX Prototyping. And we want to answer the question – What is UX Prototyping?
I thought the same thing when I looked several times at wireframes and application mockups that usually look pretty surprising. "It doesn't matter if it's straight, it doesn't matter if it's crooked, the important thing is that it's even. Most importantly, they need to be useful."
I don't know if you know, but application Prototypes are even "more equal," so today we will talk about Prototyping. That is, ways to achieve goals and avoid mistakes when designing digital products.
What is Prototyping?
A prototype is the first version of something (e.g., a device or object, but also a process). It's the first model, made according to the prepared documentation (usually the closest model to the final product), concept (significantly deviates from the future product), and idea (has the most indicative, general character).
Therefore, Prototyping is the process of creating a prototype. In the case of digital products, the prototype doesn't have to assume a final digital form. Very often, application prototypes are created in a simplified form.
Low Fidelity is no obstacle to detecting bugs, imperfections, and potential problems that future web or mobile application users may experience.
Prototypes are an important part of the fourth and second to last stages of the digital product development process. The Design Phase (in which we create Prototypes) is proceeded by the Concept Development Phase, the Strategy Phase, the Discovery Phase, and then followed by the Development Phase. Prototypes are used to design, test, and optimize User Experience (UX).
An essential feature of any digital product Prototype is its interactivity. The application prototype should allow us to learn how its most important (or selected) functions work. Preferably through action (e.g., running a function and finding out the response it produces).
Prototyping allows us to test almost anything. From the speed of an application to its usability, user flows, and the emotions it arouses.
In conclusion, what is a Prototype? It's a product's first (and subsequent) realistic test version. Its substitute (prototypes are simplified or incomplete versions), a proposal, or a set of ideas that undergoes verification and improvement.
A view of an interactive prototype created in Figma.
Prototyping doesn't only refer to creating trial versions of entire applications. We can also use it to create variants of individual elements (e.g., interface buttons), including existing web and mobile applications.
Prototyping Features – What are Prototypes used for?
As Jan Młodkowski argues in his book "Aktywność wizualna człowieka" (Visual activity of humans), people are sight-centered creatures. No wonder, then, that we're convinced that "to see is to believe."
According to Jan Młodkowski's theory, most of our activity – cognitive, behavioral, emotional – is related to the process of seeing.
Prototyping makes it possible to fulfill the natural need to experience an idea, a concept, or a function through sight. It also allows us to activate our imagination, so we can "feel the spirit" of a project, experience and understand its key features.
Prototyping also makes it possible to:
- reduce digital product design time (especially since dedicated tools are available)
- reduce the cost of product creation (in particular, it avoids incurring the costs of wrong design decisions, resulting from the failure to adapt a product to real needs)
- test and eliminate ideas (flawed, misguided, expensive)
- quickly, efficiently, and effectively learn about the reactions of future users
- confront imagination with the real needs of future users
- evaluate and become aware of risks, benefits, costs, and opportunities
- implement changes at a very early stage
- provide a sense of control to stakeholders
- reduce the time needed to introduce a product to the market
- quickly obtain more specific feedback from users or stakeholders
- make the digital product more attractive, desirable, customizable, and useful
- check and compare different solutions to a given problem
- learn about User Experience
- improve communication within the team and with external stakeholders (Prototypes are illustrative, they make it easier to imagine their final appearance and operation).
Of course, Prototyping also has disadvantages, but they're disproportional to the advantages. It's often pointed out that by creating Prototypes, we extend the time needed to introduce a product to the market and increase its cost. The truth is that it is a bit of a toss-up. Why?
Because depending on what you focus on, the same argument can work in favor of Prototyping, but it can also be considered a disadvantage. Ad hoc testing takes time and resources. But if even more time and resources are saved as a result of this "investment," it'll prove to be sensible and necessary. Sounds convincing? I think so.
Prototyping should certainly not be a "pro forma" operation. Its goals and the means of achieving them should be well thought out and defined.
The primary goal of Prototyping is to answer the most important questions:
- what is a product for?
- what needs does it meet?
- what needs doesn't it meet?
- why can't it satisfy them?
- is it in line with expectations?
- are all functions understandable and needed (necessary)?
- what emotions does it arouse?
- does the product, solution, or functionality seems simple and intuitive?
- how does it look compared to competing products?
Naturally, this isn't a complete list, and each time, due to the specifics of a project, it will vary in scope and detail of questions and problems.
How to create a Prototype?
One single method of Prototyping doesn't exist. A lot in this regard depends on the complexity and nature of a project, the stage it is at, the experience and size of the project team itself, the availability of time, resources, and the goals that the Prototype is intended to serve.
However, the basic principle is to create Prototypes that are understandable to testers and users, editable, and therefore capable of making changes and evaluations in subsequent iterations.
Modern Prototyping tools (e.g., Figma, Adobe XD, Invision, Axure RP) allow us to create Functional Prototypes (clickable, interactive).
With their help, it's possible to perform simple and complex tasks and test solutions.
Interactive prototypes also have the advantage of testing different elements and checking the user experience. Testing is faster and more straightforward, and the results are more reliable.
Low Fidelity and High Fidelity in UX Prototyping
We can create prototypes in two variants of fidelity (the accuracy with the future product), low and high. Low fidelity usually means a limited amount of functionalities that a tester or stakeholder can test. The graphic design is also usually illustrative. The higher the fidelity, the higher the number of capabilities, functions, and information a tester can use.
The level of detail of a Prototype depends on the following:
- the stage of development of a digital product – at the earliest stages, Prototypes are usually created in a Low Fidelity variant
- the level of confidence in used solutions
- why it was created – e.g., for testing, presenting it to stakeholders
- time, financial, and team resources
- design problems (e.g., related to User Flows and functionalities).
UX Prototype – key issues
As I mentioned, application Prototyping doesn't necessarily include the entire digital product (and usually it doesn't). It's a way of dealing with selected design problems. It's a tool for verifying specific solutions.
We shouldn't think of Prototyping as a one-time activity but as a process in which further iterations (further improvements, refinements) are undertaken.
It's a tool for obtaining feedback – information, reactions, impressions, and evaluations, based on which further iterations are implemented. However, achieving this goal can't involve a lot of time and resources. The primary purpose of Prototyping should be to find solutions to specific design problems in the shortest possible time.
How to test a Prototype?
Ensuring the highest possible credibility and reliability of Prototype testing is based on several principles.
The Maze app makes it easy to test a prototype through tasks sent to users.
Tests, above all, should have the following:
- a specific, clearly defined, and narrowed purpose – we need to know "what?" and "for what purpose?" we're testing
- a set schedule resulting from the stages and problems that arise during the improvement process
- should be focused on users, their reactions, emotions, and opinions, but also suggestions and ideas – following the formula of constructive criticism and discussion "I Like It," "I Wish," and "What If"
- a scenario, a moderator, and target users as testers or respondents
- a repetitive character – we should repeat them after each iteration.
- A prototype is the first version of an entire mobile application, web application (website), or its specific element or function.
- Prototyping is a process that continuously improves the user experience and is achieved through iterations.
- The most important advantages of Prototyping are saving time and resources, reducing errors, and the possibility of testing on a target product group.
- We can create Application Prototypes (interactive prototypes) in digital versions using dedicated software or functions in design programs.
- Prototypes are usually created in two types of fidelity – Low and High Fidelity.
- The key issue in Prototyping is the collection of reliable feedback as a basis for further improvements.
- Testing subsequent Prototypes should be the heart of the Prototyping process