The Ins And Outs Of Prototype Design

Have you found a cutting-edge solution to a problem that has been bothering consumers or businesses? How do you validate the relevance of the solution without breaking the bank? The answer lies in prototype design. This article expounds on the benefits of prototyping in design thinking, discusses how prototyping works, typical prototyping methodologies and types of prototype design. It also offers insights to improve the success rates of the prototyping phase.  

What is prototype design?

A prototype is a model, simulation, or representation of the final product used to validate solutions, communicate new concepts and gather feedback on the usability of a service or a product. A prototype helps the designers to identify usability challenges and refine solutions before moving to full-scale implementation. 

Prototypes are part and parcel of the design processes applicable in software and hardware designs. They are a simple way to communicate solutions without the complexities involved when defining problems and brainstorming for actionable solutions. Therefore, a prototype is simply a tangible representation of the best ideas on how to solve a particular problem.

The goal of prototyping is to save time and money during the product development cycle. While some prototype designs will be physically functional prototypes, others will be paper sketches and digital copies. Whichever the case, prototypes reign supreme when conducting user testing and fact-finding for usability issues. Before we proceed, let us explore the roles and benefits of prototyping in design thinking.

Roles of Prototype Design

Some product design teams tend to rely so much on research information and the uniqueness of their solutions to address persistent problems. It is a recipe for failure. Each solution requires rigorous testing to validate. Here are the roles of prototypes in the design process.

  • Deliver ideas simply and understandably to consumers.
  • Test the practicality of solutions.
  • Gather feedback from the user on the reliability of a product or service.
  •  Evaluate the possibility of having multiple solutions to a similar problem.
  • Divide complex procedures into small and manageable stages.
  • Enable design teams to understand the evolution of problems.

As a designer, do not rely only on theoretical knowledge and research information. Develop prototypes for testing as they define the path for the success of your innovation.

Qualities of a good prototype

When introducing a new concept or product to the market, the designers have to ensure that the sample model contains all the desirable features of the final product. Several qualities determine the completeness of prototypes. They are:

  • Adaptability — how fast can the prototype evolve to meet the dynamic nature of the problems at hand? Some prototypes can be too complex to mass-produce using the existing methods. For others, the prototypes present new opportunities for improvement, allowing the designers to develop rapid prototypes. Prototypes for web and mobile products are used to evaluate the responsiveness of existing objects. After testing your designs, the next step involves steady improvements that will evolve into final products.
  • Representability — how does the prototype look? Is it a paper prototype, clickable prototype, scale-version or a clone of a functional item? How you represent the solutions determines how fast users can navigate them and exploit their features to simplify routine processes.
  • Detail levels — When releasing a function prototype, the designers must factor in the desired levels of precision. There are different levels of fidelity for designers to communicate their solutions. They are low-fidelity (Lo-fi) and high-fidelity (Hi-fi). Lo-fi prototypes comprise simple paper sketches, while Hi-fi prototypes involve digital prototypes. The latter use advanced design tools and may contain utilities for tracking user flows, displaying class hierarchy and interactive platforms to display UI components.
  • Interactivity — how far can the user exploit the resources of the prototype? Are the designers offering functional prototypes? Or do they have partial functionalities? Some UX designers prefer releasing view-only prototypes when undertaking product designing. Interaction design of prototypes facilitates feedback collection and dictates if the designers should proceed to subsequent stages of design or iterate processes for a better solution.

Prototype Patterns

The prototype pattern is a term that is common when performing software development using cloning methods. Cloning is a process that allows designers to modify the codes of existing objects to come up with advanced versions. Developing software using standard methods is often costly and time-consuming. That is why some developers prefer cloning prototyping.

When using prototype patterns, the developer specifies all kinds of objects for creating prototypical instances. They then formulate classes and subclasses of codes that will act as breeders for future developments. Software developers rely on creational patterns to guide the creation of objects to suit future needs without complicating designs. 

There are several creational patterns in use. They are:

  • Abstract factory 
  • Factory method
  • Object pool
  • Builder
  • Singleton

Kinds of Prototyping Methodologies

Earlier, we described precision levels associated with prototype designs. They form types of prototyping that are applicable in product development in different industries. What are the differences that set these methodologies apart? Do they affect the choice of design tools, information architecture and cost of prototyping? Is there a preferred methodology? To answer these, we explore high-fidelity and low-fidelity prototyping in detail.

Low-fidelity prototyping

Designers and product developers always look for opportunities to minimize costs at the initial stages of product development. They will utilize simple models that are representations of the final product. Usually, these prototypes will convey partial or crucial features of the end product. Some production designs require the use of expensive manufacturing materials. To overcome these obstacles, designers adopt radical and innovative means to convey solutions to target audiences. 

Low-fidelity prototypes are the most basic solutions that use readily available and cheap materials. They offer designers the flexibility to tweak solutions multiple times and evaluate the reliability of each. Examples of low-fidelity prototypes are:

  • Paper prototypes
  • Storyboards
  • Manual paper sketches
  • Card sorting

Low-fidelity prototypes use readily available or recycled products such as wood, papers, cardboard boxes, or plastics. Although Lo-fi prototyping sounds too basic, it has plenty of benefits.

Advantages of using low-fidelity prototyping

  • A prototype design method that allows every member of the design team to stretch their imagination limits and develop diverse variations of a solution. Team members with little or no experience in the UX design process or product development can work on alternative solutions and enhance product or service quality.
  • Fast and cost-effective. The methodology utilizes locally available resources. Teams do not have to worry about errors as they can rectify them immediately.
  • Low-fidelity prototyping promotes teamwork. It brings together visualization designers, UX and UI designers, architects and engineers. Each team member utilizes their skills to identify challenges and opportunities for improving the quality of the solution.
  • Prototypes are easily disposable.
  • Designers focus on the vital components of the solution. Changes and iterations occur in real-time.

Shortcomings of low-fidelity prototyping

Although this methodology is the first go-to solution for any developer, it has a few cons limiting applicability.

  • The prototype designs lack user control. The prototypes showcase the physical appearance of the end product but cannot allow users to showcase step-by-step utilization.
  • The validity of test results is questionable since the designs are sketchy. The models do not provide finer details like surface finish, usage patterns and usability constraints. 

High-fidelity Prototyping

Hi-fi prototyping utilizes advanced design tools and digital platforms to develop realistic representations of products. Users can see how the product will operate and appear. When using this methodology, designers rely on software solutions like Adobe XD, 3D design and manufacturing solutions to develop interactive prototypes. Unlike low-fidelity prototyping, this methodology goes beyond outlining basic user flows. It uses product mockups that detail user interfaces and usability. 

Bring ideas to life using realistic product mockups and digital prototypes

Advantages of Hi-fi prototyping

  • The methodology produces digital prototypes. They are vital for the accurate evaluation of user experiences, identification and resolution of usability issues. The developers have an opportunity to engage target audiences and verify if solutions meet the objectives of the design.
  • Test results are verifiable. The prototype design mimics the final product in all aspects. The users can subject prototypes to actual operating conditions and provide feedback depending on physical interactions. 
  • Hi-fi prototypes have better flexibility than Lo-fi counterparts. As designs become complex, the designers can implement demanding changes without discarding previous alternatives.

Shortcomings of Hi-fi prototyping

  • Time-consuming than low-fidelity prototypes.
  • Costlier

Guide To Prototyping

We now know what prototype design does, different prototyping methodologies and the desirable qualities. This section describes how companies and individuals can speed up the prototyping process and increase their chances of success. Prototype design is one of the crucial stages of design thinking that determines whether a project is a hit or a miss. The product development team resolves to produce and test prototypes after a series of meetings, literature reviews, research and iterative ideation sessions. The product development process is overwhelming. The design teams could be at crossroads whether to execute a particular solution or not. In some cases, there could be little or no information on the choice of prototyping material, cost and time needed.

The prototype design stage is like a bump on the road. It slows down the trajectory of the project with far-reaching results. How do you start the prototyping process?

1. Act first and fast

After collecting tons of information, it is time to begin implementation. Any further delay may prompt the team to re-evaluate their objectives. At the same time, uncertainties will abound. The first course of action is to begin creating tangible solutions. Focus on connecting the building blocks even if some details are missing. At this stage, do not worry about failures. Implement the ideas even if they appear impractical. Implementing the solutions is a learning curve that will offer developers insights for improvement.

2. Focus on the human user

Product or service development revolves around the human user. Do not allow challenges from the prototype design to overshadow the needs of the target users. The expectations of

solutions may differ significantly from practical experiences. Keep in mind that users may entirely reject the proposed solutions. Endeavor to deliver value to the user.

Stick to your objectives

When executing prototype designs, teams identify new challenges and opportunities. The excitement that comes with it could divert the attention of team members. It ends up derailing the development process. Try to fulfill the original objectives first before jumping on to the next opportunity. Treat challenges as lessons instead of disappointments.

Execute ideas systematically

4. Optimize the time available

No one has the luxury of time. The problem you are trying to solve can evolve in a matter of time. Taking more time on one prototype design could limit your imagination and situational judgment. The faster you move from prototyping, the earlier the market penetration and monetization of ideas.

Is There a Standard Prototyping Process?

The different prototyping methodologies have their own merits and demerits. One can argue that designers must follow a specific process for all product development cycles. However, each team chooses a prototype design methodology based on their financial and resource capabilities, type of product under development, and project time limits. In practice, teams can use a blend of both methodologies. They begin with low-fidelity prototypes before moving to high-fidelity prototypes.

Final Remarks

The power of prototype design is immeasurable. It is a bridge between million ideas and monetization. That said, it is a repetitive process for building confidence between the consumers and the developers. The product development teams outline how they will convert ideas into tangible solutions. The end-user identifies challenges when using the products and reports them back to development teams for further modification. The collaborative interaction guarantees error-free release and launch of cutting-edge solutions.

Prototype designs are an industry standard when dealing with software and hardware products. Entrepreneurs and companies should master the art of prototype design, finding ways to improve prototyping tools and develop tangible solutions for any user needs. 

Prototype designs enable developers to minimize their turnaround times and implement component modifications by factoring in customer feedback. Designers have access to several tools at their disposal to allow them to develop low-fidelity and high-fidelity products.

When showcasing your ideas to consumers and stakeholders, remember to keep the prototype designs precise, understandable and qualitative.