Why We Prototype

Mina Iskarous
Oct 26, 2016 · 5 min read

Build, Measure, Learn

Over the last 10 years, the phrase “Build, Measure, Learn” has become the go-to phrase for the Lean Startup process, which has helped transform modern entrepreneurship.

Prototyping is central to that phrase — its what you build to allow for measuring and learning (after some initial customer interviews and validation, of course). But when do you go from a value proposition, market research, and, most importantly, talking to your customers to building your first prototypes?

Too early and you will spend valuable resources and time building something without knowing if your business is financially viable or without enough information about what you need to build.

Too late and you’ve wasted valuable time and don’t take advantage of the natural and more effective build, measure, learn feedback cycle.

There’s no easy answer to that, but once you’re armed with your value proposition, the first set of customer interviews, and an understanding of your target markets, you should start building.

Customer Interviews: Concept to Prototypes

Conversations with customers about a concept can only take your business so far. Eventually you need to get your app, website, physical product, or even service into their hands for them to give you feedback on actually using what you are selling.

Prototypes are invaluable because as you are going through the building process for your product you are able to get great feedback along the way from actual users. You get to answer questions like “Do we need that feature?” or “Is our UI confusing?” from the people that matter most — the users.

But in order to do so you need to have a good plan on how to use your prototype.

What are you going to use it to test for and how does it help you learn more about your users and target market?

Building out that test plan before you build a prototype will help you drive what you actually need to put together in order to ship it before it’s too late. Build just enough of what you need in order to start testing, and nothing more.

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late — Reid Hoffman

What you can prototype and what are the tools for it?

Now you know you’re ready to prototype, you have a plan for it, and it’s time to start building it. I’m breaking down prototyping into three broad categories: physical products, digital products, and services. The list below contains prototyping methods you can use for this and some tools for it!

Digital Products

Any app, website, or visual product can use these techniques!

Low Fidelity Prototyping

When you need to create a website or app design you don’t want to spend hours creating the entire design before getting a general sense of how it will look — start off with a low fidelity prototype by using pencil and paper or balsamiq.

High Fidelity Prototyping

Once you’re comfortable with that you can use Figma or Sketch to create a more sleek design and put together a high fidelity prototype.

Clickable Prototypes

Having a visual representation is great but you want users to actually feel the work flow of your digital product so use InVision to go from a design to a clickable version of your digital prototype.

Plug and Play Software

If you want to try out bubble for visual programing its a great way to create an app with real code without typing a single line, just drag and drop different tools!

Services

If you’re creating a business where a service is necessary you might not need to create engineering or design prototypes (except for your website), but you do want to conduct self analysis to look at how you operate.

Case Studies and Workflow Design Analysis

Conducting case studies and workflow design analysis allows you to look at how you operate as a service and see what parts aren’t efficient and can be more optimized. Documenting data and timelines on Excel can really help you with this and allow you to self-conduct experiments so you can improve upon your process.

Physical Products

Any physical product tends to require more distinct individual prototypes as opposed to continuous iteration on the same physical prototype. So starting off with low cost materials and process will help you cut costs while still getting valuable feedback.

Physical Materials

Starting with cardboard, foam core, or just drawing the physical product allows you to really visualize how big or small it is, the general aesthetic, and understand how easy it would be to use!

Computer Aided Design

After that you can go to Computer Aided Design (CAD) to create a much more accurate and robust model and play around with the design from there. Autodesk Fusion 360 and OnShape are great (free) beginner tools for CAD and have plenty of online tutorials.

3D Printing

Use 3D Printers such as the MakerBot or Form 2 to print really cheap and fast CAD design to actually feel and test the physical form.

Electronics and Firmware Prototyping

For prototyping with electronics or firmware functionality, an Arduino or Rasberry Pi are easy to pick up and are plug and play tools with plenty of community support. You can test out sensors and even try developing your own firmware for future circuit boards.

There are hundreds of different prototyping tools, methods, and strategies but once you have the ability to start prototyping just go and start! It’s going to give you a whole new experience into customer discovery.

GenerateNU

We are Northeastern’s student-led product development studio.

Mina Iskarous

Written by

GenerateNU

We are Northeastern’s student-led product development studio.