Your prototypes are so pretty, they miss the point entirely.

What is a Prototype?

Prototypes can be wireframes, hardware, software, web pages or even just text. They can be completely functional, or barely work. Prototypes can be used to refine concepts, test market acceptance, improve user experience or show value. They can be used to demonstrate the shortcomings and failings of designs and concepts. They’re wonderfully diverse and occasionally incredibly complex. The problem is that prototypes have so many uses they’re often over thought and fail to successfully deliver any of their intended purposes.

When things go wrong

Small and large companies alike lose sight of what they’re trying to accomplish. Understanding what you’re trying to achieve and test is more important than the prototypes you’re building. Product owners want to show their project in the best possible light and designers want to design something of beauty. However, when you leave things ugly and broken you’ll get the best insights, feedback and ability to influence people.

“Even the best designers produce successful products only if their designs solve the right problems. A wonderful interface to the wrong features will fail.”

— Jakob Nielsen

Just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it works. What’s worse is that when something looks perfect, it’s hard for people to get past the aesthetics of your prototype. It’s hard for the average person to look past a colour, material or font they don’t like. They focus on the surface level details and never really dig into the process you want them to explore. Taking screen shots from your finished applications, making them black and white and running through the idea on paper gives your user the the control they need to tear your idea apart. They’ll draw on the paper showing you what to change. They’ll explain what they expect to happen, instead of complaining about the presentation and what went wrong.

Which one do you feel like you could influence?

When prototypes look so polished that they seem like complete products your users feel like there’s very little they can contribute. Things appear to be set in stone and the feedback will be focused on minor details. Presenting something that is obviously a work-in-progress allows your audience to feel like they can dig deeper into the process. When they have that control they try to influence more of the product features and start to feel ownership over the idea. Those people become the best evangelists for your products.

Let me help you with that

I’m continually surprised by how people will impart their own insights and wisdom when you present an incomplete idea. When you’re testing out prototype, ask for help instead of trying to sell your concept. When you come in asking for help with your imperfect, partially functional prototype people want to help make it better. They may not be able to tell you how to fix it, but you can observe how they interact with it. That interaction can tell you volumes on how they perceive the world, how they solve problems and even more important than that — why. Throughout their interaction ask them why they do the things they do and when they give you suggestions, no matter how ridiculous or impractical they may seem, listen and ask why they want to make those changes.

Understanding why people make the choices they make forces you to develop a deeper understanding of your audience. It can give you insight into their logical deductions and how they categorize your product. It can help you to understand who they use as resources. Not just the specific people, but their roles in that persons life. Knowing why helps you to understand if they turn to their brother because he’s the technical guru of the family or their social connector. It can help you to refine your interface or alter how you present your product to suit their expectations.

When your potential users feel like they’re helping you refine the concept they build a stronger connection to your product. Your product starts to feel like it’s their idea. An idea they will promote for you because they see the value in it. Ultimately, allowing people to help will help you sell your products.

It’s not just your customers that will help you. When you’re developing your skill set, prototypes can give you a means to start a conversation and get focused feedback. Most of the extremely talented people I’ve met enjoy imparting their knowledge. The reason they’re the best is simply because they love what they do. Hardware designers will refine your breadboards and give you alternative directions to explore. Web developers love talking about the newest technologies and tools to improve your website and development skills. Designers talk about style, colours, fonts and finishes for fun. Sketch out what you want to do and share it. People will help you.

But I just can’t let go

I get it. You’ve worked long and hard on building out beautiful industrial design and visual design for your interface. You want to show that off to the world. It’s just that the world isn’t ready. When people can’t see past the surface level details the feedback you want on deeper processes and understanding you get from the help people provide is lost. Whether you’re testing a product on potential customers or trying to convince your leadership team of a new direction, using prototypes that are incomplete, a work-in-progress or simply broken leave people with ways to contribute. Your concept will evolve and gain traction in ways you never imagined and your understanding of your audience will grow.

The story that you tell with your beautiful prototypes is your story. The story you start with broken prototypes is a story others can add to. It’s one that they can own and more often than not, you’ll learn something valuable in the process too.

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