6 reasons why you should be prototyping more

Companies would save time and money by doing less coding and more prototyping.


In the first phase of starting our company, Weld, we interviewed almost 100 companies — both product companies and digital agencies — about their design and development process. A striking conclusion was that few companies did enough prototyping, or any prototyping at all, for that matter. For some product companies with existing products, they even went straight from idea to code — without much design, prototype, or user testing.

So — what is a prototype?

With a “prototype”, I mean an interactive sketch of the product — or part of the product — that you are building. It’s a broad and vague definition. The visual fidelity can vary from lo-fi “gray boxes”, to a hi-fi style that closely matches the final design. Similarly, the interactivity can vary from simple navigation between screens, to complex animations and touch interactions, sometimes even with basic server integration. See “How you should prototype” below for more tips.

By contrast, a “wireframe” is a non-interactive sketch, typically drawn in a low-fidelity style. The word “mockup” is used for lots of different things, but most often a sketch with higher fidelity than a wireframe.

Who should prototype?

Everybody should prototype! UX people, designers, developers, business people — everybody. Yes, some are more skilled at it than others, but it’s more about a process and a mindset rather than achieving a certain quality. All of the groups mentioned have something to gain by prototyping as part of their craft, and many of the prototyping tools today are so simple anyone can get started.

The 6 reasons why you should prototype more

1. Save time

Common misconception #1:
“We don’t have time to make a prototype”

Prototyping is always faster than real implementation, so try to stay in “prototyping mode” as long as possible. Build, test, evaluate — and repeat. The more you have learned about the design problem you are trying to solve, the faster the implementation will be. Don’t listen to clients or managers saying “We don’t have time to make a prototype” — it’s actually the other way around.

For maximum speed, prototype in the Fastest Viable Medium, given your design problem. Is it about text on a landing page — use Google Docs, is it about micro-interactions — use Pixate or Noodl, is it about responsive design — use Weld.

2. Save money

As a side effect of being a time saver, prototyping will also make your development process more cost-efficient, since the overall development cycle becomes shorter.

Additionally, you need fewer resources when prototyping compared to a full design & programming team. You can have a single person working on prototypes and later engage the full team. Or better yet, do engage the entire team and create multiple prototypes, concurrently.

3. Understand the problem better

Common misconception #2:
“I don’t need to prototype it, I know how it should work”

Prototyping is often skipped over because you think you already know the solution. Everybody does it (me included), and it’s actually one of few areas where experience can be an obstacle; your trusty “gut feeling” stops you from searching for the right answer.

To get around this, you need to embrace sketching and prototyping as a way of learning. As my personal UX hero, Bret Victor, once said: “Creation is Discovery”. Don’t expect that your first prototype will the solution — but it will be a better phrased question.

4. Get feedback quickly

Whether you have customers, clients, or other stakeholders, feedback will be vital for your project’s success. And the sooner you can get it out in their hands, the quicker you can get that precious feedback.

“Make something people want — that’s what you want to build, right? And people won’t be able to tell you they want it, until they try it.

5. Get started quickly

Procrastination is a problem both on a personal and an organizational level. Many opinions, many ideas, many constraints. Prototyping lowers the bar, makes the first step less dramatic, and allows you to get started quickly. Maybe that first prototype didn’t turn out to be great, but that means you can cross out one suggestion from the list and move on. Continuous prototyping keeps the momentum up.

6. More iterations makes a better product

It’s no secret that the more chances you get to improve something, the end result will be better. In product development, you want to run through the Build-Measure-Learn loop as many times as you can. The big counter-force here is time and money, and when prototyping this counter-force is rather weak.

How to prototype

There is much written on prototyping tools and processes, and I won’t drill down on that here, but there’s two points I want to emphasize:

  1. Understand what the goal is with the prototype. Is it to answer a specific question, or to explore a larger topic area? Will it be used in user testing, or just internally?
  2. Prototype fast, prototype often. Many smaller or simpler prototypes are better than one big prototype. Keep iterating, keep up the momentum.

Summary

To wrap it up, here’s why you should prototype more:

  1. Save time
  2. Save money
  3. Understand the problem better
  4. Get feedback quickly
  5. Procrastinate less and get started quickly
  6. Build a better product through many iterations

Now go and build a prototype!