Even the most skilled developers and product designers can’t always know exactly what their users want. Software prototyping provides a functional proof-of-concept mock-up that identifies missing requirements, highlights potential bottlenecks, and helps to manage scope creep and client expectations.
Goals and Benefits of Prototyping
It may be tempting to save money by jumping straight into development, trusting that the requirements provided are good enough and thorough enough. Unfortunately, even an experienced business analyst will confirm that development projects are usually iterative. Initial specifications often evolve with collaboration.
Prototyping is the easiest way to avoid ever having to utter the phrase, “if only I knew then, what I know now.” By creating a simulated user interface, your team can have clients and users evaluate the product and provide feedback.
To be effective, prototypes must mimic the actual intended behavior of the software. But they don’t have to look exactly like the finished product; the focus should be on functionality over beauty.
In some cases, a prototype isn’t created by a development team. Many organizations will create prototypes internally to sell ideas to stakeholders, create enthusiasm, demonstrate the business value of a new application, or gain investor endorsement and budget approval.
Using Tools to Create Prototypes
Previously, developers would take to whiteboards, creating diagrams and sketches filled with boxes and arrows. Sticky notes with important details were employed, conveying how the software would eventually behave. While this strategy was better than nothing, changes were tedious, demonstrations were difficult, and collaboration was nearly impossible.
These days, there are a considerable number of rapid prototyping tools that offer a broad range of features and price points.
Choosing a Prototyping Tool
The general rule of thumb when choosing a new tool for your development toolkit is that it shouldn’t take longer to learn than to use. Beyond that, with so many prototyping tools available, there are several criteria you should consider before deciding which tool is best for your project.
A prototype can be categorized as low, medium, or high fidelity. Low fidelity places a low priority on the visual appearance of the product, focusing primarily on the functionality and layout of software elements. Medium fidelity is less easy to define, often indicating a transition phase to a higher fidelity prototype that more closely mimics the actual end product.
Ultimately, fidelity relates to scalability. Be sure the tool will grow in proportion to your needs, so you can meet the visualization needs of your clients.
Many tools support real-time design collaboration with the freedom to invite entire teams to communicate within the prototyping tool. Be sure to select a tool that will be inclusive of your entire team.
What company created the tool? Where is the company located? How long has the company been in business? Is their website up to date? Do they have contact information readily available? Can support people be contacted by live chat or telephone? Is the tool still being actively developed and supported? What is the date of the last release? Does the tool have adequate training resources and documentation? Does there appear to be user forums with an active community contributing to them?
This may seem like a lot of questions, but a little due diligence up front will pay off.
Be sure pricing information is clear and easily understood. Ensure that all requisite features are included and beware of unexpected license fees or à-la-carte costs that can add up as you collaborate with your clients and the project evolves.
If you aren’t sure which features are worth paying for or what your exact needs may be, consider test driving a few of the free prototyping tools available. Keep track of what you liked, what features you wish they had, and what made working with these tools most difficult.
If you are creating an application that needs to work on a particular device (smartphone, tablet, desktop, or otherwise), ensure the tool supports all requisite platforms.
Especially handy for complex projects that span longer time frames, versioning can maintain past designs and iterations. Choosing a tool that supports built-in version history can make it easy to roll back changes that didn’t work as anticipated or to revisit earlier functionality that ended up being more effective or efficient without re-doing work already completed.
Understanding How Prototypes Differ From Wireframes
Though similar, prototypes and wireframes have separate and distinct purposes during the design process.
Unlike prototypes, wireframes offer little to no interactivity or functionality. A good wireframe provides the structure and layout for your project, providing a walk-through approach to the design process.
Think of wireframes as a type of blueprint that your development team can build on. They provide the general idea and show user paths through your interfaces.
A quality wireframe is the basis for developing a prototype.
Prototyping Best Practices
The secret to prototyping success involves a few simple best practices:
- Focus on the requirements: Don’t guess or make assumptions, and ensure there is a resource responsible for gathering and providing you with detailed software requirements.
- Don’t worry about making your prototype perfect: The purpose of your prototype is to provide your stakeholders with proof that you have understood their requirements and objectives. Make your prototype good enough to gather user feedback, accepting that it can evolve as required but knowing it isn’t the end product.
- Functionality matters most: Prototypes aren’t the place to fuss over color schemes and image sizing.
- Involve stakeholders and subject matter experts during prototype development: Check in with your team frequently during the design and development of your prototype. This is your opportunity to clarify requirements, manage expectations, and inspire confidence that everyone is being heard and understood.
- Check in your opinions, assumptions, and ego at the door: Don’t take it personally if your prototype fails; consider it a success if you identify problems and obstacles before development efforts have been wasted.
- Avoid using meaningless placeholder text: Use realistic data in your prototypes, even if it’s just a rough draft. Information like phone numbers should be formatted as such, and labels should be contextual enough to make interactions with the prototype meaningful. It is nearly impossible to evaluate a user experience with an interface filled with placeholder interactions.
- Don’t make functionality promises that aren’t within the scope of your project: One danger of prototypes is that they can make promises you didn’t intend. Be sure your prototype doesn’t add bells and whistles that aren’t agreed to (and quoted for).
Prototypes Mean Working Smarter (and Faster) Not Harder
By taking advantage of prototyping, developers are able to ensure their understanding of project requirements is accurate. Accepting that evidence beats opinion, prototyping increases user engagement and client confidence.
A comprehensive prototype provides a checklist for development teams, answering questions regarding layout, workflow, and functionality before they are asked. As an added benefit, the creation of a prototype affords development teams with the opportunity to get sign-off on an early project deliverable, ultimately holding clients accountable when scope threatens to creep.
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