Prototyping: how to test your idea before going to market

You have an idea and all you can think about is going to market and sharing it with the world. Hold on a moment. Have you tested your idea first?

Building prototypes with lego blocks

Do you remember wanting a particular toy when you were a kid? Maybe it was a Furby, or a Tamagotchi, or maybe a stick and hoop, depending on what generation you’re from. Everyone else had one and you were convinced that having one would make life so much better. Then, when you finally got that toy, it didn’t really live up to the hype. It turns out that the idea of owning it was much more appealing than actually owning it.

This is a common phenomenon when it comes to designing products. You can spend a lot of time researching and testing your assumptions about what your users want. Of course, a big part of this is ensuring you have a well-defined problem and that you are asking the right questions. Despite this, many well-researched products can launch with all the data in the world behind them only to find that no one wants to buy them. The product was great in theory but, in practice, it didn’t really do what the user wanted.

Prototyping is a simple, cost-effective way to avoid sinking big money into developing something that no one will use. It is an initial draft version of a product or concept allowing users to explore your idea in a tangible or interactive way. Here’s how we suggest you get this done.

Think lo-fi when prototyping

In an agile product development environment, the word prototype is quite distinct from the Hollywood image of a death ray that explodes in the mad scientist’s face when it is first fired up. You are not aiming to create a fully-functional version of your product. The intention is to recreate the experience of using your product with the least amount of effort possible. It’s about progress, not perfection – an idea that we will cover further down.

This means that you might be using materials that you wouldn’t expect. The simplest prototypes are hand-drawn diagrams that can help you simulate the process a user would go through. There are also more powerful tools such as Sketch and Invision which are great for designing something with a bit of style and functionality. That doesn’t mean your prototype needs to be pretty to be effective.

You could create your prototype out of lego. You could make a prototype of your app using PowerPoint or on pieces of paper. Your prototype could even be a structured conversation, particularly if you are designing a service. In short, just use the materials and skills that you have available to you before investing in a shiny, working product. If you’re not convinced, check out this video of a paper-based prototype test to see how effective they can be.

Get the detailed ‘gist’

Your prototype should be clear and concise in its usability, content and interactivity. While not a finished product, a good prototype will represent your idea as much as possible.

When digital prototyping, this is more important than ever as you are not just prototyping a solution to the problem you are addressing, but also the usability of the solution. User experience design is just as important as functionality, as it determines how and when people will use it.

You should also try and create a prototype that doesn’t require much input from you or your team during testing. This will always be a balance with the lo-fi nature of a prototype and testers will generally need some guidance. The key is to avoid biasing people’s feedback by walking them through the process. Odds are that you won’t be present when your first users get your product after launch, so it is important to get an idea of how intuitive and useful your product is without explaining the value.

Progress over perfection

I told you we’d come back to this. Prototypes are just one of the many ways that we can learn from our users about how to best solve their problems. If your users hate what you put in front of them, that’s a good thing! It means that you didn’t waste valuable time and money creating something that people didn’t actually want.

Take this opportunity to ask more questions and understand how your users want to use your product. Find out if they see themselves using your product, if they like it if it’s confusing or clear, easy or cumbersome. Learn as much as you can and funnel all of that feedback into your design when it comes time to make it for real.

Prototyping is an incredibly useful stage of the design process, as a single prototype can be used to gauge different perspectives of the needs, wants, and design of the concept which need to be removed, added, or developed. These perspectives are vital to make sure that people will actually use the thing that you create. Remember not just to focus on the end-user as well. Talk to key stakeholders, partners, colleagues, industry leaders – anyone who might have cause to interact with the solution you are designing. Prototyping will help you design something that has been tested for its pain points or tensions before any major failures, ultimately saving time and money.

Interested in learning more about prototyping? Check out our Certificate in Applied Innovation workshops.

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