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Design Prototyping Early & Often

Pamela Porto
February 24, 2021

The phrase “adapt or die” creates real pressure for those in the tech world. As a result, it could be tempting for product leaders to make new features or revamp their product without a full cross-disciplinary team that includes a product designer, skipping the design & prototyping phase. 


Their industry expertise, fair knowledge of the user base, and value perception of their services may give them the confidence to get something out to market quickly. However, this leaves behind the opportunity to validate ideas with a design-only prototype before engineers are tasked to build. 


The reality is regardless of the amount of industry expertise you have and/or prior research you’ve done, nothing replaces the value obtained from users at the starting point of ideation. Having a designer on your team advocating for prototypes will create a better outcome for your product in the end.


Feedback from a prototype is the best route to learn users’ expectations and needs. It allows leaders to align business requirements with user needs, get a robust understanding of the core problem, and establish confidence in the solution they’re proposing.


Why you should prototype early 

Early prototyping and testing is a great precautionary step to avoid design or technical debt. Design debt normally happens when too many design decisions were made without users’ input. It becomes a real issue once these decisions are compounded. 


The prototype itself is far less expensive than having to do damage control after skipping the prototyping step. It’s worth it from the start to help the team stay grounded to what users really want and provide an assertive path to scale. 


In order to do so, the following should be true of your prototype:


  • It should have a defined goal and should clearly provide a sense of what the product would look like. 
  • It should be designed to validate or invalidate not more than 2 or 3 hypotheses. Do not be intimidated by the word invalidate. If the prototype doesn’t perform as expected, it will still provide you input to move forward. Plus,  finding out an idea is not the right path to success through a prototype is less expensive than building a full product that fails.
  • It is experimental but it could still be used as a head start to what eventually will be released for production. Especially considering that it’s likely that it will need iterations.


Why you should prototype continuously 

Designing and prototyping a website or SaaS product is not just checking a box in Phase 1. It has to be an iterative process. Even after a product has been on the market for a while, there is incredible value in keeping ongoing prototyping efforts at a major capacity. Here’s why.


Keep the learning going… and at a lower overall cost

Once you have a good sense of what the product is or will look like, prototypes help you identify gaps and ways to improve the product over time. If the product is out in the market, you probably have user data already, so it’s the perfect time to ask yourself the following questions:


  • Is the hierarchy of visual elements and information the right one?
  • Is the product helping users achieve their goals?
  • Is the interface guiding users? Are there any points of friction? 
  • Is the product providing value? Which parts are providing the most value?


If you’re at all unsure of any of these points, it’s probably time to reconsider some aspects of the experience. 


Look for opportunities to test and gain feedback at every phase. Prototypes are a great way to communicate with your team new ideas that could increase performance and maximize the product's value instead of jumping into non-tested solutions with your engineers.


Evaluate the technical feasibility of new features that are worth adding 

Once you have tested and decided on new features, you need to decide if it is worth pursuing from a technical perspective. Ideally, developers are involved from the ideation stage of new features, but sometimes due to capacity that doesn’t happen. You still need to look out for the team and make communication easier for everyone. With a prototype, engineers can verbalize their confidence level on feasibility which helps product managers prioritize efforts as well.


Get your team excited with quick demos of the product

In large organizations, getting 100% buy-in can be a huge task. Just remember, we are all human - and humans are visual learners! Use this to your advantage. Our brains are designed to use around 50% of their capacity for visuals. Bridge the gap with a clickable prototype that shows from start to finish the vision of the product and gets everyone excited about the possibilities. 


If you want your company to be more innovative, provide monthly demos of your prototype and get everyone involved.



Wrap up

I have seen this mistake happen more than once over the course of my career: designers were not involved in the idea generation process due to a lack of time and resources. Prototyping was considered a UX activity that was only needed at the early stages in the process. 


Don’t make the same mistake of underplaying the value of prototyping and design at every phase of the product development process. Make your products valuable by always testing them with users and keep learning from both successes and errors.


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