The Importance of Prototypes in Product Design

The development process involves multiple stages, including ideation, design, testing, and production. However, one crucial element often overlooked is the creation of prototypes. 

Prototypes are like the backbone of product design. They allow you to test and refine your ideas, identify potential issues, and ultimately create a tangible representation of your vision before investing significant resources into production.

The value of product design prototypes can’t be understated. From identifying potential issues to refining the design and functionality, prototypes serve as a tangible representation of a product idea and allow designers to test and evaluate their ideas before investing significant time and resources into production. Let's dive into why they’re a crucial aspect of the product design process.

What are product design prototypes? 

When it comes to product design, prototypes are an essential aspect of the process. They allow designers to test their ideas and make changes before producing the final product. Different prototypes are used in product design, each with its unique form and function. 

One type of prototype is the functional prototype, which is used to test the functionality of a product. This involves a combination of design and development skills to create a working model that accurately represents the final product. It allows designers to test how their product will work in real-world situations. 

Another is the user experience prototype, which tests how users interact with a product. This type of prototype can be created using software and allows designers to simulate user interactions with the product. It allows designers to test different user interfaces and make necessary changes. 

Overall, prototypes are an important part of product design, and exploring their different forms and functions can help designers create better products. By using different types of prototypes, designers can ensure that their products are functional, user-friendly, and visually appealing.

Prototyping for different product design stages 

Product design relies heavily on prototyping to bring ideas to life and test them out in a tangible form. Low-fidelity prototypes, like wireframes, are especially useful during the early stages of ideation and concept testing, allowing for quick iteration and feedback. 

As the design process progresses, functional prototypes become increasingly important to test usability and make iterative improvements. Late-stage prototypes are crucial for finalizing design details and preparing for production, with user testing providing valuable feedback to ensure the final product is user-friendly and meets the target audience's needs. 

Ultimately, prototyping is critical in ensuring a better end product through testing and refining ideas. Prototypes help avoid wasted time and resources, align the team, and provide a visual representation of requirements for the development team. The level of fidelity for prototypes can vary depending on the stage of the prototype.

Four main types of product design prototyping

There’s no definitive answer to how to make a product prototype. Product prototypes can be as simple as sketches or as complex as building a front-end experience. 

Teams can use various types of prototyping in their product design processes. Refresh your knowledge with this Prototyping 101 glossary of the different types of product prototypes. 

High-fidelity and low-fidelity prototypes 

Prototypes can be categorized as “low fidelity” or “high fidelity.” 

Low-fidelity prototypes are basic wireframes with little detail that allows the design team to visualize each screen’s layout and how users will move from one screen to the next. Low-fidelity prototypes may even begin on a whiteboard during brainstorming and allow designers to quickly change course in the earliest stages of the project. 

High-fidelity prototypes, however, accurately represent what the final product will be like. They include colors, branding, animations, and other elements that allow users to experience what it will be like to interact with the final product. 

Conceptual prototypes 

Conceptual prototypes, often low-fidelity, illustrate the design of a digital product. They show what the proposed product will look like and the steps users will take to navigate or use it. These tools may be horizontal prototypes, which illustrate a wide range of features, or vertical prototypes, which provide a detailed view of specific features. 

Functional prototypes

Functional prototypes are high-fidelity prototypes that offer users a realistic experience. Product builders can quickly create high-fidelity prototypes that look and feel like the real product using open-source frameworks like Vue.js and Tailwind. Functional prototypes are valuable to developers who can use them as guides when building the final product. 

User experience (UX) prototypes 

UX prototypes are designed specifically for testing with target audience members before finalizing the design. This prototype can also add value to a presentation to investors to help them understand the potential of your product. 

The importance of prototyping in product testing 

Although product design prototypes are crucial for team alignment and lowering risks of errors and rework, they’re also valuable for testing the concept design with users at these project stages. 

Evaluating product-market fit 

Prototyping is a key element of Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) models that take an iterative approach, with testing integral to each phase to keep the project on track. 

Before investing time and resources into product development, it’s smart to use a prototype to test the initial design, even a rough model without bells and whistles, to ensure the finished product will deliver the functionality and the value that users in the market want. 

Evaluating user interaction

User testing can reveal nuances to using the product that the design team didn’t anticipate, such as the order of functions that users gravitate toward and the most convenient locations for buttons or forms. With insights from a prototype with a realistic human interface, the final product can be most intuitive and user-friendly.

Identifying design flaws and errors 

A design may work on paper, but a prototype, particularly a high-fidelity prototype created with actual code, can reveal errors. For example, users may discover that the link may not be available from the screens where they want to generate reports or that fields aren’t aligned with typical workflows. Finding these issues before development will save significant time and money. 

Refined and improved final design 

Prototypes are also beneficial in the final stages of product development and beyond. Prototypes enable A/B testing that will reveal which option for a specific feature resonates with users or which user interface elements have more appeal. 

Real-world examples of successful prototyping

Virtually every product design team can point to at least one example of when a prototype saved time, money, or rework. However, design-thinking companies committed to understanding their customers and tailoring solutions to their needs can see big wins from product design prototyping. Let’s go over a few successful examples.

Yearly

To overcome the challenges its customer service team faced with walking users through the software, Yearly needed a clear picture of what users needed to design annual and impact reports more easily. Creating realistic prototypes with Vue.js and Tailwind allowed Yearly to conduct user testing to capture “in-market” feedback and validate new features before taking its new version to market. 

Prototyping gave Yearly confidence that it was addressing customer needs and correctly prioritizing features. Furthermore, it helped Yearly save $80,000 in design and development costs, shorten the sales cycle, and led to annual contract value growth and recurring revenue. 

Intuit Labs 

A key element of Intuit’s Design for Delight is rapid experiments with customers. Intuit creates prototypes of its solutions and allows customers to test them. This gives this Fortune 500 company insight into what works best, saving time and resources when finalizing new solutions. 

Pulse 

The Pulse app aims to make news easily accessible on mobile devices. Prototyping helped the creators refine their vision. They began with low-fidelity prototypes and adapted them as they received feedback from their target audience. 

Later they showed paper prototypes to potential users for input. They found that people gravitated toward visual news, so they tested different-sized and style visualizations, one of which became the one they used in the app. 

They also moved to a functional prototype to test interactions and flows and rejected features that users didn’t find useful or relevant. The final product saw widespread adoption and was acquired by LinkedIn in a deal valued at approximately $90 million

The future of product design prototyping 

Competitive digital product developers will continue to expand their prototyping tools to streamline design and development processes, save time and costs, and create final products that precisely meet users’ needs.

Furthermore, as more innovators discover the value of functional prototypes to collect user feedback and align design and production teams, expect an increase in user-friendly tools. Low-code and no-code tools like Bubble will enable more team members, even those without coding expertise, to create prototypes and minimum viable products (MVPs).

Innovators will also work with outsourced product design and development companies that offer innovators expertise in product design prototype services, market and user research, resonance testing, solution validation, and go-to-market strategy. 

How Patent355 can help 

Patent355 stands apart by incorporating the latest behavioral science and design thinking into design processes and prototyping to help companies lay the groundwork for successful product launches. 

To learn more about using product design prototypes to bring your ideas to life, contact us to start a conversation. 

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