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What Does It Really Mean to Prototype?

People building with legos

There are many milestones on the journey to creating a successful new product or feature. Developing a prototype of your solution is one of the biggest pivot points in the process, as this is when your abstract concept starts to take shape in physical reality. 

Creating a prototype is the most effective way to contextualize and illustrate the core functionality of your solution. And there’s no denying the satisfaction in seeing your idea come to life on paper or screen. But a prototype is more than just a proof of concept. 

It’s a jumping off point for innovation.

Why Create Prototypes? 

Prototyping is an incredibly useful exercise in new product development. It helps you to validate your hypothesis — the solution you’re creating — and answer the question “does my idea actually work?” 

Even though a prototype may be more than just a proof of concept, it does have to serve this important purpose as well. Your product stakeholders all need to be reassured that your concept can make the long journey to producthood. 

A working model does exactly that. It resolves any ambiguity that may exist in the verbal or written descriptions of your product features and applications. A prototype is the epitome of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 

Define Your Core Function, Innovate Solutions

Developing a prototype forces you to define the core function of your solution. It forces you to think through the customer problem you’re trying to address and commit to a strategy to solve it. 

Creating a prototype also allows you to tinker and refine your product idea before you make a large investment into your production process. It’s better to iterate with a low-cost, low-fidelity prototype than a million-dollar application in beta. Not only is it more cost-effective, it also empowers you to take greater risks with your concept. And you don’t even need to know how to code. 

A bolder approach earlier in the development process is more likely to produce a solution that breaks through your core customer base and reaches a wider audience. 

So, how do you achieve this?

Get Actionable Feedback

You do it by testing your solution not just with your core demographic and for primary applications, but with general audiences and edge cases. 

Testing is another reason why building a prototype is necessary. It allows you to observe how your product can be used in real-life situations. The feedback you receive from your users is irreplaceable, and critical in helping you fine-tune your concept. 

Prototyping: Writing the Final Product Rough Draft

Product development is often compared to construction work — as in, you “build” a product. But designing a prototype is more like writing a good story than building a house. 

You start with your story idea (product) and create a rough outline around the narrative you want to tell (customer problem you’re solving). Then, you brainstorm characters and events (features and applications) to move your story forward. Next, you create your first rough draft and see how everything in the story fits. 

That first draft is your prototype. It is by no means your final version of the product. But it gives you a model of how everything works together. 

Or, how it doesn’t (work together). Prototyping is often just as much about subtracting as it is adding. This editing and sharpening of product features and elements happens as you iterate through several different versions of your prototype to arrive at your final, go-to-market configuration.  

How do you go about actually creating a product prototype? 

Designing Prototypes for Breakthrough Solutions

Just like with writing a story, you start with pen and paper. 

Step 1: Sketch

Most designers start with a few quick sketches to get the basic idea of their concept on paper — literally, with boxes and lines — to create your product “outline.” This low-fidelity approach is perfect for the initial concepting phase. None of your ideas are developed enough to get attached to, and nothing is too precious. You are still at your freest to explore various possibilities.

Step 2: Take it digital 

Once you’ve drawn a few sketches and decided on your favorite approach, you can trade in your pen and paper for some design software. And don’t let that software intimidate you if you’re not a designer — today’s design programs (Figma, Sketch, Adobe XD) are user-friendly and intuitive, even for non-designers.  

In this step, you start filling in your product outline with a few features and elements. After a couple turns with your design software of choice, you should be able to take advantage of the various design tools to fill in even more detail and create a more complete picture of your end-product. 

At this point, you’re well on your way to your first product draft. And that final rough draft doesn’t have to be 100% complete — it just has to be functional. 

A prototype’s most important job is to demonstrate how your solution will work in real life. Once you reach this point, you can move on to the next step in the prototyping process — testing. 

Step 3: Test Your Prototype

Your first prototype will not be perfect. First drafts rarely are. The purpose of first drafts is to see how all your story pieces fit together. 

Completing your rough draft also enables you to get feedback on your story. This is a critical part of the prototyping process. You won’t be able to improve your idea if you don’t let others play around with it, stress test it and, honestly, try to break it. 

Test your prototype early and often… and with as many different constraints, variables and groups of people as possible. That’s a great way to uncover additional applications for your product. 

The more people you have putting your prototype through the paces, the better. And you want to be there to listen, observe and record all the different ways your prototype works and doesn’t work. This is key to writing the next, better draft. 

Step 4: Iterate

The feedback you receive from testing should enable you to continue to refine your product idea and come up with a better, more complete, more innovative prototype. Eventually, all that refinement will lead to a prototype that you feel confident taking to market. 

Even after launching your product, you should continue to build new prototypes to test new features and applications. This will help to keep your product fresh and relevant to your customer needs as they evolve.  

Prototyping Is Easier Than You Think

Prototyping is a crucial part of product development and innovation. It’s how you define and evolve your unique solution to a customer problem. Designing a prototype doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, anyone can do it. Many prototypes start out as just a sketch on a napkin. To begin, you just need that breakthrough product idea.