Insights | By Howard Tiersky

The Power Of Effective Prototyping

A prototype is a model of something you intend to later build on a broader scale. Da Vinci created scaled-down, working replicas of his inventions before building them. Michelangelo often created small clay models of his sculptures before starting to chisel giant slabs of marble. Boeing creates complete virtual reality simulations of their new aircrafts before firing the first rivet. The idea of prototyping has a pretty good pedigree.

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Makes sense, right? If you're going to make a mistake or change your mind, you'll want to do it in a medium where the cost is low to rework and improve. Fortunately, in the digital world, making changes to completed production websites and mobile applications is far, far easier than having to re-chisel a marble sculpture or tear apart an aircraft.

So is prototyping still relevant? Maybe we should put all our energy into the real thing, rather than creating models.

There's certainly a strong argument for ongoing iteration of your digital product once it’s in production, based on the insights and feedback you get from the real world application. Prototypes, by their nature, don’t have the full complexity and scale of actual solutions and, as such, there’s a certain margin of error for what you can learn through prototyping.


We still strongly believe in prototyping for the digital product.

Not as a means to perfect your product vision, or launch a product that will never change (that's unrealistic), but as a way to work out as many issues as possible before launch. Even post-launch, prototyping can be a great tool to keep your initial products alive, so you can continue to test potential iterations before you implement them.

There are three dimensions to think about when planning your prototype: objectivescope, and fidelity.

The first dimension is defining the objective of your prototype or goals. There are five primary reasons to create prototypes: technical proof of concept, collaborative vision, pitching a product, developer communication, and user testing. Each of these reasons provides value in and of itself, and it could be logical to create a prototype for any one of these reasons. However, prototypes can often help achieve multiple objectives, so it's good to consider where there could be an additional value that the prototype could provide, beyond the prototype’s primary reason for creation, before planning. If you wish to gain those additional benefits, there may be certain things you want to do in planning that prototype to make sure that it works well for multiple purposes.

The second dimension, scope, is how much of the total experience is included in the prototype. Is it all of the screens in your application, or a subset? In general, the broader the scope and the higher the fidelity (the measurement of how true to actual product your prototype is), the more expensive and time consuming the prototyping process will be. You want to be sure to get the maximum benefit from your prototype without putting in more effort and money than is necessary. How do you know what you need? That’s where fidelity comes in.

As we said earlier, a prototype is a model of something we intend to build upon, on a broad scale. In theory, this could range from a napkin sketch to a functioning application. While a simple drawing could be considered a type of prototype, digital products are dynamic and interactive. The most useful prototype will offer some type of user interaction, even if it's done in a very simple way. We think of fidelity in five primary levels: paper prototyping, video prototyping, clickable image prototyping, HTML prototyping, and simulation.

There are gradients of realism within each level of fidelity, and sometimes it makes sense to plan a series of prototypes that increase in fidelity. We can use our earlier example of Michelangelo's David to illustrate this type of process: Michelangelo first created sketches, followed by small clay models, followed by smaller-scale marble carving before moving on to carve the final, full-scale marble sculpture that we know today.

In our process at FROM, we often create and test paper prototypes, then move to higher fidelity forms of prototypes (similar to how one might use a coarse-grain sandpaper first, and then later, move to a fine-grain sandpaper.) There is a wide range of choices when it comes to prototyping, so it's important to first be clear on which of the five key objectives you’re focusing on for your prototype and determine the most appropriate scope and level of fidelity from there.