Prototyping 101: the What, Why & How

Illustrated person and sandcastle
UX Tools and Methods / Terminology

Prototyping 101: the What, Why & How

What exactly is prototyping, why should you implement it in your product discoveries, and how do you do this correctly? This article will explain the basics.

What are prototypes?

In general language use, prototypes are often described as preliminary models or versions of things, i.e. machines, from which later forms are patterned. In our discipline – very strongly generalised – the term prototype is mainly used to address more or less interactive mockups of digital products that are needed for UX tests, for example.

picture of a childrens drawing
My daughter created this prototype when she was two years old. It’s a computer that can generate food (note the lollipop and the lollipop button at the left) – inspired by a vending machine in the computing center of the university of Hamburg.

Let me give you a slightly different definition and shed a little more light on this. The term’s origin is ancient Greek, where prōtótupos translates to „primitive form“ or „first impression“. 

In her book „Prototyping for Designers“, Kathryn McElroy derives from this that a prototype is „a manifestation of an idea into a format that communicates the idea to others or is tested with users, with the intention to improve that idea over time“ (McElroy, 2017, p. 1) and thus extends the original definition with the purpose to optimise the prototype.

I like this idea very much, and I would like to emphasise that this is far from being just about creating click dummies for UX tests or vision types for management presentations. But more on this below.

Why should you implement prototyping into your product discovery?

We now know what a prototype is: our thoughts and ideas made visible or touchable for others. And prototyping is precisely this process: creating a prototype by externalising our thoughts and thinking. And each time we do this, we do it with a particular intent, for instance: 

  • to comprehend a problem or a complex issue
  • to express our ideas or thoughts to others (team members, stakeholders, management, etc.)
  • to test an assumption

And this is exactly what we want to do in product discoveries, right? So prototyping helps us in all those three areas.

Comprehend a problem or complex issue

When we try to understand complicated or complex matters in our thoughts only, we have a hard time grasping the big picture while at the same time paying attention to the details. Very likely, we will miss a few facts or overlook specific problems. 

A good start is to get the concepts out of our heads and onto paper (or another medium). Very likely, as we work out our thoughts into a visual form, new connections will suddenly become apparent, or challenges we hadn’t considered before will emerge.

Express our ideas or thoughts to others

But not only will things become more evident to ourselves through prototyping. We can also share and discuss our thoughts with our fellow human beings much better through visual support than if we would express our thoughts just through spoken language.

Debating the visualisation of an idea often reveals different perceptions or views of the previously discussed topic. Without prototyping and consulting the matter, in the worst case, team members may start working in entirely different directions and mistakenly assume they all have the same goal.

four illustrated people and different assumptions about the word mouse
Three different associations with the word mouse

Test an assumption

If we want to test assumptions relating to a solution’s usability, for instance, we need something that we can give potential users to try out (a prototype). Otherwise, we can’t evaluate usability.

How do you prototype for product discoveries?

The question might be a bit misleading. A short and hasty answer could be: I just told you – by making your thoughts visible. But of course, there is more to it.

You do this by visualising as many ideas, beliefs, assumptions, etc., as possible in a way appropriate for each. Quite frankly, there should be no relevant issues that exist only in the minds of team members or stakeholders without being visualised. Having said that, this should happen in an „affordable“ way.

To make the whole thing a bit more tangible and understandable, I will give you only a few examples:

User Journey Map

A user journey map could also be described as a prototype of the user’s flow, experience and touchpoints with an existing product or a planned solution. Creating a journey map helps you understand the user’s journey and possible problems and communicate it to stakeholders.

User Story Map

Same, same, but different. No, seriously, don’t get these two mixed up. A user story map is not used for mapping out existing products. Instead, it is used to prototype potential users‘ steps to perform specific tasks. It is a beneficial tool in aligning the team’s assumptions as it helps uncover divergent beliefs. 

Personas

Personas – prototypes of your users or people from your target group – are especially helpful for communication and alignment. It is crucial that you describe your target group and their pains, needs, behaviour, tasks and such. Personas are one – controversial – way of doing that. I will provide more content on personas, my opinion on them and even an alternative in the future. So stay tuned 😉

Clickdummy

Many product people have this in mind when they use the term prototype. It is a series of wireframes or mockups that are connected interactively. Certain areas on the screen can be clicked to trigger events such as navigating to another screen or interacting in another type or form. Clickdummies come in different fidelity levels. I will look more closely at fidelity in the following article.

End-note

I hope this short overview could clear up misconceptions and open questions and maybe even convince you of my definition of the term. I introduced four different prototyping methods that are helpful in product discoveries, but of course, there are many more.

Next week, it’s all about fidelity, and I’ll share some more methods and prototyping tools with you.

Relevant Ressources

McElroy, K. (2017). Prototyping for Designers. O’Reilly Media.


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