Prototyping isn’t about hitting home runs

Is prototyping a part of your everyday workflow yet?

Most designers still see prototyping as something you do once an idea has been explored and resolved, and only then if you have time. Many also consider prototyping as a further step to add even more fidelity to a design to take highly crafted interface components and create a life-like interactive models. Or, to unveil a resolved idea when it’s robust enough to be shared for feedback and withstand testing.

More often than not though, those types of prototypes are a waste of time.

By the time you get to prototyping, you’re so biased towards your idea that you’re trying to fight for it’s survival. You’re no longer seeing if you can break and improve it by exposing it to the thoughts and perspectives of the people around you.

Late stage or overly refined prototypes, if that’s all you do, make it too easy to present lazy ideas by simply animating them to life.

Good prototypes help you express your ideas. Great prototypes help you share, test and iterate your ideas to make them as good as possible before you lock them in.

Stick to what really matters.

The key to making prototyping a part of your everyday workflow is to not get caught up in refining and polishing until the time is right.

Here are three great questions to ask yourself when you’re prototyping:

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Is my prototype focussed?

Everyday prototyping is about exploring and iterating, more than refining and polishing.

When an early stage idea starts its design journey as a prototype, not every part of the idea needs to be refined at the same rate. Do we really need to see how all the options in the utility navigation look? Do we need an actual photo in that particular spot?

When you’re prototyping early, the overall design may never need to end up very refined. A great prototype, even a rough early one, is primarily focussed on the core parts of the idea. It can cope with this because it’s interactive – a reviewers focus is drawn to the core points of interaction being explored.

Being selective about how much and where to refine lets you test your ideas sooner. It also saves you time which you can then invest in iterating and evolving the bits that aren’t working.

When your design process starts with prototyping, you’ll quickly realise how much time you save by not polishing and refining the unimportant parts of your idea. This is especially true for product design where more often than not you’re extending or improving an already established base.

Deciding between ‘lo-fi’ and ’high-fi’ is a red herring. Start prototyping early in your process and only refine and add resolution to the aspects that really need it, when they need it. Invest the time you save in tearing down and iterating the critical parts till they’re working well.

Using a prototyping tool that offers drawing tools will help you avoid the temptation to get sucked into detailed design too early.

Is my flow showing?

The idea of flow is a dangerous one. On one hand, designing for an interactive medium is all about designing how things flow as you interact with them. On the other, assuming that things need to flow can be a sign you’re skimming over an underlying problem.

Part of the design process often involves understanding and facilitating steps people need to take to complete a task, but too often those steps don’t really get questioned, removed or reinvented.

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Take Tinder for example. How powerful was the decision to condense the shortlisting steps into the single flick of a finger - the ultimate triaging? It’s surprising that for so many years nobody thought to reinvent that repetitive high-friction shortlist step.

Prototypes test your assumptions about flow early on in your design journey. They force you to design the flow alongside the interactions. Digital design before prototyping often involved laying out a map of assumed flows via artboards, then working back through to add detail, meaning assumptions around flow were passed over quickly with little interrogation.

Try designing the last step in an interaction and prototyping backwards, look for ways to reduce steps and rethink the flow. The shorter the flow, the more work your software might have to do, but not always.

Find a tool that makes it easy to iterate without destroying or losing your earlier ideas. Look for limitless version history, easy duplication and easy to use animation controls.

Does it feel good?

Talking someone through your designs can be interesting. Watching someone use your prototype can be downright terrifying.

When you share your prototype, the people you invite in get a raw first-hand experience. This is what makes prototyping so valuable. There’s simply no substitute for getting hands on and interacting with a design.

But too often all the focus in a prototype goes on the first iteration. Designers are eager to create a good first impression and sink time into refining their prototypes to minimize the risk of a fast fail. But the trick is to do the opposite. Create a scaffold, the least design, the least surface area possible to express the intent of your idea, then get people playing with it and see how it feels.

Choose tools that let you share every edit you make instantly. Don’t let anything slow down your feedback loop or add friction towards getting feedback.

In Summary

Prototyping isn’t about hitting home runs. It’s not about being right first time. The more times you share – then iterate and share again – the better your design will be.

Focus, flow and feel are the three key ingredients of a great everyday prototype. Getting the balance of these right will help you turn prototyping into a critical part of your workflow.

There are plenty more ways to take your prototypes from good to great, but these three areas are a great place to start.

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Posted 24 November 2015

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