Prototyping & usability testing
A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept. This is the perfect definition.
First off, prototypes are built early in the process. That way, not much time and money has been invested in the project if you discover what you designed doesn’t work.
Second and most importantly, a prototype is a sample created to test a concept. It’s not the full product with everything figured out.
Prototypes are all about getting your ideas out as early as possible in a manner that will allow you to learn and iterate on them. They’re created to put it in front of people and see if the idea has any value.
There should be a specific reason to make a prototype. Don’t do it just to check an imaginary box saying you built one.
They can be anywhere on the spectrum between low to high fidelity. Because there aren’t any detailed interactions, low-fidelity prototypes are typically used to help validate navigation and the journey a user would take when using the product.
High-fidelity prototypes are more detailed, have a more involved experience, and feel much more like the final product. High-fidelity prototypes focus on the exact interactions of the product. They typically include things like animations, visuals, or conditional logic, where based on your actions with the prototype, you’ll get a different result.
You can sum up what a prototype is with these three statements: A prototype is...
... anywhere on the spectrum of fidelity.
... cheaper to build than the final product as software/product development is expensive.
... made to test the usability of the product and validate concepts.
There are a three basic categories of prototyping for digital products in UX:
First, there’s HTML/coded prototypes. These are prototypes that have been created to model the final product using real code. These can be useful because depending on how you build them, they can actually help lessen the development time of the product. Also, depending on how you build them, they can be fairly low cost to create. The only cost is time.
That said, they can take a long time to create. Also, if any glaring issues come up from user testing, it’s much harder to make any changes to the design in code.
Coded prototypes require a high skill level because you need to have coding and development knowledge. We have only known a few UX designers who can actually do this. They’re typically referred to as unicorns.
Second, are paper prototypes.
These are the sketched versions of the website, feature, or product that are strung together either by a software program or by you during a usability test. The purpose of these is to validate a concept early on to get feedback before you start creating the designs on your computer.
Paper prototypes are valuable because they get your ideas out of your head and into a semi functional form that you can get feedback on super quickly. This is fantastic because you don’t have to spend loads of time creating a masterpiece before hearing that something about it doesn’t work from a user perspective.
You only need two things to create paper prototypes: pen and paper. That’s it!
Finally, there are digital prototypes.
Digital prototypes have both the interactions and appearance of the intended design. They’re created using software that links together wireframes or mockups.
They don’t have to be high fidelity to be useful. Wireframe prototypes can be just as helpful for gathering feedback as high-fidelity prototypes. That said, sometimes you need to prototype highly detailed interactions to make sure that everything works together and makes sense to the user. It all depends on the goals that you have for building the prototype.