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Get to Know Different Kinds of Prototyping

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify low-fidelity prototyping methods.
  • Identify medium-fidelity prototyping methods.
  • Identify the different types of feedback to collect.

Cloud Kicks Minimum Viable Prototype

Prototypes help mitigate the risks of innovation because they’re fast and cheap to build. When considering formats for prototyping, ask yourself, “What is the fastest way to answer this question?” 

The Cloud Kicks team is working on the design challenge, “How might we increase customer patience and satisfaction in the waiting time between order and delivery, especially amidst supply chain disruptions?” They’ve generated concepts and decided to bring a couple of them into prototyping to explore questions around their desirability and effectiveness with customers.

  • Live tracker: Customers access a tracker, visualized as a process map, via web or phone, showing them pictures of their order and facts about Cloud Kicks’s sustainability efforts as the order travels through the manufacturing and shipping journey.
  • Digital head start: Cloud Kicks partners with a video game company that lets buyers of real-life custom sneakers use the same designs on their game avatars, with no waiting period.

The strategy designer wanted to build confidence in these solutions by exploring them each further through low- and medium-fidelity prototyping and customer feedback sessions. Here are some specific approaches the Cloud Kicks team considered.

Low Fidelity

These are some examples of low-fidelity prototype formats, which are great for ideation level questions.

  • Sketches: It doesn’t get much simpler than sketching. You don’t have to create a work of art; you just have to get your ideas down on paper. By doing so, your concept exhibits its first signs of life, which then can be shared among your team members and other stakeholders for discussion and ideation.
  • Paper interfaces: Speaking of paper—it’s the ultimate in low-cost prototyping material. It holds you in check, so you don’t go high fidelity too early and can make even drastic changes easily. You can cut and paste, rearrange, and create a low-tech interface in a few minutes. Plus, is there anything more satisfying than ripping apart a failed prototype and chucking it into the trash can? Trying doing that with a computer screen!
  • Building block prototypes: A classic children’s toy isn’t just for kids anymore. You can use interlocking bricks to model a physical space, using characters to play out user interactions. Record the scene and play it back to critique customer service scripts. Or use the bricks to communicate the rough form factor of a physical device. You can create a phone-shaped build and put a sticky note on the smooth side to prototype a mobile experience. Anything is possible.
  • Borrowing and recombining: When you’re designing a physical product—something that will fall if you drop it—it helps to pull references from the real world. Go to a grocery store or office supply store and look for objects of similar sizes, shapes, and weights to what you’re designing. You can even tape one object to another to create something new. This can lead to a great conversation about, for instance, how round the corners should be, without launching any 3D design software.
  • Live action + Survey: When prototyping an abstract concept, you can identify analogous activities, interactions, or gestures that resemble your concept, and use them as stimulus. When one customer was exploring proximity-based community building, for example, they offered a free yoga class (a collective activity) and only advertised it within a large office tower (proximity). Another customer experimented with themes of connection by giving employees thank-you cards to send to their colleagues. The action you use is heavily informed by the concept you’re testing. Participants are then surveyed after their experiences, to gather feedback, understand outcomes, and make sure the team understands the relationship between the feedback and their concept.
  • Role-playing: When it comes to prototyping, role-playing, or bodystorming (as opposed to brainstorming) lets you get your concept out of your head and explore scenarios physically. It’s a great way to demonstrate an in-person experience, conversation, or animation idea. You can even simulate a physical environment using props and objects from around the office. Decide on roles, scenes, and storylines ahead of time, and combine it with storyboarding to make the most out of this most physical of prototyping methods. Places, please!

Medium Fidelity

Medium-fidelity prototype formats are great for exploration-level concepts. They’re still quick to produce and relatively easy to change based on feedback, but they come closer to approximating a real concept, so the way people interact with them is more realistic too.

  • Wireframes: Wireframes provide a basic model of part or all of a digital experience, with a reduced color palette that lets people focus on the content and interactions. Sometimes wireframe prototypes are created as individual screens that people give feedback on, and other times they are linked together as a predefined click-through path from screen to screen. Wireframes can be made in business tools like PowerPoint® or Google Sheets™ decks; in design tools like Figma, Sketch, or Adobe XD; or in dedicated prototyping tools like InVision™.

Example of a medium-fidelity prototype of some wireframes.

  • Mockups: Mockups look like polished and ready design work, but they’re put together quickly. Often created as individual screens that people give feedback on, mockups are used to answer questions about desirability, clarity, tone, or resonance, since people react to how they look.
  • Splash pages: When you’re prototyping to explore concepts for product market fit or pricing models, it’s hard to gather reliable data about what people will really do or pay. Splash pages are two-page websites that use mockups to explain a concept, and offer a button so users can show interest. Splash pages can help you narrow down different directions, messages, or options for a product, service, or experience. Just make sure to be transparent and honest with users that this is a test and not a real product, and allow them to opt out of having you save their data.
  • Foam or 3D-printed models: Whether you’re designing hardware, a physical product, or an environment, models can help you answer questions about what it should be like. Just like wireframes, models use a limited color palette to help people focus on functionality. They help people picture what it would be like to hold a new object. If you’re designing an environment like a store or special event, your model might have several elements in it, all built to scale to help you figure out how they work together, and how people will flow through the space.
  • Interactive prototypes: These are “looks like” prototypes, where users interact with an experience that looks finished, but doesn’t work. For digital experiences, interactive prototypes are made in design tools like Figma, Sketch, or Adobe XD; in dedicated prototyping tools like InVision; or on no-code/low-code platforms like Salesforce Experience Builder and App Builder. For services, interactive prototypes might require the design team to act and pretend, to create a semi-functional experience for test participants.

This is by no means a complete list of formats. Feel free to get creative and invent your own format that’s purpose-built for the question you’re answering. And note, we’re not covering high-fidelity formats in this module, since we’re focusing on prototypes for strategy.

Listening Well

Once you identify the question your prototype is asking and the format your prototype will take, it’s important to consider the type of feedback you’ll collect. 

You might be used to collecting data on things like task completion or self-reported satisfaction. But sometimes prototypes can allow users to send you signals that let you know whether or not you’re heading in the right direction. 

  • Verbal feedback: What are you planning to ask people about their experience with your prototype? Make sure your questions for people reflect the level of refinement you’re in. For instance, if you’re prototyping a question about community, you wouldn’t ask for feedback on ease of use or task completion. Make sure you’re always on the lookout for surprises, as they can cue you to a misalignment between your expectations and customers’.

    Is there an opportunity to collect quantitative feedback in addition to qualitative, and would that help you get the answer to your question? Could participants help you improve your prototype? What responses might lead you to a deeper understanding of people’s reactions or attitudes? What quotes and reactions might help you communicate what you’ve learned to stakeholders?
  • Behavior cues: What can you observe—and potentially measure—during people’s interactions with your prototypes? If your question is about interest in a topic, could you look for engaged versus distracted behavior from participants? Do you see participants creating work-arounds that suggest they can’t do what they want to do with your prototype?
  • Implications: How will the lessons from this prototype affect your plans going forward? Have any new questions emerged that the team might need to prototype? How will you apply what you’ve learned more broadly to your concept or project?

Now you know how to write a great prototyping question, pick an appropriate format, and define the feedback you’ll collect. It’s time to plan your prototype.


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