Even the most skilled product developers and designers can’t always know exactly what their users want. Software prototyping provides a working proof-of-concept mockup that identifies missing requirements, highlights potential bottlenecks, and helps manage scope drift and customer expectations.
Goals and Benefits of Prototyping
It can be tempting to save money by jumping straight into development, knowing that the requirements provided are good enough and deep enough. Unfortunately, even an experienced business analyst will confirm that development projects are generally iterative. Initial specifications often evolve with collaboration.
Prototyping is the easiest way to avoid having to say the phrase “if only I knew then, what I know now”. By creating a simulated user interface, your team can ask customers and users to rate the product and provide feedback.
To be effective, prototypes must mimic the actual intended behavior of the software. But they don’t have to look exactly like the finished product; the focus should be on functionality rather than beauty.
In some cases, a prototype is not created by a development team. Many organizations will create prototypes internally to sell ideas to stakeholders, build excitement, demonstrate the business value of a new application, or gain investor and budget approval.
Use tools to create prototypes
Previously, developers used whiteboards, creating diagrams and sketches filled with boxes and arrows. Sticky notes with important details were used, indicating how the software would eventually behave. While this strategy was better than nothing, changes were tedious, demonstrations difficult, and collaboration nearly impossible.
There are a huge number of rapid prototyping tools available these days that offer a wide range of features and price points.
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Choose a prototyping tool
The general rule when choosing a new tool for your development toolkit is that it shouldn’t take longer to learn than to use. Beyond that, with so many prototyping tools available, there are several criteria you need to consider before deciding which tool is best for your project.
A prototype can be classified as low, medium or high fidelity. Low fidelity places a low priority on the visual appearance of the product, focusing primarily on the functionality and layout of software elements. Medium fidelity is less easily defined, often indicating a transition phase to a higher fidelity prototype that more closely mimics the actual end product.
Ultimately, fidelity is tied to scalability. Make sure the tool will scale with your needs, so it can meet your customers’ visualization needs.
Many tools support real-time design collaboration with the freedom to invite entire teams to communicate within the prototyping tool. Be sure to select a tool that will include your whole team.
Which company created the tool? Where is the company located? How long has this company existed? Is their website up to date? Do they have contact information readily available? Can support people be contacted by live chat or phone? Is the tool still actively developed and supported? What is the date of the latest version? Does the tool have adequate training and documentation resources? Are there user forums with an active contributing community?
It may seem like a lot of questions, but a little due diligence upfront will pay off.
Make sure pricing information is clear and easy to understand. Make sure all required features are included and beware of unexpected license fees or pay-as-you-go costs that can add up as you collaborate with your clients and the project evolves.
If you’re not sure which features are worth paying for or what your exact needs are, consider testing out some of the free prototyping tools available. Keep track of what you liked, what features you wish you had, and what made working with these tools the hardest.
If you’re building an app that needs to work on a particular device (smartphone, tablet, desktop, or other), make sure the tool supports all required platforms.
Especially handy for complex projects that span longer periods, versioning can retain past designs and iterations. Choosing a tool that supports built-in version history can make it easier to roll back changes that didn’t work as expected or revise earlier features that worked better without redoing work already done.
Read also : User-centered design: centering software development on users
Understand how prototypes differ from wireframes
Although similar, prototypes and wireframes serve separate and distinct purposes during the design process.
Unlike prototypes, wireframes offer little to no interactivity or functionality. A good wireframe provides the structure and layout of your project, offering a step-by-step approach to the design process.
Think of wireframes as a type of blueprint your development team can build on. They provide the general idea and show user journeys through your interfaces.
A quality wireframe is the basis for developing a prototype.
Prototyping Best Practices
The secret to prototyping success involves a few simple best practices:
- Focus on needs: Don’t try to guess or make assumptions and make sure there is a resource to gather and provide you with the detailed software requirements.
- Don’t worry about making your prototype perfect: The purpose of your prototype is to provide your stakeholders with proof that you understand their requirements and goals. Make your prototype good enough to collect user feedback, accepting that it can evolve as needed, but knowing that it is not the final product.
- Functionality matters most: Prototypes are not the place to worry about color schemes and image sizes.
- Involve stakeholders and subject matter experts during prototype development: Communicate frequently with your team during the design and development of your prototype. This is your opportunity to clarify requirements, manage expectations, and inspire confidence that everyone is heard and understood.
- Check your opinions, assumptions and ego at the door: Don’t take it personally if your prototype fails; consider it a success if you identify problems and obstacles before development efforts are wasted.
- Avoid using meaningless placeholder text: Use realistic data in your prototypes, even if it’s just a draft. Information such as phone numbers should be formatted as such, and labels should be contextual enough for interactions with the prototype to be meaningful. It is almost impossible to evaluate a user experience with an interface full of placeholder interactions.
- Don’t make promises of functionality that aren’t within the scope of your project: One of the dangers of prototypes is that they can make promises you didn’t intend to make. Make sure your prototype doesn’t add bells and whistles that aren’t agreed upon (and quoted).
Prototypes mean working smarter (and faster) not harder
By leveraging prototyping, developers are able to ensure that their understanding of project requirements is accurate. By accepting that evidence trumps opinion, prototyping increases user engagement and customer trust.
A complete prototype provides a checklist for development teams, answering questions about layout, workflow, and functionality before they are asked. As an added benefit, creating a prototype gives development teams the ability to gain approval for an early project deliverable, ultimately holding customers accountable when scope threatens to shift.
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