In simple terms, prototyping is rapidly creating a mockup of a thing to be tested before finalizing said thing. In our modern digital world, it generally refers to creating a rough digital product, usually a site or an app, to pressure test a team’s vision.
For UX teams, prototyping provides an opportunity to test usability. For creatives, it allows gut-checking design. For account teams and clients, it means more efficient spending and speedier outcomes.
But I would argue that prototyping isn’t just a step in the project plan. It’s a philosophy for how agencies approach work.
After attending a recent prototyping camp in Chicago and getting lost in a sea of plaid-clad designers and developers (as one of only a few planners present), I came to a realization. Even the designing- and coding-inept, like myself, can learn to prototype. How? By championing co-creation.
One speaker hit on this perfectly by demonstrating the role of the researcher or planner in prototyping. Her challenge was to research car buying habits for her team to create an app experience for a popular car buying website. She did her groundwork and immediately hit the field. With each interview in the car lot, she started tapping into key steps in the journey. With that, she sat down with a few potential buyers and started mapping out what that experience could look like for them, getting their input along the way. She scribbled and rebuilt, gaining insight into user needs as she went.
The finished product was a simple pen and paper prototype that gave her design team key insight into what the user wanted. This design, of course, was not a wireframe, nor was it even close to the finished product. It was, however, one step closer to that “thing,” and the end user was a part of creating it.
It got me thinking. How often do agencies find themselves consulting the most important stakeholder -- the user -- when it’s too late? So many times consumer preference or feedback, generally through usability testing, becomes an afterthought of a project, which can be costly. An investment in upfront vetting can save a $100,000 down the road.
Beyond the fact that prototyping does not always require a brilliant developer, here are a few more takeaways from prototyping camp that anyone can use:
1) You don’t need every input to create.
Prototyping is about having an inspiration, an insight, or a creative thought and making something tangible out of it. You don’t need all the answers upfront. Some of the best ideas are born from trading your black hat for a green one.
2) You do need to document everything as you go.
Testing is worthless if not learned from.
3) You don’t just test for function but also as a means of co-creation.
Prototyping can span from drawing on a napkin to creating a functioning application. But it is only as valuable as it is participatory with the consumer.
4) You don’t need to know how to code to create.
Whether in UX, creative, development, or even planning, we could all use a bit more “create, test, improve” in every stage of our work.