What: For designers, prototyping is a proven way to perform tests and to decide. Many companies link their stage-gate model to the presentation of some form of prototype at set intervals. Prototyping applies to physical products, screen applications as well as services. A prototype may take any form, from a doodle on a napkin to the most impressive video of an application, a concept car at a car show, or the most complex scale model of a building created using stereolithography technology. The application of prototyping is one of the basic pillars of design thinking.
When: Prototyping should take place as early as possible in the design process, with the cheapest possible means in order to eliminate as many – expensive – mistakes as possible. Prototypes are made to communicate ideas visually and/or for the functional testing of (parts of) solutions.
Advantage: Prototyping can prevent a lot of hassle since testing and the detection of errors are done at an early stage.
Involving users in prototyping
Users can be involved in prototyping in a number of ways:
- The user tests and verifies: As a company/designer, you create a prototype and invite a panel of users to assess this prototype or even to test it themselves.
- The user collaborates with the company or the designer: co-creation. A team of users, designers, people from the company... reflects on a topic and produces simple prototypes to resolve the issue.
- The user works (worked) on his/her own: These are the so-called lead users, i.e. people who have already solved the problem for themselves before you even started thinking about it. These can be a huge source of ideas, but you must be able to find them.
A few rules of thumb:
1) What is the purpose of your prototype: communication (visual), testing (functional), or both?
2) Make sure there is a good briefing.
3) Make prototypes in line with the above purpose.
4) Work with inexpensive, fast, but durable resources to ensure that your prototype will last long enough to allow the conclusions to be recorded safely (in photos, reports, Excel or CAD form).
5) Test often and fail often: learn from the mistakes in prototypes, while investments are still limited.
And if you work with users:
1) Especially when your users are involved in co-creation, work with resources that are so commonplace that the users are not inhibited by their lack of knowledge or skill.
2) The more abstract a prototype, the more users themselves will add to it mentally. Try to also capture this information using other techniques, such as interviews or observation.
Prototyping of products
In principle, there are three ways to make prototypes of products:
1) Physical prototypes made with traditional techniques: this includes everything from a ball of plasticine to a fully realistic and working model (e.g. hydrogen-powered car).
2) Physical prototypes based on a CAD drawing (Stereolithography, milling models, etc.).
3) Virtual prototypes that can be subjected to all kinds of tests on screen (Finite element method, CFD analysis, virtual ergonomic models, etc.).
This technique was described at length in the Flanders Inshape research entitled ‘De optimale inzet van prototyping in het ontwerpproces’ (The optimum use of prototyping in the design process).
Prototyping of services
A service prototype is a simulation of a service experience. There is no better way to fully understand a service than by experiencing it. This can vary from role playing to more extensively staged services in physical environments (e.g. service at bank branches or getting a hamburger at a drive-through). These prototypes require the users’ active participation and a (prototype of a) physical context.
Both the tested service and the environment can be the subject of research. Consequently, you can use a service prototype to
1) Design the service;
2) Design the context in which the service takes place.
Prototyping of screen applications: wireframing
Wireframing comes from the graphic sector. Wireframes are used to simulate the layouts of apps, user interfaces or websites, simply by creating a skeletal framework of the pages composed of lines and areas. They can be sketched with software tools, but just as well in Powerpoint, or with pen and paper. In which order should the information be presented, and how can you structure this? How do you ensure visual consistency?
Drawing up information architecture is expert work. There are standards to be met for many applications, and the testing of wireframes is difficult. Qualitative methods require a relatively far-reaching development of the look and feel of your page. Quantitative analyses such as eye tracking are specialist work (see also eye tracking and card sorting).
Analysis of the results of prototyping
The processing of the results can vary widely depending on the form of prototyping that was used, the stage of the design process, and the extent to which the user is actively involved.
In scenarios based on co-creation, an improved prototype will ultimately have emerged as a result of the many iterations of the testing process. When testing functional prototypes, a list of rather technical comments will be created which can be used as a basis for further processing (QFD matrix, affinity diagram, etc.). In aesthetic reviews, the feedback will be rather qualitative: “How beautiful or ugly is it, and – for which amount – should I buy it?”