From Idea to Prototype in 6 Easy Steps

Do you want to build a product or develop an app? A prototype is a key step along the way and can save you time and money before building. But what is a prototype and how do you get there?

The word prototype is derived from the Greek word ‘prototyon’, meaning primitive form. Prototypes are generally a physical sample of a product to be built, a test of a concept or process, to be replicated or learned from. There are many different kinds of prototypes:

Proof-of-Principle (Aka Proof of Concept): Serving to verify some key functional aspects of an intended design but without the full functionality

A Working Prototype: Represents all or nearly all of the functionality of the final product

Visual Prototype: Representing the size and appearance but not the functionality of the intended design

Paper Prototype: A printed or hand-drawn representation of the interface of a software prototype.

User Experience Prototype: Represents enough of the appearance and function of the product that it can be used for user research

The kind of prototypes we’ll dive deeper into later are both the Paper and User Experience Prototype.

prototyping open mind

1. Don’t Get Attached to Early

When approaching your the research, be mindful that you are likely already over-attached to your idea. Don’t theorize before you have data. If you’ve set out to solve a problem for a particular niche or sub-group, you must remain objective. Otherwise you will fall into the trap of confirmation bias.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It’s a type of cognitive bias and tends to be stronger for emotionally charged issues. In the case of belief perseverance, beliefs will continue to persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false.

It may seem a bit crazy, but it’s perfectly normal to get attached to something then frame new information to fit that existing worldview. That’s why it’s so important to remain as objective as possible and consider new information apart from your idea.

market research for prototyping

2. Do Your Research

Does your Product Already Exist?

Yes? Good. That means there’s a market for what you’re selling. Now, figure out how can you make it better, build on it and innovate in that proven niche.

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Research your niche and get as much data – both quantifiable and qualitative – as possible. Talk to people, ask questions and notice what popular topics of conversation are. What are people complaining about? Those are pain points that are unsolved, and potential opportunities for your product.

Don’t Try to Reinvent the Wheel

Odds are there is something similar to your product already, and that’s the best case scenario. That means there are models for you to look to and in doing so you can avoid their pitfalls. Find a product to stand in opposition to and differentiate yourself from.

Does Your Product Actually Solve a Problem?

Not all digital products on the market solve problems. Some, like games, are there to entertain. But, by and large, products perform tasks or help accomplish something. Without a product that clearly provides value, you’re already dead in the water.


3. Know Your User

After the research phase you will have identified a niche and a problem worth solving, but have you identified and given attention to your customer? The end user is the one who is going to be benefiting (presumably) from your product and in order for that to happen you must get inside their minds and anticipate their needs.

This is much easier said than done. But questions you should ask are:

Is this easy, or complex, enough to be useful for my audience?

Every market is different, so there is no one size fits all solution to this problem. Is information or data being provided enough and in a format that is valuable to your user? Are actions straight forward enough to be understood by your demographic? Things like tone of voice, familiar patterns, and accessibility can play a role in whether or not your product is right for your user. But if they can’t figure it out, or don’t derive value from it, they won’t use it.

Your end user should be top of mind every step of the way or you run the risk of self-referential design.

prototype platforms

4. Choose Your Platform

What form best suits your product? Is it a native mobile application, a web application or cross-platform development technology?

You always want to use the right tool for the job. It will save you time and money. But surprisingly, many people don’t. They end up using the wrong tools for the job, and once they’ve established a way of doing things, it’s even harder to change due to the sunk cost fallacy.

Native Mobile and Web Applications each have their own benefits. Knowing the pros and conns and exactly what you need can save you a lot of time, money and development costs. The flipside is a user experience that leaves your end customer wanting, or worse, a product that doesn’t perform at all.

paper prototyping

5. Paper Prototyping

You don’t need to be a big shot designer with wayfarer glasses or a handlebar mustache to design a prototype. You don’t even have to know how to draw. All you need is a sharpie and a piece of paper to start putting together the most important aspects of your product. A picture is worth a thousand words and you can draw that picture. It doesn’t have to be a perfect work of art, but it does need to communicate where things like pictures will go, buttons and illustrate a user journey or path. Simple rectangles will do if you’re no Da Vinci, and if you haven’t done that kind of thing in a while, it can be challenging and fun.

prototype testing

6. Prototype Testing

Building the wrong product or building it incorrectly can be costly, and as we’ve seen, it’s easily done. Which is why it is so important to get the prototype into the hands of your target market and start collecting feedback as soon as possible. If you’re not proud of your masterpiece from step 5, you need to muster the courage to show it off anyway. If you’re shy now think about how will feel after you lose a pile of money. If you need to alter your product offering, change the way a process is done, how information is presented, it’s better to get that feedback from your target audience as early as possible, so that you have time to pivot without running out of money.


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