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What is a Prototype and Why do I Need One?

By: Tricia Houston, Founder

Conducting research uncovers easily avoidable mistakes before they wind up in final products – prototypes are one of our favorite ways to do just that.

By nature, prototyping is low risk and low investment – and it’s always a less expensive investment than following through on an idea you haven’t tested and realizing that it doesn’t work after it’s too late. EBG’s Design Research Lead, Lara Tomhave, calls prototyping “the art of making mistakes before you spend too much money,” and I couldn’t say it better myself. I’ve found that customers and users struggle with telling researchers what they need from concept alone, but once they experience something themselves, they can articulate exactly what is missing; people can pinpoint bad when they see it, but it’s difficult to imagine before it’s in front of them. Prototyping can be done very cost effectively – as in, all you usually need is some imagination and a few hours – and it makes mistakes a lot cheaper than building a physical building and wishing you had done something differently.

There are several different types of prototypes, but the refining process is similar among most types. Here’s an example of our process when testing apps or digital products:

  • We start with simple layout sketches on paper.

  • Than we’ll take it to Figma and add wire frames, and then use TestFlight to garner real audience responses.

However, prototypes for buildings start from sketches and architectural blueprints:

  • Once those are complete, we’ll conduct interviews to get a general read on public reaction to the building and layout.

  • We’ll then build prototypes out of foam core to get a real three-dimensional sense of what the physical space might look like.

Throughout this refining and feedback process, the design continues to evolve and become more polished. Whether a physical or digital outcome, prototyping takes projects from ideation to reality – and catches snags along the way.

Just like you’d test brand concepts or advertisements with surveys or focus groups, physical prototyping is like doing just that, but in 3-D. While physical prototyping the traditional way with foam core proves to be a successful method, there’s a new technology called “Snappi” we are interested in implementing. Snappi creates and gamifies virtual store layouts for survey respondents to review and respond to, adding an opportunity to refine designs before 3-D prototypes are created. Snappi shows stills of different areas of a building’s layout and allows respondents to “choose their own adventure” as they go through the survey, keeping them engaged and invested. For example, a Snappi survey might show a sketch of an upcoming restaurant’s front doors; participants would choose whether they’d like to go left or right upon entering. It allows them to navigate the layout and provide feedback on the most intuitive areas to wait in line, wait for their order to be ready, and more. Understanding how customers naturally navigate the restaurant can help us better design the layout to optimize flow.

While prototyping does remove a great amount of risk from the final outcome of a project, risk is a required part of the prototyping process. The more risks you take when prototyping, the fewer you’ll have to when you’re building the real thing. In prototyping, you go in knowing that nothing could end up being successful. The level of polish (or lack thereof) might make you uncomfortable at first; prototypes used for experience research are most often low-fidelity (held together by duct tape and some imagination). But whatever data you find on your prototyping journey, it will help lead you to the most successful final product.

Prototyping Best Practices

Make Participants Feel Included

The biggest key to successfully tackling a prototyping project is to make survey participants feel as included as possible; the more they feel like their opinion has weight, the more invested they’ll be in answering as best they can. Tell participants: “We’ve created this, we’re not done, and we need your help and opinion because all of this can be changed.” Sometimes when we take feedback, we’ll listen to and engage with feedback even if it’s not aligned with our strategic goals because we want participants to feel like they’re part of the design team. You don’t have to utilize every piece of feedback if it’s not in scope, but you should be listening as you will be.

Invest in Familiarity

Another key to making the most of your prototype is to include familiar cues. If you have the opportunity to make any part of the prototyping walkthrough feel more realistic, then do it…but it doesn't have to be complicated. If you’re having consumers walk through a restaurant prototype, have someone standing at the counter ready to ring them up, and actually make participants get out their wallets and pretend to pay for their order. The more real it can feel now, the higher the likelihood that you’ll catch snags that you don’t want showing up once the project is finalized.

Context is Key

The biggest thing to keep in mind while you’re working on a prototype is context. To get the results you need, you have to be prototyping in the right context with the right end users and the right end goal at the center of all you do. If you don’t keep context at the heart of all your research, it’s easy to veer off course and lose sight of your ultimate objectives. A key part of planning is outlining scenarios to share with your participants. This helps keep them in a common mindset while completing tasks.

Taking calculated, controlled risks through prototyping is ultimately an effective and efficient way to save time and money on both virtual and physical projects, and to make customer and employee experiences the absolute best they can be.

To stay on course, anticipate experience lags before they happen, and make your mistakes before spending too much money, let’s start your prototyping project today.


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