Can prototyping help designers generate better ideas?

For me, as a creative lead, the answer is definitely yes.

I came across the following quote "tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand", which hints at the power of prototyping in the creative process.

In this post, I want to share a few methods of prototyping that I have recently learnt about and found useful when developing and shaping user centric product ideas at Code. Most of this activity takes place during the 'definition phase' at Code, but increasingly they also play a key part in the popular design sprint methodology of developing product ideas.

Most of us think of prototyping as a way of illustrating interactions or the look and feel of a product with in a digital context, like a browser demo or APP prototype. Whilst this is of great value, there are many more reasons to prototype and methods that can be deployed throughout the design process, to help you arrive at a great product idea that people will desire and use.

How and when to prototype

Prototyping can generally be used in three ways during the design process:

  1. Communicating an idea
  2. Design and developing an idea
  3. Test and improve an idea

When we create prototypes at Code we always consider two things:

  • What do you we want to test with our prototype
  • What method is best to use

You can use figure one to help you decide what and how to prototype. Methods range from low fidelity to high fidelity, depending on what you are testing. The test should be focused around one thing to make sure you are gaining the desired feedback.

Communicating ideas

To help us communicate an idea to a client we might sketch out an 'experience storyboard' to communicate the concept (see figure two).

This helps us to show simply:

  • What the entire user experience looks like
  • How the service works
  • What the context is
  • How user interface touch points work

Alternatively if we need to communicate the visual look and feel of an interface to a client, we might create a fake prototype using a tool like envision to help give real context to the idea.

Designing and developing ideas

To help us develop and design a product idea, we can create prototypes during early audience research phases to test out concepts or just understand the audience. For example, if we were designing a running app, we may want to research how runners physically use an app whilst running. This environmental insight might fuel a brilliant idea or interaction.

We can also act out the 'experience storyboard' as previously detailed, to gain more insight into how the full solution would work. When using low fidelity prototypes we can quickly see the whole idea in context. For example, if we are developing a running app we could act out someone running. A simple sketched digital prototype using something like MARVEL APP, would allow us to see how the environment might affect the user's interaction with key touch points. If we discovered that the app hindered the runner from actually running, then we clearly have a problem. With this method we can quickly gain some feedback about the concept and feed it back in to the design or idea development.

Testing and improving ideas

To test the interactions of an app, we may need to have a working prototype on a device as it is important that the user gets a real experience. For example, during a recent project with Amnesty International we tested the search functionality of the website, as we wanted to test how well users interacted with the search tools. In this instance, faking an interaction that appears clunky would not give us a true insight of how the user interacted with our proposed solution.

Failure

It's worth noting that an important part of prototyping is failure -- as long as we learn from it and improve. We need to be comfortable with the notion that we are making products or services for user and that sometimes your idea might not really be wanted or needed.

Ultimately we want great products that people can use and more importantly, they desire, love and need.


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