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Prototyping your product or service - why bother?

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You’d be forgiven for assuming that prototyping is reserved for wacky inventors testing big ideas. But the truth is, prototyping is just as important to your digital product as it is to the next exciting creation from Tony Stark, Doc Brown, or Q (although we can’t promise your final product will be quite as impressive as an Arc Reactor, DeLorean, or Explosive Pen).

That’s because as we become more digitally mature not only in our requirements but also in our capabilities, validating an idea or concept without some form of prototype becomes increasingly risky. And it’s not always just about determining success - sometimes, prototyping is also vital in determining how long it will take you to achieve that success, too. 

For that reason, prototyping is not just restricted to one industry, be that digital or even manufacturing. In fact, it’s often used in a lot of industries, always with the overarching objective of achieving success when the final product or service lands. 

As proof of just how wide-spanning prototyping actually is, take stand-up comedy as an example. While they might refer to it as a ‘warm up show’ when practising material for a new tour, comedians are actually using a form of prototyping. This usually involves testing out routines in smaller venues and towns to determine what does and doesn’t work with their audience, so that when they finally hit the bright lights of the bigger cities on tour, their show has been tweaked to ensure a perfect delivery that is polished, slick, and funny - or in the case of Ellen DeGeneres, just polished and slick. 

But what does prototyping look like in the context of a digital project? What benefits does prototyping bring to the process, and how can it enhance the final product or service you deliver? Let’s find out.

What is a prototype?

A prototype can be described in many ways, but here’s how we define it…

A prototype is an initial model, sample, or release of a product built to test a concept or process, or to act as a tool that can be replicated or learned from. It’s a preliminary version of a product that allows designers and developers to explore ideas and test the functionality of their design before final production. 

Prototypes can vary in fidelity, from clickable design mockups to more sophisticated digital prototypes that closely mimic the final product’s appearance, function, and user interaction. 

The primary purpose of a prototype is to validate assumptions, test hypotheses, gather user feedback, and identify any issues or improvements needed before committing significant resources to the final development and product phase.

What is the purpose of a digital prototype?

All making sense so far? Great! In that case, let’s dig a bit deeper into digital prototyping - after all, that’s our bread and butter!

So, the main question is: why bother? Is the point of a digital prototype to learn, to test, or to mitigate risk? 

Well, it’s actually all 3 (it is the magic number, after all). 

If you’ve been involved in software projects before, you’ll probably be aware that they can quickly lose shape, meaning what you end up with may not be what your audience actually wants. And that’s not to mention costs, which can often spiral out of control - and fast!

Of course, this can cause significant damage to the longer term life cycle of the project, particularly if you’re trying to build momentum within your organisation. It then becomes a struggle to gain advocates, too - not many of your colleagues will be willing to cheer for you when the product has no shape and has consumed the entire department’s budget…obviously

So, how does prototyping differ from these full-scale software projects for the better? To start with, there are completely different objectives involved - with a prototype, you’re not trying to create and develop a fully fledged software product. That means there’s no need to worry about scaling and iterating in line with your market requirements, and no pressure to generate meaningful value. 

Instead, the purpose of your prototype is to determine what you actually need to ensure the viability of your product or service before building a business case and potentially entering development. To do this, you’re testing, you’re learning, and you’re mitigating risk in the process. 

It’s worth noting that this product or service doesn’t have to be consumer-facing, either - it could be something internal to the business. After all, even though your audience is your colleagues, you face just the same challenges as when developing an external tool, if not more - internal products and services often suffer from being overhyped, meaning managing expectations becomes half the battle!

One more time: the purpose of a digital prototype is to learn, to test, and to mitigate risk.

And with that in mind (albeit through forceful repetition), a prototype doesn’t need to be a developed product- far from it! It’s all about whatever works for you and your objectives. This could vary from high definition designs, right through to a cardboard box stuck together with some sticky back plastic. We’re talking Tracy Island from Blue Peter, if you’re fortunate enough to remember that far back…!

4 considerations when building a digital prototype

Time to take a peek behind the curtain. Here’s how we approach digital prototyping, and what considerations we must keep in mind to ensure we’re testing, learning, and mitigating risk along the way (OK that was the last time, we swear!).

What is the problem and how should it be addressed? 

The development of any digital prototype should start with a discovery session. The purpose of this is to explore the core reasons behind what you want to build, and by the end of it, you should have a clear and cohesive understanding of what problems your prototype will tackle. 

What does success look like?

Of course, defining success is a key part of the process - and with that being said, be sure to give it the attention it deserves. Sure, it’s easy to define success as being given the green light to build the next iteration, but what you should really be looking for at this stage are data points that you can confidently (and accurately) present to the relevant stakeholders to review the progress made. 

So, determining what success actually looks like requires you to identify the data that enables you to measure it. Consider how you will collect this data, spanning everything from functional specs to the user stories you collated within your discovery session.

How much budget should be allocated?

When it comes to prototyping, money rules.

As a result, a non-negotiable fixed-price budget can help to maintain a clear perspective that enables you to be somewhat brutal in setting expectations and determining what can and can’t be achieved within it. 

Yep, you read that correctly - fixed price! Now we know what you’re thinking: isn’t this methodology often avoided with digital products?

In short - well, um, yes. But this is due to the many, many, many, many unknowns involved with the launch of a new project, and because the finer details of larger projects are often yet to be defined and agreed upon. As a result, fixed price budgets are often both inconvenient, inaccurate, and ineffective. 

But when building a prototype, you’re in experimentation mode, meaning the cheaper the better! And this mantra rings true for both success and failure at this stage. You want to achieve either as cheap as possible - fast and cost-effective success is always preferred to slow and expensive, while failure is far less damaging when it’s achieved quickly and at low cost. 

Determining a realistic budget for the prototype phase is therefore invaluable. And the benefits don’t end there - setting a realistic budget can also help you to determine the viability of your product. In fact, it’s arguably one of the fastest ways to determine failure. If the cost of the prototype exceeds what’s possible, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get buy-in for a project that requires deeper pockets!

How can the prototype be maximised?

Once you have your prototype, it’s time to begin extracting user feedback and validating your hypothesis and assumptions - whether they’re right or wrong, at this stage they’re effectively both the same. 

It’s important to determine the level of validation expected before the next phase of the project will be greenlit. By agreeing this with stakeholders from the get go, you can better understand how the prototype can be maximised and ensure that the goalposts don’t move. 

But when considering how to maximise your product, it’s once again vital to remember that your prototype is exactly that: a prototype. Be sure not to confuse it for a minimum viable product (MVP). Whereas a MVP assumes a base set of features to release to market before being built into something fully fledged, a prototype is not meant for full production. 

Your main concern when maximising your prototype should therefore be collecting as much data as possible to measure your success. By maximising the amount of insight your prototype uncovers, you can determine the viability of your digital product or service with far greater accuracy and efficiency - all amounting to a more cost-effective and successful delivery of the final product.

Want to test out an idea or concept but don’t want to break the bank? Let’s have a chat and see what can be achieved - you might be surprised!
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