Design is about solving problems. No matter what product we work on, we always try to provide the best possible solution to our users. Product research, ideation, prototyping, and testing are essential steps of the product design process. The ideation phase plays a crucial role in the design process because, during this phase, designers form hypotheses—raw ideas on how to solve the problem. But every hypothesis, no matter how good it might sound, always requires validation.
What can happen when designers skip the validation part and go straight to building a solution? In many cases, designers end up creating a product that does not bring any value to their target audience. Hopefully, there is a simple way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction. And it is called prototyping.
At ProtoPie, we do not put our faith in raw ideas; we put our trust in prototyping. We believe that prototyping is the best way to validate an idea. That is why when we are working on our product, we treat every idea as a prototype.
Below I want to share some practical tips on how to use prototypes during the design process.
How Prototypes Help Test Our Assumptions And Move Progressively Towards Finished Solutions
Make Your Idea Tangible
Designers have a hard time explaining the meaning of a particular idea when it is locked inside their heads. When people who listen to a designer do not have a visual reference, they need to imagine how the product is supposed to look and work. No need to say that it often leads to misunderstanding. Prototyping is a way to give your idea a tangible presence that you can put in front of your team or stakeholders. The great thing about a prototype is that it does not need to be fancy. The key thing is to create a representation that helps other people to understand the underlying meaning of your idea and understand whether it has a value.
It is vital to minimize the time required to visualize the ideas. Different stages of the product development process require different fidelity. So, if you are at the beginning of your creative journey, and want to try various concepts before selecting one or two that you will turn into a final product, you might want to use low-fidelity sketches to communicate your idea. But as soon as your idea starts to get traction, you can go for mid- or even high-fidelity assets to make the prototype look and work like a final product. By doing that, you allow other people to interact with your solution.
Usually, product teams have dozens of ideas about the features they want to introduce in their products. In some extreme cases, when teams turn all their ideas into features, they create so-called creeping featurism—products are filled with poorly-designed features and become completely unusable.
Don Norman gives the following description to creeping featurism:
“Creeping featurism is a disease, fatal if not treated promptly. There are some cures, but as usual, the best approach is to practice preventative medicine.”
Not all features are equally important to your users. It’s easy to see whether a particular feature works for users or not by prototyping it and testing a prototype with your users. The results of usability testing sessions will be a strong argument for meetings with stakeholders. It’s much easier to convince stakeholders when you show how users interact with a product.
Evaluate Technical Feasibility
The cost of introducing a particular feature in a product can vary drastically based on the feature complexity. In many cases, it’s hard to evaluate the complexity of specific features just by reading a feature specification. Incorrect assumption “Developing this shouldn’t take more than a day” can result in a week or even more of development. As a result, a team postpones the time to market, which ultimately leads to financial loss.
Prototypes act as a bridge between designers and developers. Prototyping helps developers understand which aspects of your idea are difficult or impossible to implement. During high-fidelity prototyping, most of the hidden shortcomings related to UI and user interactions are exposed. This information will help you to plan your resources, time, and budget. Remember that the earlier in the process you can identify and fix fundamental problems, the less expensive it is.
Turn Your Idea Into Multiple Ideas
When product designers come up with good ideas, they tend to think of their ideas as fully-formed solutions that a team should embrace and build. This way of thinking is very dangerous because it narrows down the team focus on one specific path that an organization should follow. However, it only happens when a team skips the prototyping phase and goes straight to implementing a final product.
If a team starts prototyping, it completely changes the way it thinks about ideas. Since a prototype is anything but sacred, and a process of prototyping is similar to experimentation, the team is more willing to try various approaches to find the one that works the best. Even when a team starts with one idea, it can follow different routes that will ultimately lead to different outcomes. A team follows a quick build-measure-learn cycle where it validates their ideas. So, without any doubts, it’s possible to say that prototyping will guide your product design decisions.
Don’t Stick To Your Ideas
One of the first lessons you learn in chess is ‘when you find a good move, look for a better one.’ This rule is applicable to product design. Let’s suppose you have a really good idea on your mind. The best thing you can do with it is to ignore it for a while. Take a notebook, write your idea on the piece of paper, and turn the page. Put the notebook on the shelf. This approach will help you get the idea out of your mind and keep thinking. Because you have to be willing to move on from the good ideas if you’re ever going to find the great ones.
Design With Data
“Go with your gut” is a phrase we hear throughout our lives. Each of us has our own gut feelings when making decisions, and designers often rely on personal opinions when making design decisions. Gut feelings play an essential role in developing solutions, but they are not the only tool you should be using. Influenced by gut feelings, designers can easily fall prey to misguidances, such as cognitive biases — tendencies to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens their prior personal beliefs or hypotheses.
Rather than relying solely on your intuition, collect valuable insights by testing your prototypes with real users or people who represent your target audience. It’s recommended to use high-fidelity prototypes for usability testing sessions because they’re better for soliciting feedback (when users see a realistic design, they start to evaluate it as a finished product).
How Prototypes Help Design Collaboration And Design Critique Sessions
When I started ProtoPie, I wanted to build a team that will make my ideas tangible and will create a tool for UX designers that will help them work efficiently. Now, looking back, one thing is clear: my best idea was to surround myself with a team of people who had even better ideas. Many product teams believe that the ultimate goal of product design is to create great products. But in reality, the goal is to create a judgment-free environment with highly-motivated professionals that can quickly spark creativity.
Brainstorming sessions are an essential ingredient of solid design process. During brainstorming, team members should produce as many ideas as they can to address a problem statement, evaluate the ideas, and turn the best one into prototypes.
Surround Yourself With People Who Can Openly Critique Your Work
Many large organizations suffer from the so-called HiPPO effect (highest paid person’s opinion). This effect describes the tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to higher-paid employees (usually managers) when a decision has to be made. Not to say that HiPPO effects have a significant negative impact on product design—it introduces bias into all design decisions. Whenever a team gathered together to discuss a design, instead of making a decision collaboratively, they always look at one person while sharing their ideas.
Two things will help you to deal with the HiPPO effect.
First, embrace the “There are no bad ideas” mindset. The d.School puts it in this way “It’s not about coming up with the ‘right’ idea, it’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities.” That’s why it’s important to be curious and be ready to explore various directions and prototype various solutions.
Second, honor honest feedback. Even if you’re a manager or a boss of your organization, people who work on a project should not be afraid to force you to think critically about your concepts. You should motivate your team to experiment and try various approaches. Instead of saying, “I think that this should be designed…,” you should say, “How might we design …?” This simple phrase will help you build a creative spirit and help team members solve a problem together.
Beat Personal Biases
Emotions play a massive role in the decision-making process. When we evaluate ideas, we not only try to understand the value of the concepts but also consciously or subconsciously assess the person who proposed the ideas. It is happening because often it is hard to separate the value of an idea from the person who suggests it.
Product design is all about being open-minded. It is vital to separate the value of an idea from the person who shares it. And it is easier to do that when you criticize not an idea, but a prototype. A prototype naturally makes you focus on design assets (digital or physical) rather than on the words of a person who created it. Thus, whenever team members have ideas/potential solutions, ask them to make the ideas/potential solutions tangible (create prototypes), and challenge the prototype together with other team members. Evaluate all design decisions in accordance with business goals and user needs. When testing a prototype, avoid saying, “Let’s validate this design,” but instead say,” Let’s learn what works and what doesn’t work for our users and why.” By collecting useful feedback from colleagues and other people involved in the process, you not only beat your personal bias but also find more elegant solutions for the problem.
Prototyping is more than just a technique that you use in product development. It is design philosophy, way of thinking. Tom and David Kelley of IDEO perfectly summed up the importance of prototyping by saying:
“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings.”
Prototyping helps to formulate the main trajectory of the design by framing your mind around a continuous pursuit of better concepts. Any team that makes a prototyping integral part of their design is motivated to search for a better solution.