What is rapid prototyping in design?
At the highest level, rapid prototyping is the creation of early versions of a product or new feature to prove a design hypothesis. With origins in CAD product design, prototyping has since been adopted by the wider design industry to effectively transform design concepts into reality.
In our line of work, that’s pretty nifty.
In digital product development, rapid prototyping is a design approach. The main aim: speed up product development and the innovation lifecycle. It is done by testing many versions of an idea to arrive at the best design solution, challenging assumptions at every stage and testing them on real end-users to arrive at the best solution.
You may have heard about it, but not considered it as an approach to your product’s design process.
A strategic, yet disruptive design process. It aims to create iteratively – meaning – you design and test many new versions to improve the product based on actual user requirements.
Each prototype is tested on end-users to identify problems with the user experience, and then the product is fine-tuned accordingly. Iterations on the product are built and tested to expose the fastest way to improve products in the early design stages. By spotting blinding errors before they become apparent, prototypes speed up development and prevent delays.
Why bother with rapid prototyping
“Ok, but we’ve already got an idea that will work”
Yes, you might. But that’s based on a lot of guesswork and assumptions about what you think your user wants. The reality is – the end-user is never as predictable as you think.
Rapid prototyping tackles this issue head-on. It is a proven method for taking a concept from the drawing board to market, even when budget and/or resource is limited. There are many benefits to rapid prototyping, including:
Gathering feedback to validate your ideas
Let’s look at these in more detail:
The appeal of rapid prototyping is in its speed, of course, but also in the planning. Rapid prototyping prioritises features and functionality that matter most to end-users; improving the 20% of features that make up 80% of the impact. Rapid prototyping focuses you on the outcomes that matter most.
We advocate a balanced approach. Whereby intense, short bursts of creative thinking lead to a prototype version.
Remember: Rapid prototyping isn’t about perfection, it’s about learning. Put aside your reservations, particularly around how your product will look. Instead, focus on how you can fulfil the end-user’s needs.
The whole point of the digital product is to solve a problem for the end-user. So get feedback from them as early as possible. This feedback will instantly guide you in adapting your prototype and consequently take you to the best design solution.
In the ideation phase, you should examine what you are trying to achieve, who will benefit and what they need from you. What is your audience’s existing relationship with technology? This will help focus how you test your product on the user and what assumptions you need to validate.
By identifying these potential issues and blockers, it may feel as if you are hindering the creative process. In fact, the opposite is true. When navigating difficult problems, you will be forced to find innovative solutions. So, it presents the opportunity to explore more angles and challenges in your product roadmap earlier on. There’s a reason ‘prototype’ is a key stage in the design thinking methodology; it is essential for breaking out of the mould and discovering the best solution to design challenges.
Rapid prototyping principles and applications for product design
So, let’s look at the principles. Rapid prototyping typically follows three general stages:
Creating a prototype isn’t about success or failure, it’s about learning. By taking a concept and defining it, we identify and plant the seeds that will eventually bear fruit. This creates the perfect environment to enhance creativity and test out innovative new approaches with a minimum level of risk.
Don’t put a limit on creativity. Fail fast. Come up with as many ideas as possible. There are lots of techniques you can use to do this. Take the SCAMPER technique, for example, to find new perspectives for the same idea:
Put to other use
Once we’ve settled on an idea, the next step is to create a quick, simple iteration of your idea, bringing it from abstract thoughts to concrete reality. This could be as simple as a wireframe, mockup or something more fleshed out to present to investors. The level of fidelity depends on how far along in the design process you are, we’ll talk more about this later.
Prototypes are visual ways of displaying an idea to users, prompting engagement and encouraging them to voice opinions and concerns. This allows us to refine the initial idea further and produce new iterations, contributing to a better overall user experience.
Rapid Prototyping’s applications outside of design and development
As the purpose of rapid prototyping evolves, so do the possibilities. Whether you require a rapid prototype to demonstrate a use case to investors/stakeholders or you intend to release the product to a small audience to fund the next generation. Rapid prototyping is a highly effective way of garnering support and interest around your release.
Proving a hypothesis
If you simply need to prove a hypothesis to investors or stakeholders, focus on the simplest iteration of your product. Avoid distracting UI and aim to deliver something that demonstrates how you aim to solve the identified problem. Provide data-led research to back up the need for your solution and let the prototype do the talking.
Funding a project
Another variation of rapid prototyping involves the design and creation of a functional product to release to early adopters, or the whole market, to move to the next stage. This is a particularly powerful mechanism for startups looking to find the necessary acceleration to ensure they fit into a competitive market – while competitors are left behind fine-tuning an offering people don’t want.
Growing an audience
Creating hype around your product is one of the benefits of rapid prototyping, as seen by note-taking startup Roam. Initially released as a free prototype for curious minds, the platform has developed at the behest of its fanbase: #RoamCult. Now, this community is as much a part of Roam as its founders are.
When taking this approach, good communication is paramount to avoid your early downfall. Discover what your user needs the most and build your rapid prototype around meeting that need. By doing this your product will become an essential part of their lives and they will forgive bugs or design issues at the expense of being part of the journey.
Types of Prototype
Yep, rapid prototyping is a pretty vast subject. Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and look at all the different forms a prototype can take, starting with the level of fidelity. There are two main variations:
Low Fidelity (Low-fi)
High Fidelity (Hi-fi)
The level of fidelity is broadly determined by what the prototype needs to achieve at a given stage in the design process.
Low-fi prototypes are very early iterations of a concept. They are not in any way a reflection of what the finished product will look like and serve as getting ideas down on paper. That being said, a good example of a low-fi prototype is a paper prototype or sketch of what an app screen may look like for example.
Low fidelity prototypes require minimal resources to produce and therefore are extremely good at moving quickly through different versions of the same idea. So, it’s far easier to bounce the bad ideas away and innovate great ones at the same time.
Examples of low-fi prototypes include:
A hi-fi on the other hand produces more mature versions of ideas. Once you’ve narrowed down the ideas you want to use, you can start to focus on creating more detailed versions. These can be styled to look more like a final product, however, they do take more time to produce, so make sure you TEST those low-fi prototypes well!
As these products are more likely to look like the real deal, you can get some extremely useful insight from your users. As the prototypes advance, the devil is in the detail, so pay close attention.
Examples of Hi-fi prototypes include:
Interactive prototyping tools
At KOMODO, we make sure we use the best rapid prototyping tools to deliver our Hi-fi prototypes – and you should too. Collaborative tools such as Figma make creating prototype flows extremely visual and effective. While we present our prototypes using InVision to share our progress with clients. Interactive prototyping tools emphasise open collaboration and provide the perfect environment to rapidly create the best possible work.
A side note on MVPs
A Minimum Viable Product or MVP is a functionally working version of a product. It contains all the necessary features and components required for a digital product to work in its simplest form. Be careful not to confuse an MVP for a prototype. An MVP will have (hopefully!!) already gone through a thorough design process and development – beyond the design stages of prototyping.
5 Steps to start rapid prototype development
We’ve covered a lot… Now it’s time to start turning those rapid prototyping cogs. Well, there are a few things to remember first.
Prototyping is a cyclical and non-linear process. When it comes to prototyping, there will be a lot of back and forth. You’ll test ideas that you think are great and then be back to the drawing board when a solution doesn’t work as expected. The process we’ve outlined below is a good way to approach your prototyping journey.
Remember: Be strict on time and don’t get bogged down with the details so much. Try to create prototypes under pressure. More time doesn’t necessarily mean more results. Let’s get started!
Ideate – In the first step come up with as many ideas as possible. Develop your initial solutions based on your user’s main story points and requirements; make sure you examine their pain points and pay attention to trends in the market. If you have any prior user research, apply it here. Hosting a workshop is a great way to come up with all these ideas.
Select your ideas – Round up the ideas you have come up with – The good, the bad and the crazy. Decide amongst your team which works best. Involving people from all areas of your business will help to create a holistic view and secure buy-in.
Build – Create the idea using the applicable level of fidelity (low-fi or hi-fi). Remember to allocate time sensibly according to the level of fidelity i.e. don’t spend days at a time coming up with paper prototypes and basic wireframes.
Test – Take your prototypes and unleash them on your users. Get good quality feedback and ensure you don’t taint feedback with any internal bias. Make sure you document all your feedback so nothing slips under the radar!
Adapt & Refine – Finally, take what you’ve learned and apply it to your prototype. Improving with each iteration.
The final piece of the puzzle is more of a philosophy than a step 6… Once you’ve adapted your prototype, go back and ideate, rebuild and test again. Use the approach to your advantage and never forget the core goal of rapid prototyping:
Find the best version of your product for your user.
Choose the right partner
Facing the challenge of product design is daunting, especially if you do it alone. When choosing the right partner, consider the way you would like to work and how that will shape the outcome. Our method of choice is Co-creation.
When you choose to co-create with KOMODO, you benefit from our biggest successes – and our biggest mistakes. Over 18 years of developing digital products, we have identified rapid prototyping as one of the best ways to take an idea and turn it into reality – quickly and effectively.