Prototyping: Three Reasons You’re Doing it Wrong

22 Dec, 2014

There’s a good chance you’re building your prototypes incorrectly

I’m a huge advocate of prototyping. I’ve given talks at conferences about its benefits; I’ve written about various prototyping tools, and how to use prototypes to effectively communicate a design vision. The effectiveness of a well executed prototype really cannot be understated.

That being said, there is a good chance you’re building your prototypes incorrectly.

Recently, I’ve encountered some truly amazing prototypes. They include high fidelity visual designs, rich content, detailed micro-interactions and animations, even formulas that calculate data and render charts based on user input. The amount of fully interactive web pages typically number in the dozens—allowing users to experience a variety of flows and interactions, always via a desktop browser.

That Sounds Awesome! What’s The Problem?

The problem, dear reader, is just that… The prototypes I’ve encountered recently are actually too awesome. The more awesome a prototype is (i.e. the more accurate/high fidelity), the greater the odds you’re designing yourself into a corner. Let me explain:

1. Awesome Takes Time

An awesome prototype doesn’t just appear overnight. It’s takes time to painstakingly design and build something so detailed. The problem is you’re spending a ton of time making an awesome prototype rather than an awesome product. Prototypes are a fantastic way to visualize and think through a design problem, but in the end they aren’t real.

If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.
— Bruce Lee

Consider prototyping just enough to communicate a design intention. The sooner you can move away from a prototype and start building a product with real code, the closer your team will be to collaboratively delivering a kick ass product.

2. Sunk Costs Make You Irrational

The more time people invest in something, the harder it is to walk away. It’s human nature, and often difficult to avoid. As I mentioned earlier, awesome prototypes take time. If you dedicate days, weeks, or more refining every nuance of a high fidelity prototype, you will become very attached and form a relationship with that prototype.  Once you have formed an irrational relationship with this (admittedly) gorgeous prototype, the likelihood of being open to making any changes or abandoning the design decreases dramatically.

To remain unbiased about the direction of a design you should avoid committed relationships with your prototypes. Liken your relationships with prototypes to speed dating. There should be just enough information to potentially light a spark, and help determine whether the idea (date) is worth investing more time.

3. Design Validation Through User Feedback

How much of that awesome prototype has been seen by actual users? That’s what I thought…

Sure, prototypes are great for creating internal consensus on a design vision among technology and business partners, but if more company VPs than users have seen your prototype, it’s time to start rethinking your design process. Building out dozens of richly detailed screens and interactions without actually sharing and validating those concepts with end users is basically masturbation. You’re only making yourself feel good.

How To Tell If Your Prototype Is Truly Awesome

  1. Keep the prototype the right fidelity for your audience. I typically find a medium fidelity (lightly skinned wireframe) to be enough
  2. Design decisions are directly and continually influenced by user feedback
  3. You’re willing to change or walk away from your prototype as required by customer and client input
  4. The prototype helps internal partners form a clear mental model of a design direction without overshadowing actual production code

Now, go forth and prototype!

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