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Effective prototyping: not everything is as important all of the time

by Lisa Trapman

Effective prototyping: not everything is as important all of the time

We had the pleasure of attending the FITC (Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity) event in Amsterdam the other week. It was full of inspiring talks and workshops. We also had our Gymnasium team Andrew Miller and Jeremy Osborn over from HQ to run a great workshop for the FITC crowd on "Prototyping".

A prototype is a tool to communicate an idea or a product. You say there is no time or money to make prototyping part of the design process? Nonsense. If you create prototypes that match a specific objective and target audience, you will save time and money.  

Tools for designing websites, apps and other digital products are increasingly sophisticated. Thoughts about prototyping, however, have long been stuck in the waterfall methodology. With the arrival of responsive design UX and UI designers were able to demonstrate the effect of different screen formats on the spot. This fuelled the realisation that prototypes can, and perhaps should be, dynamic. Still, many prototypes resemble a collection of static and unclickable Photoshop images. Or, at the other side of the spectrum, prototypes are indistinguishable from the final product, shown for feedback or approval at a very late stage in the process. With everyone keeping fingers crossed hoping this is what the client ordered.

Form follows objective

“What you want from your prototype is the right level of interaction to be able to proceed with design or construction,” says Jeremy Osborn, academic director at Aquent. “The most effective form of a prototype is determined by its objective and target audience. A developer has different information requirements than an end user. Sometimes a sketch suffices to communicate an initial idea. Sometimes a wireframe is needed to test the information structure, sometimes a (partially) working website to demonstrate interaction between different pages.”   

 

Show only what’s necessary

The message Osborn wants to press home is this: Keep in mind whom the prototype is for and what feedback you need to move on to the next phase. In user testing, for example, functionality weighs much heavier than the look and feel of a digital product. Limit the design decisions such as colour, images or font. They only distract from the main objective: to test the navigation’s user friendliness and search functionality (to name a couple of things). Look and feel are important in prototypes for marketers and content makers. They need a clear feeling for the end product in order to create fitting content. Connect a limited number of screens in a user flow and work out the details for one or two elements.

 

Keep the audience in mind

Remember that not everything is as important all of the time. Details are important to UX developers, a prototype has to show what the end product will be able to do. Where can users click or scroll and what should happen when they do? Details are less important to stakeholders who see the design for the first time. In their case, the objective of a prototype is to sell a concept. It has to look real, but not everything has to work. It is also important to explain to the audience what they are looking at. Every designer knows at least one customer who thought the house style had changed to black and white after seeing a wireframe. Talk your audience through your prototype to manage expectations.

 

Wireframes are not mandatory

Educating the customer was also discussed at the tech and design event FITC in Amsterdam, in a workshop on the future prototyping by Osborn and Andrew Miller, program director Gymnasium at Aquent. Osborn called wireframes “indigestible for normal people and even developers don’t always get them”. They are not mandatory, he reassured the UX and UI professionals in the room. “Do make it clear that what you are showing is not the same as the end product. Learn from architects: there is not a single person who sees a model of a building and complains it is too small to live in. Do not make the prototype too realistic. If it looks too much like the finished product you will have to explain at length why it takes another six months to build.”

 

Keep learning

With regards to the prototyping tools that are available, that’s a matter of keeping up with the news, said Miller. “If you are a freelance designer or developer, take a few hours a week to educate yourself on the latest ideas. If you are employed by an agency or organisation, ask for those hours. Show your employer you are willing to learn more about your trade. Active learners are valuable.” Miller did warn not to fall into “the black hole of novelties”: the time consuming quest for the next new thing. “You want what’s best for your team and that doesn’t have to be the latest. Tools changes all the time, what you want to achieve with them, does not.”

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