Product Design 101: Rapid Prototyping

A prototype is an early release or model of a product meant to be tested. Rapid prototyping is a design workflow that includes coming up with new ideas, prototyping and testing. This form of prototyping is done very, very fast in order to save time and effort, helping you rapidly discover and validate the best ideas, reducing the risk of you building a product that no one wants. By prototyping and testing fast, you can get rid of the bad ideas and focus on the good ones. Considering the stage where you are with your startup idea, it is in your best interest to build a prototype as early as possible so that you can begin to test and validate your concept with potential customers and users. 

It is highly recommended that you do not reveal to customers that the product is a prototype. They should think they are interacting with a “real” product. If they get stuck on the fact that it is a prototype, they may not give authentic reactions. However, you may be able to find some early adopters who are eager to try out the prototype, as beta testers, and ultimately provide you with crucial feedback on how to optimize your offering. Don’t forget to build a relationship with people who are beta testing your prototype for they may become some of your earliest customers, even if you are still at the prototype or MVP stage. 

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Different types of rapid prototyping

There are three different kinds of prototyping for you to keep in mind as you consider the next steps for manifesting your idea into the physical world. The term “fidelity” as mentioned below refers to how closely a prototype matches the final product. 

  • A Low fidelity prototype uses static, pencil-and-paper sketching – other than using your creativity, this is the simplest and fastest way to convey your idea without investing too much time or money 
  • A Medium fidelity prototype uses computerized tools to produce prototypes in the form of wireframes and workflows – this second method is becoming far more popular among tech, web, and app based offerings since there are many resources that allow you easily create a mockup of your idea. Some tools you can use in this range include Balsamiq, Sketch, Framer X, Moqups, Adobe Illustrator, Design, or Photoshop, Canva, etc. 
  • A High fidelity makes the prototype so realistic that it looks like the final product. If you’re building a website or an app, then this is the final prototype with a realistic and working interface. If you’re building a tangible or physical product, you may consider using a 3D printer to create a miniaturized version of your product (if it’s a large concept, like a flying car or a space ship!) or simply create the prototype as it would be sold to the customer if you are selling something like shampoo, dresses, or even chocolate.

Pros and cons exist for each. For example, high fidelity could take up too much time, while low fidelity could be too basic. You need to evaluate what would work best for you. The image below shows an example of an app concept iterated through low, medium, and high fidelity prototypes.

You also need to take into consideration three aspects of a prototype’s fidelity:

  • Visual
  • Functional
  • Content

The point here is that you want the customer to focus on providing feedback about the functionality. You don’t want to distract them by the visual. And it’s fine to add real content later (dummy text is usually fine at the very beginning). Just remember to prototype as early as possible so that you can at least manifest your idea into the real world and start gathering feedback. Also, you don’t have to spend a fortune on building a prototype, especially if you are designing a web or app based tool. However, if you are building a physical, tangible product, like a better ice chest, or clothing, or something that will require actual materials, think critically about how much you should budget and focus on developing a solid medium fidelity prototype that will allow you to pitch and demonstrate your idea to potential friends, family, and external investors in the coming weeks and months. We recommend you spend some time working through your first iteration of the low fidelity prototype. If you already did that, then focus on the next level of prototyping.