by Kathryn McElroy

To learn more about the process of prototyping, how to prototype during any phase of your project, and how to incorporate physical or electronic prototyping into your digital skill set, grab a copy of my book Prototyping for Designers, published by O’Reilly.

Today, “user-centered ” and “ thinking” are popular buzzwords. They indicate a certain process with corresponding materials (well, mostly post-its), and emphasize the importance of research and interacting with users. In general, I’d say these approaches are moving as a practice in a positive direction.

However, one downside I’ve noticed time and time again is that designers often do the upfront research (e.g. understanding the users and problems, creating personas) but run out of time and/or energy for testing their designs later in the project.

Prototyping is essential. All designers should advocate for and include it throughout their design process.

Tackling User Technical Debt

Once designers begin to create solutions and ideas, there’s a strong desire to jump directly to high-resolution deliverables. Sometimes this jump is due to the relationship with a client or stakeholder. Other times, it’s more comfortable for a designer to present a polished idea instead of a messy process.

When you depend on your gut instinct for organizing information and navigation structures in high fidelity, it can create something I call “User Technical Debt”. Technical debt is the implied cost of rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better that requires more time to implement.

In the context of user-centered design, user technical debt occurs when too many decisions are made without feedback from real users. This can balloon into a large problem if a foundational decision turns out to be incorrect.

The best way to tackle user technical debt is to review work with a breadth of real users, on a regular basis. Designers should use prototypes to direct the conversation and guide the type of feedback they need, depending on the point they’re at in their process.

The process for prototyping depends on your goals, audience, and assumptions

Prototyping in Practice

Prototyping can be incorporated into any workflow and design process by creating a feedback loop.

I consider a prototype to be “the manifestation of an idea into a format that communicates the idea to others or is tested with users, with the intention to improve that idea over time.” With that in mind, everything can be a prototype.

Specifically for interaction designers, common prototypes range depending on where they are in the process. These can be low-fidelity paper prototypes and information architecture maps early on, and high-fidelity click-throughs or coded prototypes further in.

A low-fidelity conversational interface paper prototype
High-fidelity prototypes look like the real experience

A prototype does not need to be the full experience of an app or product in order to be valuable. You can determine the depth and breadth of the prototype needed by writing down the decision or assumption you’re testing to analyze it. What aspect of the UI or experience is the most important for that assumption? That way, you don’t waste time creating a full experience just to test one small part of it.

Prototyping isn’t just a one and done deal. The best designers develop a prototyping mindset, or growth mindset, looking for opportunities to test and gain feedback for every step of their project and phase of their product.

They call out design decisions that are assumptions, and keep a backlog of prioritized assumptions that need testing. They communicate confidence levels for the decisions they make based on research findings. Once fully ingrained, they not only seek feedback on the work itself, but also how they work in order to improve as designers.

Designers can gain additional value by prototyping across materials and disciplines. If you get stuck while designing screens on your laptop, you can change context to drawing out flows on paper or building circuits with an Arduino. Creating multi-modal prototypes inspires new interaction methods and interesting cross pollination opportunities.

A multi-model prototype example

Now that designers have embraced upfront research, the next step is to emphasize prototyping, test with real users, and incrementally improve designs before a product launch. Prototyping is not a checkbox that you complete once on the way to finishing a project. It is a mindset where you are comfortable with testing unfinished ideas in order to make the best result possible. It’s embracing the unknown, and testing ideas early and often.

For more on my approach to prototyping, catch me at User Experience Lisbon on May 25th where I’ll be leading a workshop on prototyping physical products. My book, Prototyping for Designers, is also available for purchase on Amazon.

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