How Prototyping Can Bring Your Business Ideas to Life

If you want a successful mobile or web app or other digital product that translates your business idea into a genuine success, prototyping can be a valuable tool as part of the design process. Prototypes are usually relatively cheap and quick to produce and help you engage with users early to test the basic product concept.

The prototyping stage is often skipped in favour of going straight to production of a minimum viable product (MVP) but at Boldare, we understand the value of prototyping as a design-based business tool and use it when it will add value. The key to a successful prototype is the experience and skills of the team delivering it.

Prototyping as an essential business tool for better digital designs

If you’ve ever tried to introduce a new digital product, feature, scale existing one or just pitch the idea to the board – you know you can’t just go from an idea straight to full production. That approach could work (though you probably have more chance of winning the lottery) but if you want a mobile or web app that meets your users’ needs and also your sales or distribution targets, there are a few very important design steps along the way. And one that is often neglected is the need to create a prototype.

How to build a successful digital product? Here at Boldare, we have a proven approach to delivering business value. We create web and mobile apps and other digital product development projects using the lean startup methodology as our key tool, with its four-stage design process:

  • Prototyping
  • Minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Product-market fit
  • Scaling

Not every product will need all four stages but what we often see is people aiming straight for the MVP. Maybe it’s a case of MVPs have a higher profile, are seen as somehow ‘sexier’ but when the budget is limited and the deadline is tight (so that’s every project, right?) it can be tempting to cut the prototyping stage, rely on the original idea, and work out the bugs in the MVP.

That can be short-sighted, if not disastrous. It’s a classic case of Maslow’s words, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Often, the business success of your product will require the business idea to be tested before the coding, UI design and everything else begins. And a prototype is the ideal tool to do that. At Boldare, we prefer to offer our clients a more substantial toolkit.

Prototypes are the first chance to confirm your concept and engage users with your new web or mobile app, involve them in the design process, and create a better mobile app – one more likely to meet with business success.

What are prototypes?

Before we go any further, let’s define what prototypes are.

A prototype is a design tool. It is the first test of your mobile app’s business concept. It is a way of presenting user representatives (and stakeholders, and investors) with your idea and getting their reactions and feedback in order to test and refine that idea before you invest serious time and energy in digital design.

Prototype designs often don’t look anything like the final product. That’s not what prototyping is about. Your prototype may not even have a physical presence at all. At Boldare, instead of a particular design format, we focus the prototyping process on your business needs, including what you’re aiming to achieve, and what your users need and want.

Our approach incorporates what lies behind the prototype: the skilled and knowledgeable consulting on product concept, design, user experience, marketing and, finally, the actual prototype of your new web or mobile app.

When prototyping, it is important to bear in mind the difference between a prototype and an MVP: the prototype tests the idea for your app, the MVP is a test of the web or mobile app itself (or at least, a potential version of it). The MVP is actually an app, albeit a limited one, whereas the prototype is the semblance of an app, a mock-up made to prompt feedback. When the two are used together in a design process, the prototype becomes the foundation for the later work on the MVP.

Finally, prototyping is usually a quick design process. The classic lean startup text, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas In Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz, talks about splitting the design process into short ‘sprints’. At Boldare, we treat each project as unique, giving it the time it needs and deserves. On average, from initial discussion of the business idea to prototype design takes 7-14 days. This may seem quick but prototypes are not and never will be final products (they’re just tools, remember?). Too much detailed work is just wasted time and effort and that’s not good business sense.

The business uses of prototyping

To understand the value of prototyping, it’s important to be clear on the business benefits and uses. The most obvious benefit is that thanks to user reactions and feedback, you go on to create a better final version of your web or mobile app or other digital product.

The prototype is an opportunity to explore the initial product idea, including the needs it aims to address, and better understand your final goal (while taking a big step toward it). What’s more, by testing user feedback at an early stage, you’ll save time later in the design process and bring your final app to market more quickly. Even better, when done properly, prototyping is relatively quick to do and is low-cost.

But how do you know when to prototype? The following scenarios can benefit from a prototype:

  1. Validate your idea for a web or mobile app or product – this is the most basic use of prototyping, getting user reactions and feedback.
  2. Fundraising – when approaching investors, venture capitalists or other potential partners, a single prototype that embodies your business idea can worth dozens of PowerPoint slides. Prototypes are not just for testing user needs, they’re also testing the market.
  3. Pre-sales – you can use a prototype to create interest in a forthcoming mobile app or product feature, potentially generate pre-release sales and orders.
  4. Executive sponsorship – before you sell to the customer, you have to sell to the boss, or C-suite, or Board, or however you describe your in-house decision-makers. As with investors and users, a prototype offers something visual and tangible to seal the deal – a tool with leverage.
  5. Better teamwork on the development project – designing and coding are two different skills, often two different roles, but they need to work closely on the final product; a prototype can help create a joint understanding of exactly what you’re building and why.
  6. Product redesign – we’ve all known products that have completely overhauled then marketed under the same branding or name (the automobile industry does it all the time); before such an apparently huge change is made, prototyping can help test individual changes (e.g. single features within a web or mobile app) with users before revamping the whole package.

It may be a single process but prototyping is a multi-use tool!

User feedback on your design makes for a better product

The key purpose of prototype web or mobile apps, whatever their purpose, is to generate reactions and feedback from users. Obviously, user feedback is valuable at any time but at this stage – when ideas and designs are on the drawing board – it is absolutely essential.

Incidentally, at the prototyping stage, “users” can be interpreted broadly - yes, it’s the app’s potential customers, but also internal and external stakeholders who have an interest or useful opinion; including employee focus groups and key position-holders such as the CEO and CTO.

Just to summarize, the key principles of user feedback for digital product design are:

  • Ask the right people – Present your design (or designs) to those you hope will use them; e.g. if you’re building a web-based yacht-booking tool or platform, seek out people who like to rent yachts!
  • Know what to ask – “What do you think of it?” is maybe a good opening question but for feedback that will improve your design you need to be a little more targeted. Is it the basic concept of the app? The usability of the prototype tool? The circumstances in which it might be used?
  • Stay neutral – Of course you’re biased about the apps you design and build but that’s not helpful when asking for user feedback. Use neutral language to talk about the designs. And when there’s criticism of prototypes, don’t defend it, just listen and learn.

Feedback is an important part of any user-centered development process and one of the key tools in ensuring not only a well-designed product but also business success.

Prototyping is a design process

Let’s say you’re convinced and want to create a prototype to test your new mobile app idea. Great. But before you begin, it’s worth mentioning one other important aspect of prototyping: it’s part of a design process. So what? Well, like any other design tool or element, prototyping requires a particular skill set. At Boldare, we usually build clickable digital prototypes, often using HTML/CSS or JavaScript as a tool, but also InVision, Flinto, and Framer, whatever is the best tool to create an approximation of what the product might look like.

In other words, our prototypes are a bridge between the initial (back of a napkin) business idea and the future mobile app you’ll create. This means close collaboration between a number of roles, potentially including a Frontend Developer, Interaction Designer, UX Designer, Product Designer, Business Analyst, Digital Strategist, and Scrum Master. Add to this the use of a variety of prototyping tools and techniques (e.g. Design Thinking and wireframing) plus business analysis, and one or more tools such as JavaScript, AngularJS, InVision, Flinto, Framer.js, LYMB, HTML, Bootstrap, and Foundation, and the skills and knowledge of your prototyping team are rapidly becoming mission-critical.

Depending on the size and/or focus of your business and it’s possible you don’t have everything you need in-house.

Prototyping leads to better business

A prototype is a useful, often essential, tool and can be the foundation of a successful web or mobile app or other digital product. Low-cost in terms of time and money, prototypes are a key part of the design process and offer quick, low-risk input from users, investors and other stakeholders which can validate your initial business idea (or not).

Put simply, prototyping enables you to understand your own proposed product designs better. However, ultimately the usefulness of your prototype app will depend on the quality, skills and experience of the team chosen to create it.