In product development, prototyping is crucial for communicating your ideas and discovering what stakeholders and users think about your product – exposing what is done well and what needs improvement.

Though, many factors go into building a successful prototype. So, if you want to learn what it takes to prototype well and succeed with your product idea, this article is for you.

For more insights from experienced entrepreneurs, sign up to our EWOR Platform and gain access to over 17 courses and a plethora of resources.

What is a Prototype?

Before diving into the details, it’s important to establish what a prototype even is. Chances are, you’re familiar with this term and equate it to, “an inexpensive model version of your product idea.”

While this definition is true, it doesn’t tell us everything about what a prototype is, nor is it all-encompassing. A prototype is so much more than just a simplified physical model. Prototyping gives your audience the full product experience. It goes beyond the spoken word and shows the functionality as well as the practicality of what you are creating.

As the creator, you will learn about your product when you prototype. There may be components that you imagined were a brilliant idea at first, only to find they don’t work so well or are riddled with flaws. Though, this is still just scratching the surface.

Roles of Prototyping and Prototype Development

Before we get into how to prototype well, we should first understand the role of prototyping for us as innovators. This is because the prototypes can express and help in many ways we may not expect, such as:

  •  Expressing a common understanding and product direction
  • Uncovering hidden problems
  •  Revealing and answering questions about your product
  • Enabling the comparison of parallel approaches to the design
  • Eliciting early and consistent feedback
  •  Reducing risk by making mistakes early on before heavy investment
  •  Helping to make informed decisions
  • Testing assumptions
  •  Refining initial approaches
  • Connecting users to your ideas
  •  Acquiring feedback on your design
  •  Creating a collaborative relationship between your team and potential customers
  • Solidifying customer discovery by helping the audience understand what they want and need through a physical model that expresses what they were unable to verbalise  

Pre-prototyping Must Do’s:

Prototyping may seem as simple as presenting a physical model of sorts, but in reality, it is much more than that. A prototype’s success depends on knowing how to incorporate innovation and understanding your customers.

How Does Innovation Relate to Prototyping?

When we think about innovation, there are a few key elements when developing your idea:

1. Feasibility

2. Viability

3. Desirability

If your idea isn’t possible, able to sustain itself, nor wanted by your target audience, ultimately it will fail.  Therefore, considering the relationship between the concepts of innovation and prototyping is a key component of your prototype. This relationship is realised by three fundamental proofs:

  • Proof of Concept: Can the concept behind the prototype be developed and live?
  • Proof of Profitability: Is your audience willing to for it? Does it fit the market? Is there an opportunity to profit?
  • Proof of Value: Are you solving a relevant problem? Can your idea add unique value to the world?

Answering yes to these questions will let you know whether you’re off to a good start. Either way, it is valuable to fine-tune your idea and engage more with your audience to receive feedback on your idea with prototyping so that you can develop the best version of your idea possible.

Customer Discovery: The True First Step in Prototyping

Before you even build a prototype, you need to understand customer needs, and wants, plus how your product plays a part in that. To do so, begin with customer discovery. When done well, you become closely connected to the people your product targets. This means:

  • Your audience feels heard because their input becomes a part of the creation process
  • You discover where your product needs to change to better fit your audience’s needs in every iteration

While customer discovery can be difficult at first, avoiding the major mistakes in customer discovery will benefit your start-up. To have the best experience in customer discovery, we recommend this guide on “Everything You Need to Know About Customer Centricity”.

Know About Prototype Versions

When prototyping, there are two versions, so to say, that you should consider. Those are critical function, and critical experience. In product development, both prototype versions are essential, and one should not replace the other. But what do critical function and critical experience mean exactly, and how do they differ?

Critical Function: The critical function means discovering the key functional elements of your idea. This functionality is based on an identified need in the market and is critical for your product’s survival.

A successful demonstration of critical function for your idea proves that you deserve the resources necessary to grow this idea beyond a basic prototype.

 Critical Experience:  A critical experience is about uncovering and communicating emotion to consumers that also expresses your brand. In short, this is what says your idea is unique.

Working From Low-Resolution to High-Resolution Prototypes

When prototyping, one size does not fit all. That is where the terms low-resolution and high-resolution prototypes come in. So, what are they, and when should you use them?

Low-Resolution Prototypes

These are the prototypes that are more abstract and less real versions of what you imagine your product to be. By opting for low resolution, you’ll benefit from simple, easy-to-use and low-cost prototypes that can be created in a short period of time. Here you can hammer out the most important functions of your product and where to go next. from that. In short, it is a good starting resolution.

Generally, utilise low-resolution models when looking for inspiration and to feel out different prototyping ideas. Because of their low-cost and quick production, low-resolution prototypes allow you to move fast in discovering what does or doesn’t work in your product.

Remember, it is better to fail fast and often so that when you are ready to really devote resources to the final product, it isn’t a bust.

High-Resolution Prototypes

In contrast, high-resolution prototypes are those that are very close to the final product you actually imagined. Rather than a simple model, this type of prototyping aims to explore all main product functions in one model. Of course, this comes with higher costs and a larger time commitment.

Opting for high-resolution prototyping should be done when your product has evolved beyond the failure stage. In other words, you know you’re on the right track and what you did thus far meets functional and customer needs.

Learning to Prototype: Right, Rapid, and Rough

Now that you know about low-resolution and high-resolution prototypes, how do you go from one to the other? Is this process linear? Should you jump around with methods or what?

When prototyping, it isn’t just about evaluating your idea. It also concerns your product and audience while determining what in the design works for both. Therefore, it is key to keep these approaches in mind during your methodology:

1. Right 

This is another way to ask if are you using the right method. Don’t just think about what you need to communicate, but to whom. You need to think about who your audience is.

For example, if your audience is users, you should ask how they would use and understand your prototype, not just how they would use it.

If you were prototyping for an investment pitch, then the focus should shift to understanding how investors see potential in your prototype. Their support is contingent on it fitting within their portfolio and offering them tangible benefits.

Should you prototype for development partners, this is yet another lens to view your prototype through. Here, the concern then addresses the question, “How do the development partners evaluate the timing and resources to create your prototype?”  

2. Rapid 

A rapid approach is essential to evaluating the different directions your prototype can take. With this method, you will create many iterations of your prototype to learn best what works and what will not. Rather than focusing on all the details, focus on whether the prototype is able to present the core function or not. 

3. Rough 

Similar to the rapid approach, the rough approach is about learning. The rough approach is not concerned with prototype validation, but rather if the prototype is good enough to show that it works and to communicate the details of your product’s deployment.

How to Build a Prototype

Once you have decided what type of resolution and approach is needed for your prototype, it is actually time to build one. For the creative mind, building a prototype is exciting and offers many ways to be inventive.

When getting started, there are a few broad prototype categories to consider employing:

  • Works-like Prototype: For this prototype, the function is the main component. Basically, you examine how the different components interact.
  • Looks-like Prototype: A looks-like prototype is essentially the opposite of a works-like prototype. It shows how the final version could look without building in the functions.

    This is good to do early on for pitching, as this proves that you can produce a viable product. You can prove your idea in this manner to gain resources and money to create the final version of your product.

    It is important to combine a works-like model with a prototype in order to show not only that you have an idea, but that you can also make it a reality.
  • Behave-like Prototype: For the behave-like prototype, it is less important to show what the product will look like and how it will function, but instead to detail where this product can be found and bought.  In essence, you want something that will resonate with the users or customers.

To achieve this, pick one element of the product that would change the behaviour of the person. For example, if it’s a food product, where would it be stocked on shelves? How do you make it visible and desirable? Not to mention, what will make it stand out from the rest of the products on display? When you address these questions with a behave-like prototype, you can positively affect user behaviour and, thus, future sales of your product.

The ABCs of Dimensions in Prototype Development

Prototype dimensions are not just a reference to a prototype’s form, size, proportions, aesthetics, and ergonomics. It also incorporates:

  • Action: the mechanical interaction within the prototype and its functionality.
  • Behaviour: how users and consumers react to your prototype and interact with it.
  • Context: the situational usage of your product

Careful thought about these dimensions is essential for creating distinct and effective prototypes. Furthermore, many prototypes will combine aspects of each dimension to achieve their goals.

When considering the dimensions for your prototype, keep in mind what it is you want to accomplish, say, for example, attract investors. From there, you can better control the dimensions. 

Materials for Prototype Development

Materials for prototyping should be quick and easy, especially when constructing a rapid and rough prototype.  Some basic materials that the pros have in their prototyping toolkit are:

  • Paper
  • Cardboard 
  • Foam
  • Interface mock-ups
  • Play-doh

As shocking as the final item on this list may seem, play-doh can actually create a testable model with volume without a lot of time or effort.

For instance, when designing children’s toothbrushes, you would need to consider their small hands and underdeveloped motor function. By using play-doh, you can quickly figure out how big is too big and how small too small with a simple mould.

As you can see, no material should be seriously written off until you find what fails. What should be written off though, is a virtual-only prototype.

Many companies only design virtually (known as a spec-based prototype) and forgo any sort of physical model. However, when it is only a spec-based prototype, you will most likely run into problems you didn’t or couldn’t anticipate in the virtual scheme. This results in delays and extra costs in your product when addressing these flaws.

So remember, it’s worth investing in a physical prototype. Even if it’s just a “quick and dirty” play-doh model, it can save you a great deal of time and money in the long run.

Prototype Models and Examples

For every goal, some prototypes are more advantageous than others. This is especially true for early prototypes, since they are intended to get feedback on your product concept and potential reactions. So what types are there?

  • Post-it notes – Yes, seriously! Post-it notes serve as the first step in prototyping. As soon as you find some sort of expression of what’s in your head, it’s a rough prototype. This is because you’re moving toward making it more real than before. Then you go to the next level, which is a more polished and physical embodiment of your idea, as seen below.

Other common prototypes are:

  • Role play prototyping
  • Validating and software prototyping
  • Volume model prototyping
  • Digital prototyping 
  • 3D model prototyping
  • Service prototyping
  • Lego prototyping
  • Experience prototyping
  • Visual use case and storytelling
  • Augmentation
  • Sketches and storyboards

How Do I Know Which Ideas to Test?

When deciding which ideas to test in prototype development, you should condense what you generated from the ideation phase into a priority list. After all, not every idea is worth investing in. Though, testing a product idea is worthwhile when a certain level of uncertainty overlaps with how crucial the idea is to the success of your business.

On the other hand, if you think of something critical, but it is already known to be a safe addition, there’s no need to test it.

Similarly, when a product idea isn’t essential for moving forward, and you have no idea with what certainty you can proceed, worry about testing this later should you decide after time it is necessary.

What Next for Prototype Development?

In this article, we talked about building the foundation behind your prototype. What is its purpose, who is your audience, and why do you need it? Most young entrepreneurs are overwhelmed by the prototyping process, with its infinite possibilities and the time sink that comes with the initial failures.

However, this is completely normal and should be expected. Though, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn from others to make your prototyping experience more effective. 

About the author

EWOR is a place where the most extraordinary people find the education, network, and capital to solve the world's biggest problems. Our unique combination of an entrepreneurship academy and early-stage VC (up to €150K investment) firm was built for founders by founders, creating an unparalleled community for like-minded entrepreneurs and over a dozen unicorn founders who are building impactful tech companies.