The core of every startup’s existence is an actionable idea for a product or service that solves the prospective clients’ pain points. However, designing a purposeful solution can be challenging, especially if you are prone to overthinking. In such a case, you probably find it hard to stop enriching your concept with new fantastic features which, at the end of the day, make it unbearable for any user but you.
In this article, I’ll try to convince you to take a different approach. Rather than building a digital Frankenstein monster – designed to work for everyone and doing the trick for no one – just materialize your initial vision and subject it to a crash test. In simple words: go for prototyping to validate your idea.
What is prototyping and why should startups care?
Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by the prototype. According to the dictionary definition, "a prototype is an initial model of an object built to test a design”. It works as a reality check for a given concept. When done right, prototyping reveals all strengths and weaknesses of an idea and allows to perfect a solution before implementing it on a large scale.
Prototypes are widely used in many industries and as a freshly minted entrepreneur, you shouldn’t underestimate their power either. Why you may ask? Because, as my experience shows, lots of money and effort can be saved with a humble attitude to the solution and its potential users.
Prototyping allows to see if you’re heading in the right direction from the start
What we often see working with startups is their tendency to improve a solution by adding new functionalities which, in the end, make it overloaded with features that people will never use. Beginning your product development journey with a prototype at hand allows you to discover what users are missing and what they would need when using the product in real life. When you create a solution for a very specific group of people, e.g. an application for insurance managers, providing them with a prototype to test and listening to their insights simply gives you a head start.
Prototyping: much more than just an attention-grabbing design
Many people confuse a prototype with a design. It’s a serious mistake so let me explain the difference clearly. A design shows what the product looks like – it may present some core functionalities but doesn’t prove that the solution is worth engagement.
I won’t lie when I say that the look more than anything else makes us buy things. Beauty, however, does not necessarily mean the same to ordinary people and investors. For the latter, a beautiful product is functional and capable of bringing a large return on investment. A fancy design won’t pull the wool over the angel investor’s eyes. If you’re not able to prove that there is a bunch of people eager to use your application, there is no way they will supply you with their dollars.
How to make a prototype step by step?
Now that you know what a prototype is and how it can help your startup become successful, you may be asking yourself the following questions: How complex is the prototyping process? It there a universal checklist I can follow? What prototyping tools do I need? In this paragraph, you’ll find the answer to all of them.
Paper vs digital prototyping
If we’re talking software development process, you’re probably thinking about digital rather than analog solutions. With prototyping, however, you can go either way.
As I said before, prototyping at the initial stage of product development serves to verify your clients’ needs. And what better way is there to quickly validate your ideas than with a good old-fashioned paper prototype? It may seem a bit amateur at first glance but, believe it or not, it does work. All because it shows the crucial features of the product and allows you to make changes at this very first design stage.
Paper prototype can be worth a thousand words, especially if your aim is to brainstorm potential solutions
With a paper prototype ready, it’s time to switch to digital. This way, you’ll organize the first user feedback and make it more accessible to the project team. The digital path has at least one more advantage: it’ll make the prototype interactive and realistic.
Digital prototyping tools
Talking digital prototyping, we can’t forget about UX tools that will help you prepare a fancy prototype featuring finished designs. Axure, Invision, Proto.io, Balsamiq all help create a hi-fi version of your product, add interactions, and get ready for collecting even more feedback.
My personal favorite is Axure. It provides a highly interactive experience – you can even design validatable form fields here, which makes your prototype work like a real application. The possible disadvantage of having such a high fidelity prototype is that people tend to treat it as a complete product, e.g. rather than focusing on a given task, they’re paying attention to all represented features.
If you’d like to create a simpler prototype, I recommend using Marvel. Prototyping with this app is easy – all you need to begin is to take a screenshot or a photo of your sketch and put it into Marvel. Now, you’re ready to start marking hotspots and creating interactions.
Testing how your prototype works
Now that your prototype’s been sketched and enlivened with digital tools, it’s time to run a reality check on it. Conducting tests with users, however, requires a big dose of objectivity which can be difficult to attain when you’re the product owner. For this reason, it may be wise to hire an agency that will take care of the whole process for you. The right partner should not only run the tests but also pay attention to the users’ behavior and write down all the insights they may have.
If you’d like to test a prototype yourself or make sure that your partner agency knows what they’re doing, here’s a cheat sheet including all necessary prototyping process stages:
- Choose 4-5 features that are crucial to showing that your product is worth interest
- Create tasks to be done by the user, e.g. “find a restaurant for kids in Berlin that are open tomorrow” or “buy a 24h ticket for all the lines in London”.
- Draw the user flow on paper or using a prototyping tool, e.g. Marvel.
- Test the prototype paying special attention to users’ behavior - what they say about the solution and the difficulty of the task, what features they expect to have in the app. It’s good to record the sessions or to ask an external observer to take notes.
It’s enough to test the prototype on 6-10 people because as studies suggest, involving more than 10 users will give you similar results. Having finished the tests, you need to make all the necessary improvements. Once you’re finished, it’s time for you to put the pitch deck in front of the prospective investors.
Final thoughts on prototyping
Remember: prototype plays a huge role not only in the product design process but also in winning the heart of a business angel. Investors are like bosses you report to at 9-5 job – they love to understand the deliverable before they decide on putting their money into something. Being the fruit of product design workshops (which aim, among others, at helping you rise capital for your startup), the prototype not only shows how the product will work but, even more importantly, it proves that you’re a knowledgeable entrepreneur dedicated to your project. At the end of the day, being able to take this first step of presenting the idea to the real people together with gathering their feedback and making improvements gets you way closer to receiving the funding.
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