08. 12. 2016

Prototypes as a means for communication

This blog article is about an aspect of prototypes which at the same time is the most important one – communication. In its most basic definition communication is the transfer of information between a sender and a receiver. Prototypes are premature representations of final products helping to evaluate ideas and concepts with others. With regard to prototypes, communication therefore is the transfer of ideas and concepts between somebody who devised or created them (e.g. a designer) and somebody who ought to understand and comprehend them (e.g. a user). Regarding this, prototypes are especially created to generate feedback; it is the visualization of the ideas that guarantees their successful and comprehensive communication.

No matter if it is a quickly drawn sketch or an elaborately created click dummy – in nearly all projects, the creation of prototypes is a valid option. The communication of concepts and thus making possible their evaluation and further development is especially important in complex areas of work, like in our case the B2B area. Regarding this, often only a prototype representing a certain work process is able to generate adequate feedback concerning the fit of work processes and planned functionality. In order to make possible such fundamental feedback, one does not need to invest weeks or even months into developing visually complete prototypes; after all you may want to find out about is the fit of functionality and processes, not if the users like the color of the buttons.

Such an approach implies the selective design of prototypes. Within the paradigm of prototypes as a means of communication introduced in this article, prototypes are created for a certain purpose: the communication of particular aspects. In this regard, the degree of the elaboration of a prototype depends on the insights you want to generate. For example, if you want to find out if the planned visual design of a final product corresponds to the users’ requirements and limitations, a selection of different screens should be designed. Besides the discovery of weaknesses of different system states you save time and effort by avoiding the design of screens that only differ slightly from each other. If you want to generate insights concerning flow and interactivity, you should create a click-dummy. This click-dummy, however, should visually not be too elaborated – keep in mind you want to minimize your efforts. With regard to this, the visual elaboration of screen elements only relevant for the flow has proven to be practical.

Taking into consideration these points, it becomes clear that with the aspect of communication, the aspect of economic efficiency comes along. The use of prototypes only makes sense as long as they are created within a reasonable time frame. Therefore, before the creation of a prototype you should define which scenario it is supposed to cover, what you actually want to find out and what degree of elaboration is necessary. Every design going beyond the functional and visual necessities means avoidable additional work and expense. In the worst case, this additional work negatively affects the validity of the feedback (e.g. subjects tend to overlook the deficits of a prototype’s flow when there is too much visual sophistication).

The design of a prototype should therefore comply with the respective project phase. In an early phase, less elaborated prototypes with a smaller degree of details should be tested in order to make sure to gather feedback on the basic concept rather than visual details. By quickly creating less detailed prototypes, you not only avoid to “fall in love” with your concept, you also make possible critical feedback, since the prototypes’ premature looks avoid the problem of social desirability. The subjects can give more critical, and therefore more profound, feedback since they assume that only little time has been invested in the creation of the prototype and thus, they do not “tread on somebody’s toes”. From experience, this especially holds true for hand-drawn paper prototypes. Did the first concept prove itself in a first iteration, you should think about the extension of the covered scenario and the simulated range of functions as well as the realization of the prototype in a digital medium.

In summary, the following questions should be answered in the project before the creation of prototypes:

  • What scenario do we want to cover with our prototype?
  • What do we want to find out with our prototype?
  • What resources are at our disposal (human resources and time)?
  • Which medium makes sense in the present project phase (paper vs. digital)?

The answers to these questions facilitate the decision-making process regarding the work with prototypes. Having said this, one last thing should be mentioned: no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are in the utilization of prototypes, working with them always pays, since the primary goal mentioned above is achieved in any case – you gather feedback which can be invested into the improvement of your concept. In this regard, every prototype contributes to the user-friendly design of interactive systems.

Georg Eichhorn
by Georg Eichhorn
User Research


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