Thoughts on Prototyping

Prototyping is probably the most underutilised component of a User Centered Design (UCD) process. It’s the first thing to be struck off the list when budgets and time are tight. Its value is often difficult to explain and its inclusion is often seen as unnecessary. Overkill. However, when we prototype designs, we always produce a far more effective product and reduce pain points for everyone involved.

First off lets define what a prototype is.

A prototype is a conceptual model, a statement of design intent. A prototype is a low-fi rendering of an idea or a structure. It’s a grey box rendering that you can interact with to get an idea of how something might feel to use.

A prototype is not a working model. This is the common misconception.

The Benefits of prototyping

So what exactly are the benefits of prototyping and how does it help make a better product?

– A great medium in which to communicate design intention and the best stage at which to flesh out design ideas before more subjective matters such as imagery and colour come into play.

– Enables you to test early. Make your mistakes and test assumptions before it gets costly to amend them. We should always enter a project open to the fact that everyone makes mistakes and makes wrong assumptions.

– An actual entity you can click on and interact with is far more tangible than documentation or static graphics. Stakeholders not only make better decisions if they fully understand what’s happening but also make these decisions earlier in the process.

– Makes the design process more transparent and inclusive. Prototyping together with wire-framing gives stakeholders a view into the how and why of design decisions. You can take people on a journey and make them feel they are included in the process. Giving someone a finished visual doesn’t do the same job.

So Why Not?

So maybe the more pertinent question is why shouldn’t we prototype? In a way, not to include this as part of a design process seems counter-intuitive. Making sure you’re building the right thing before you get started seems the obvious thing to do. Planning at the start of a project nearly always saves cost further down the line when mistakes are far more costly to amend.

The flow of a design process is what makes great products and prototyping definitely enhances it.

Further reading

Perceived simplicity

Whilst working on a project for one of our sister agencies an epiphany of sorts smacked me around the chops regarding IA structures and perceived simplicity.

Yeh, what a boring epiphany, but an epiphany none the less.

Maybe there’s no need to have a rational structure. A solid structure perhaps isn’t in fact our primary goal.. Perhaps just getting people to dive in and be engaged through a perceived simplicity is a better goal.

If you’re presented with only one option you’re probably going to take it. The likelihood of interaction is a function of choice.

The ipod classic interface is a great example of this. It’s interface gives you one point access to everything on the machine. Maybe not the most intuitive interface at first, but everyone wants to press that big button and dive in. The rest of the information just flows after that.

Would anyone ever design a web interface with the same interface as an  Ipod? Probably not. But why not? Stick one point navigation at the top of the page and be done with it.

The good old Beeb is the closest I can think of that looks at this type of structure. They’ve got one big button at the top saying “Explore the BBC”. That’s it.

Obscuring primary navigation items goes against all my UX training and experience, but it seems so right.

A structure that doesn’t make immediate sense, or even seem useful, may indeed make more sense.

When a structure gives off the perception of simplicity an increase in the initial interaction is exponential.




I just love this site. The most engaging piece I’ve experienced in quite a while. A lovely playful and exploratory navigation down the bottom and just generally a joy to explore and discover the amazing content on offer.

Best soundtrack ever for a website an’ all.

Show Me What’s Hot!


I’m very much enjoying non-static menu systems.

The BBC uses this very effectively by showing a best bet – we know you’re probably on this site to look for – menu running along the top and highlighted. I bet this is super effective for the Beeb.

Yahoo food uses a really nice system based on what’s happening on the site at the moment. A what’s hot menu system. This serves as a super effective way for getting people involved with the content even though it may not be what they’re there for in the first place.

Get ’em engaged, then work out how to best to meet their needs after.

Also gives a great way to show the content available on the site and that other people are engaging. The sheep principle. The mere fact that others are doing something is often enough for us to do it as well (slide 44).