Are You Approaching Prototyping All Wrong?

Paul Boag

Too often our prototypes are constrained by politics, legacy technology, and company culture. As a result, nobody gets to see what a good user experience would look like.

I have written before about the business benefits of prototyping. The chances are, if you are ready this, you already know how powerful they are. But, too often we think about prototypes the wrong way.

Most of us perceive prototyping as a tool we use to iterate towards a final product. That means anything we add to the prototype has to be practical. We will need to get agreement for it, and it will have to be something we can build on the agreed technology stack. There is just no point in prototyping something that isn’t practical or will never get approved.

This thinking immediately constrains the prototype. We start compromising the user experience because we know the development team will say it is not possible or senior management will reject it.

Stop Constraining Your Prototypes

This kind of attitude is a mistake for two reasons. For a start, we make a lot of assumptions when we decide some aspects of our prototype are not practical. After all, it is possible to build anything; it just depends on how much we are willing to spend.

As for stakeholders, we are often wildly wrong about what they will accept or reject. We will not know until we try.

Most importantly, prototyping within these constraints set the bar too low from the outset. Stakeholders never get to see just how good a great user experience could be.

Show Management What Good Looks Like

If you show a stakeholder an outstanding experience they often get excited by it, and that motivates them to make it happen. It isn’t until you show them what a good experience could be, do they see its value. Only then do they become willing to make the compromises required to make it a reality.

It is also surprising just how often our assumptions about who will accept what, proves wrong. Somebody who you thought would reject your approach, becomes your greatest advocate when they see the potential.

Use a Prototype to Shift the Conversation

Then there is the fact that showing an inspiring prototype can shift the conversation. Imagine for a moment that you wanted to design an experience you knew was impossible on the existing technology stack. It would fall to you to convince management that the whole technology stack needs changing. That will be an uphill battle.

However, if you build a prototype that ignores the technology constraints and management love it, then it now falls to the developers to explain why the technology stack cannot support it. The burden of proof has switched.

Set the Bar High and Compromise Down

I am not claiming that if you prototype the perfect user experience suddenly everybody will buy in and you will get it approved. There will be compromises. But these compromises will begin from a high starting point, and everybody will be clear as to what users and the business will lose. If you don’t show them what best practice looks like, they can never know the cost of that old technology stack, or the companies out of date attitudes.

Present Your Prototype as a Discussion Piece

The key to success with this approach is to present the prototype as a discussion piece. The first iteration of a prototype should never be what you build, but instead be a vision of what is possible. Do that, and you will be shocked at just what can get approved.

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