What are the business benefits of building prototypes?

Paul Boag

As User Experience Designers we use prototyping all the time. But persuading clients and management they are worth the time and money can be frustrating. This post lays out the business benefits of prototyping.

Prototypes are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, but many see it as a luxury design tool that cannot be justified.

When deadlines are pressing, and budgets are tight, prototyping is often one of the first things to be cut. Instead, organisations leap into production or fall back on lengthy specification documents in the hopes of shortcutting the process. In the end, they achieve precisely the opposite.

In the remainder of this post I want to make it clear why prototyping is an indispensable tool for tackling a huge number of business problems, especially when it comes to improving the customer experience.

We begin with a prototype’s ability to create a compelling vision of what you hope to achieve.

Prototypes create a compelling vision

Many ideas fail, not because they are flawed, but because people didn’t ‘get it’. It can be hard to imagine new products, services or features. That is where traditional specification documents and business plans fail. They do not excite people about the potential. They do not show them what could be.

When staff at Disney wanted to persuade the executive to invest $1 billion in renovating their parks to support a better user experience, they turned to prototyping. Instead of writing a document that only appealed to the executive on a rational level, they built a prototype so management could feel what a better experience would be.

Before Disney spent $1 billion renovating its parks, it first built a prototype.

When so many companies now differentiate on quality and service, how something feels is incredibly important. A prototype enables you to experience that and so excites stakeholders about what is possible.

Prototypes are a great way of unifying people around a shared vision, but this has another related benefit.

Prototypes reduces misunderstandings

Another advantage prototyping has over documents like business plans and specifications is that it reduces the chance of misunderstanding. A paper that describes what you are going to build requires people to imagine the final solution. That needs a degree of interpretation on the part of the reader.

A prototype, on the other hand, shows stakeholders what you are going to build. That means everybody has the same picture of the end goal. It significantly reduces the need for people to ‘fill in the gaps’ with their imagination.

Many stakeholders struggle to imagine a finished product or service. Not only does this lead to misunderstanding, but it also creates scope creep.

Prototypes limit scope creep

The clarity that a prototype brings will reduce the amount of scope creep, as much of it is born out of misinterpretation. But prototypes reduce scope creep in another way too.

To understand why a prototype reduces scope creep one must first know out why scope creep occurs. One of the main reasons is stakeholders struggle to think through the specifics of a service. It is not until they start seeing it that they realise what is missing or what should be different.

A prototype can act as a living specification which provides a common goal that everybody can work towards.

By producing a visual representation of the product in the early days, it helps stakeholders see what is missing or wrong early on, while things can be easily adjusted.

But it is not just stakeholders who will be able to spot shortcomings with the solution; users can too.

Prototypes are perfect for testing

One of the primary reasons to create a prototype is to have something that you can test. A tangible product that can be put in front of users and they can try out. By testing with users, it is possible to identify problems early, when fixing them is still inexpensive. But testing a prototype can do more than just identify problems.

In the early days of a project, we make a lot of assumptions about what users want. Some companies do market research, but just like stakeholders users often struggle to picture what it is you are proposing building.

Tools like Invision makes it easy to build and test prototypes with real users.

By creating a prototype, users can try out the service you are considering building. They can provide valuable feedback that will save you a lot of money.

For example, you might be considering building a specific piece of functionality that turns out users don’t need. Alternatively, you might have missed something that users consider essential and would have been expensive to add later.

Testing a prototype allows you to validate the assumptions you make and be confident you are building the right thing.

Prototypes encourage experimentation and iteration

Digital projects are very different to others. In traditional projects, upfront planning is crucial, because the cost of changing direction once the project is underway is prohibitive.

But when it comes to digital, pixels are cheap. It is easy to experiment and try different approaches until you find the perfect way forward. The cost is even more affordable when working with a prototype.

Prototypes enable us to cheaply iterate a solution until it is right.

You can quickly build ideas and test, before improving them through iteration. Combined with the unprecedented level of data that you can gather on a prototype, this allows you to quickly iterate towards your minimum viable product and even beyond.

Prototypes keep costs low

All of the advantages we have outlined so far boil down to a single compelling argument; prototypes save the business money. That is ironic considering one of the biggest excuses not to prototype is the cost. But in truth, you cannot afford not to prototype. Just look at all the ways they save money:

  • They reduce time spent in meetings trying to agree on a direction.
  • They avoid changes caused my misunderstanding between stakeholders.
  • They limit scope creep and the associated costs of retrofitting new functionality.
  • They avoid building functionality that is not required.

But the cost of not prototyping is more than financial; it costs in time too. Projects stall, you miss deadlines and opportunities are lost. The company wastes time because of a lack of clarity about what they are building.

This time will ultimately cost the organisation money and market share. Again, this is ironic as another argument against prototyping is a lack of time. Once again, I argue you don’t have the time not to prototype.

Resist the urge to rush into projects or resort to lengthy specification phases. Instead, start with a prototype. I guarantee it will save you money and time in the long run.

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