How does America’s largest (and most secretive) tech company design a new iPhone? Apple is notoriously hush-hush about their development process, but thanks to Adam Leshinsky, author of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired and Secretive Company Really Works, we know a few things about the high level process that has given us some of the most intuitive, cutting-edge tech in the world. Apple has created a new product process (the tantalizingly elusive ANPP) that gives designers incredible freedom to innovate. That process includes, among other things, a stream of prototypes that sometimes number in the hundreds.
These early prototypes give designers an opportunity to test out an idea, probe it for weaknesses, and establish the viability of the design. In software development, we can use a similar concept to create an early-stage proof of concept using a low-fidelity prototype.
How Low-Fidelity Prototypes Improve Software Design
Low-fidelity prototypes serve to validate a design concept, unveil customer needs and reveal design flaws before too much time and resources have been invested in development. They offer a cost-effective way to test ideas using contextual walkthroughs with sponsor users because they can be built quickly and easily, often without the need for extensive technical investment.
As part of a design thinking approach to software development, early prototyping encourages exploration of alternative solutions by providing a physical representation of the proposed design. Designers and users can both see how the solution would work, and they have the opportunity to ask questions, brainstorm, and test, In other words, prototyping allows us to create by creating. Here are a few ways this method encourages stronger designs:
Rather than being locked into a design that may turn out to be non-viable, low-fidelity prototyping encourages experimentation with design ideas and opportunities, both incremental and comprehensive.
Fast successive iterations provide enough detail to learn about the dynamics of the problem you’re trying to solve without committing extensive time and resources to create a finished product. It also gives stakeholders the opportunity to provide feedback and make changes early in the process without derailing the project timeline.
Using low-fidelity prototypes as your proof of concept gives you the opportunity to engage with a tangible representation of the design and test it for strengths and weaknesses.
Prototyping is also an excellent way to motivate buy-in for innovative designs. Low-fidelity prototypes inspire users to think about different ways to accomplish business goals with software, even if they haven’t yet achieved the elegance of a final design.
Low-fidelity prototypes aren’t designed for extensive interaction. Instead, they create a realistic representation of the software for demonstration purposes, and they help you gather insight, unveil hidden requirements and test whether your concept meets user needs. By creating a low-fidelity MVP for software designs, you can create quick successive iterations of the most important functionalities and demonstrate how the software can help achieve specific business objectives.
Bottom line: Low-fidelity prototypes provide valuable opportunities to make a good product better.
6 Best Practices for Your Low-Fidelity Prototype Proof of Concept
Tom and David Kelley of IDEO are known for saying that a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. That’s because a prototype gives stakeholders a visible representation they can see rather than leaving them to imagine what the product might look like based on a hypothetical concept. It creates the bones of the solution so you can more accurately visualize how it should be fleshed out, pinpoint its weaknesses, and determine what your next step should be.
These best practices will help you make the most of your low-fidelity prototype proof of concept:
1. Don’t expect it to be a full-fledged product
Low-fidelity prototypes and high-fidelity prototypes are used for very different purposes. The goal at this stage is not to impress the end user with a fully developed user experience or to build out every system feature. It’s to create a realistic representation of one or more aspects of the software so that users can interact with an approximation of the most important functionalities.
2. Focus on high-level feedback to assess validation rather than execution of ideas
Is the core idea of the software viable? Does it meet system and business requirements? Does it help you achieve the goals in your business strategy? Does it solve the problem it is intended to solve? Most importantly, does it make sense to users?
3. Look for both problems and insights
The low-fidelity prototype offers a middle ground between becoming paralyzed at the concept phase and overspending on a non-viable solution. Use this preliminary version of the product to frame a conversation around both the benefits of the current design and the potential problems that need to be addressed.
4. Ask the right questions
When you evaluate the prototype, know exactly what you are testing for. For example, in the early stages you won’t be ready to consider visual effects and stylistic details; instead, you will be focused on functionality and practical potential.
5. Adapt while testing
Design thinking is about learning through the design process. Prototyping creates a bias toward action that enables you to build interactions quickly, adapting and testing at each stage as you move toward the end goal of a fully functional solution.
6. Listen to (and watch) stakeholders
While the low-fidelity prototype is not intended for extensive user testing, it is still important to get initial feedback to determine whether the solution meets their needs. Give key stakeholders the opportunity to challenge assumptions and use their input to improve on ideas and determine your next incremental step. Don’t just listen to what they say, either—watch what they do, and how they react. Sometimes the non-verbal feedback is even more valuable than any comment you get.
After you have successfully created and presented your low-fidelity prototype, you will be ready to begin putting flesh on the bones of the software. There may be many iterations of the solution before you reach your final design, but once you have the key features and functions nailed down, you’ll be ready to test for usability, visual design, and user experience. At each stage, solicit meaningful feedback from those with a vested interest in the software and use it to fine-tune performance as you move closer to the final product.