As a PM, you’ve been asked to lead the prototype of a new product or feature in just a few weeks. Maybe you need to demo a new feature to win a customer. Maybe you are validating a concept or a new technology in-house. Or perhaps you need something visual to elicit feedback from partners. Either way, rapid prototyping is an essential tool in the new digital world for web, mobile and voice app development. Even though you only have a few weeks, it still needs to look amazing. How do you make it happen?
1. To Throw Away, or Not To Throw Away
Dev teams would love for all prototypes to be throwaway. This allows them to demonstrate and validate a product concept, but not worry about whether the code needs to be well-designed, written and documented. On the other hand, once business stakeholders see a prototype in action, very quickly they take for granted that the commercial product is not far behind, and pressure mounts to start building on the prototyped code rather than starting again from scratch.
As the CTO, you need to be very clear from the start: is this throwaway code, or are we actually starting to build an MVP? Throwaway can be done quickly. An MVP needs to be thought through with rigor.
2. Focus the Scope
To build a prototype quickly, you need to really focus. Limit the work to one persona. That persona should be the most likely/intended audience of the product and should be specific, i.e. a physician, a data scientist, a CFO, etc. Try to also limit your prototype to one usage scenario – the key scenario that highlights your end-to-end value proposition.
If the prototype is intended to validate technical feasibility, get clear on what questions exactly need to be answered. Write them down. This may sound obvious but prototypes so quickly turn into a fishing expedition without a clear focus.
3. Is The Goal to Elicit User Feedback?
Teams are often eager to jump into writing code, especially when there is time pressure. But if the primary objective of your prototype is simply eliciting user feedback, such as getting customer input on a new idea, or evaluating the usability of a new workflow, then you may not need to write code at all. User Experience Designers are experts at wireframing UI designs in a way that illustrates the concepts and user journey vividly. There are also many advanced UX prototyping tools such as Sketch, Axure, and Balsamiq that can create visually impressive prototypes in a matter of days.
4. Get the Right Team
No matter what kind of prototype you choose, youʼll need a very specialized team to actually bring it to life. Prototyping work, particularly in advance of a trade show or presentation to stakeholders, is fast paced, stressful, and requires specific skills. Not everyone has the stomach for it!
A high-fidelity prototype often requires a complete team: a product manager, to ensure the needs are understood and business vision is carried out, a UX interaction designer and visual designer, a software architect and software developers, and QA. Perhaps there is a data scientist involved for AI, or a Blockchain SME? Sales, marketing, customer success, and customers themselves may also provide input. It’s a veritable army that needs to be coordinated, and should be treated as a proper project with project management fundamentals.
Depending on the needs, you may want to balance whether the developers are experts in a particular framework, or simply great generalists with the right personality traits. In a really compressed timeframe, err on the side of at least one expert in the technology required. On the other hand, soft skills like passion, fast learning, design intuition and great communication might outweigh the hard skills to ensure the prototype lands with the audience. Ideally you want both, but you may have to trade off.
5. Be Comfortable with Ambiguity and Change
Even in a tight timeframe, if the prototyping project is high profile enough it is likely to change scope and direction daily. People who can embrace ambiguity and frequent change of direction in the early going will help bring order to that ambiguity to drive things forward. Team members who may be stars on longer-term projects may not thrive if they have a strong need for stability, clarity and perfection.
One way to ensure the team is constantly on the same page is a daily stand-up on the scope and business objectives. In this stand-up, the team confirms the scope of the prototype is still the same as it was yesterday (or clarify if it has evolved). Questions are answered and ambiguities are resolved. This is not an agile sprint where you communicate status, it’s 15 minutes laser-focused on scope.
6. Don’t Cut Corners On The UX Design
Even a very technical prototype whose primary purpose is to validate back-end feasibility will have better success with the audience if it is visually appealing and easy to interact with. But in the rush to produce a working prototype, it can be very tempting to cut corners on elements of the design in the working prototype. A UI control thatʼs not properly aligned wonʼt cut it here. Never commit to crappy-looking visuals with the expectation that youʼll go back and adjust them later. Get it perfect!
Who is responsible for checking on the UX daily to ensure the product is looking perfect? UX? QA? Product manager? The CTO? Don’t leave it to chance. Everyone on the team should have a responsibility to the prototype’s overall quality, but there needs to be a gatekeeper on how the UX design is evolving daily.
Designers and developers should be communicating to ensure that standard controls provided by the OS or UI framework are used as much as possible, rather than custom UI controls. Custom controls can take up to 10 times longer to implement.
If the development team is behind on implementing a supporting part of the design, consider using a PNG image for the presentation of the prototype. Depending on the strategy and goals you set out at the beginning, a static image that accurately represents the end-product may be a better choice than being late or presenting a demo that may be interactive but simply doesnʼt look right yet.
7. Work In Parallel Every Day
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of digital prototyping is having multiple team members—designers, developers, architects—working iteratively and in parallel. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Product Managers completed their requirements definition, then handed it off to designers to create the full design, who then handed it off to development to build and test?
There are a couple of reasons functions can’t “take turns” sequentially designing and building a product: