Prototype – why use a prototype in early stages of a product

Galit Lavit

Human Factors Engineering Lead

“If a picture is worth a 1000 words, than a prototype is worth a 1000 meetings” – Tom & Daviv Kelly

Prototype – seeing is the best way of understanding

Imagine the following situation: you are standing next to a panel in a large conference room or sitting and presenting on a projector in front of many other people sitting around a round table. Does this situation sound familiar? I would imagine that it does – this is a natural situation that happens during the workday several times, and one in which we usually participate.

And now imaging you coming to a meeting in a room with no round table, with a model in its center. All the participants stand or sit around the model, so that they can see it in every direction. The participants may be able to enter the model, look at it or pick it up.

The ability to communicate the idea or concept is a vital part of the designer’s work. Using a prototype helps bridge the limits of language and imagination. While I can explain an idea that comes to mind, and no matter how clearly I explain it, the listener may imagine something completely different. This applies all the more so in the case of different ways to operate a device or application. A prototype helps bridge the gaps of language, imagination and comprehension.

The prototype does not have to be 100% or even 90% exact – this is down to the discretion of the designer. It is important for the prototype to have all the key elements that help in understanding, for example: in the case of a physical prototype: volumes, manner of keeping, location of buttons, weight, height above the surface and the like. In the case of a prototype of a program or application: the location of menus, the manner of transitioning between screens, the location of the controllers, sizes, etc.

The model is not supposed to be the center of our work – we should create it as a utility that helps us plan. The prototype (model) allows for better understanding and synchronization with other professional elements responsible for the final product, such as engineers, designers, potential business partners, etc.

Prototype – how far can you imagine?

Our imagination can go very far and think about wonderful ideas and original solutions to problems. But when the solution becomes concrete, it is necessary to examine carefully whether it is suitable for a specific problem – here our imagination tends to get things wrong. In most cases, based on our experience, its bias will be overly optimistic, i.e., we tend to imagine that the solution or component we thought about would fit the problem like a glove. In practice this is not exact, at least not exact enough. Several things may happen: the solution proves unsuitable, the solution is partly suitable and the solution solves the problem completely.

Here, a discussion usually develops with all the planning meeting participants. The discussion raises the imagination of all participants and the discussion goes on for far too long… there is no way to establish or understand concretely which solutions should be taken and which solutions will fail being put to the test of reality.

Trying and experimentation – preparation of the prototype

It is our natural wish, and that of the product, to advance forward rapidly towards an imaginary finish line. The considerations for preparing the prototype may be dismissed or even canceled in such cases. We must insist on it as an essential initial stage of our work plan, demand and fabricate a model and hold the discussions next to it only.

Recently, we were called to perform a very interesting, novel project in the augmented reality field. The project was underway and was progressing sluggishly for two years before we were called to take an active part in it. I remember clearly that I sat in the first discussion and everyone around me argued as to the right way to go about things, whether it was the correct action or was it the complete opposite. The discussion was interesting and raised very interesting design and characterization issues. The more interest I took in the issues, the more I understood that I could not even begin to imagine them.

Needless to say, I do not have much experience in augmented reality, but I understood that that was not the problem. The problem was due to it not being possible to imagine what the user sees and experiences, the opening point was wrong- the product was shown on a flat screen, whereas the relevant product is supposed to be attached over the user’s eyes like goggles. In such a case, our whole perception of reality changes, our view and ability to discern the elements rendered on space are projected on a small screen close to our eye.

It was a working model of a product that simulated the operation of the menus, but the model was not exact! The model was built for display on a screen rather than for display on the user’s eyes. So all the discussions were about the user’s cognitive ability to take up the amount of information displayed to him or not, while the ability to operate by line of sight was irrelevant.

As set forth, the first stage, once we came into the project, was creating a relevant model. To this end, we used virtual reality technology. We built a synthetic environment, but we could start dealing with urgent issues in the UX characterization, such as: how we perceive information, when is information overload experienced, and whether the user understands the information displayed.

This makes it crucial to adapt the type of model to the environment that we wish to examine. In this example, an attempt was made to examine the perception of augmented reality on a flat projector screen instead of using a VR console.

Usability tests

Another advantage in making a prototype is allowing users to test it out. The users are those who will help us what we designed it correctly and where we went wrong, allowing us to make changes quickly and run another test iteration and so on. This is a cycle: design, test, improve.

When we prepare our idea as a model, we can let users try it out. This course of action secures our ability to communicate in meetings or for stakeholders in the project, because we have checked how users react directly to the model. Based on experience, when one reaches a conference room with conclusions substantiated by users’ trials, the discussion ends up must shorter, will focus on important points that advance the product rather than subjective issues that each participant brings to the room.

Usability tests on a working model (prototype) help us advance on the operation ladder step by step, to form and shape the operational experience of the product we are working on, and to share with and maintain direct communication with stakeholders and keep them in synch with our work process.

The ability to roll back and see the starting point

Creating model versions will allow us to move forwards and backwards on the product’s time axis. It is important to understand that this can be an excellent opportunity to go back and investigate certain elements of the product we have decided to proceed with during our work. The opportunity to deepen our examination or reexamine the product evolution may be possible when previous versions are kept, making it possible to work on multiple axes developing the product.

Even when one is 100% sure

Whether the prototype is software that is run on a screen or product, it is important to remember from the first stages of the work that creating a model will allow the developer to examine all design ideas and start validating them.

The prototype will allow us to the following:

● Examining design functionality- the prototype is intended to simulate the actual product. We can start letting users experience what we have created and get immediate feedback, thus advancing the product development axis in a more mature direction starting from early stages

● Examination of the ideal materials for the product at the prototype building stage- there is great emphasis on choosing the most suitable materials and understanding the type of raw material that will be used for serial manufacturing of the final product, correct selection of the raw material at the prototype stage will allow for making correct decisions later for establishing the final product quality and will prevent possible mishaps in the manufacturing stages.

● Detailed, effective description of the product- a prototype will afford better understanding and synchronization among all professionals responsible for the final product, such as: engineers, designers, business partners and stakeholders.