You already know that fast human insight is key to building a great customer experience. Whether you’re creating a website, mobile app, landing page, or other product, testing can happen at any stage of the design cycle. Despite this, many companies still begin the process of gathering customer insight much later than they should. No matter what you’re creating, prototype testing can—and should—happen early and often in your development cycle.
When it comes to prototypes, you can test anything. Have an idea on a cocktail napkin? Test it. Not sure about product-market fit? Try it out on your target audience first. If ever there should be a cardinal rule to creating great experiences, it would be to test first, design and build after (then test again).
If you think it sounds odd to test something before it’s fully baked, you’re not alone. Many companies wait until their offering is fully developed before they test it, and suffer the consequences of rework, or worse, building something their customers don’t want.
Prototype testing enables you to assure that your design is going in the right direction and that you address any essential features or flaws before you write even one line of code. Redesigning a prototype is a lot easier—and less expensive—than reworking a finished product. You’ll save your budget and your sanity by testing right from the start.
No matter what stage you’re in, there are ways to create a prototype you can test. You can start with just a sketch on a post-it, or use one of the many prototyping tools available to bring your idea to life. Once you have your prototype ready, make sure you’re asking yourself these questions as you begin—and continue to—test.
The best way to think about prototypes is that they’re a representation of a finished product. Prototypes are a way for designers and developers to test the flow, interaction, content, and general feasibility and usability of a product before building and designing a fully-functioning product.
Or, for a more formal definition, here’s the Nielsen Norman Group’s perspective,
A user interface prototype is a hypothesis—a candidate design solution that you consider for a specific design problem. The most straightforward way to test this hypothesis is to watch users work with it.
Despite how much functionality or design a prototype may have, it’s not meant to be the final product. Some features won’t work, and the design and copy likely won’t be finalized. Prototypes are not intended to be pixel-perfect.
At this stage, you might have just an idea or the proverbial sketch on a cocktail napkin. When you’re in the very early days of your idea’s life, it’s totally OK to map out the idea with “low-tech” tools, like pen and paper. Not having a fancy interface doesn’t mean you can’t ask detailed questions, however. Here’s what you need to know during the early stages as you validate your concept:
When you’re ready to move beyond the cocktail napkin, it’s time to start wireframing—this is when your ideas start taking their first steps. While these are not interactive or functional, they still illustrate the intention and flow, which is an essential process in the design phase.
Be sure you’re asking these questions to keep your project moving in the right direction:
Once you’ve worked through the kinks with the concept and design and iterated until you’re close, the hi-fi prototype is born. This will be a semi-functional facsimile of the intended result. It should be interactive and do pretty much everything it’s supposed to; it just won’t have the shiny new-product feel to it.
Focus on these questions to make sure you’re addressing any lingering concept, flow, or basic usability issues:
At this point, your cocktail napkin has grown up into a respectable, functional member of the community. While your testing days aren’t over, you’ve taken the important first steps that will save you time, money, and sanity by evaluating your idea from the start.
User testing a prototype is a bit different than testing a finished product. Make sure you inform test participants before the test—or even better, in the screening process—that they’ll be testing a prototype that’s not fully functional.
It’s also a good idea to run moderated tests if you can. While you can conduct unmoderated tests with prototypes, chances are your participants will have questions and some tasks will require more explanation and guidance, so having a moderator present will help you get the best feedback.
Additionally, remember that testing shouldn’t stop once your product ships. Your test plan should not only confirm that your insights from prototyping worked out the way you expected, but watch for additional opportunities to optimize and improve the user experience that you couldn’t test during prototyping.
As we say here at UserTesting, “test early and often.”
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