Prototype testing guide
You’ve started designing a brand new feature for your product. You’re pretty happy with how it’s looking and working, but need to get some feedback from real users before you feel confident to hand it over for development. Enter prototype testing. In this guide, we explore what prototype testing is and why it’s an important step in any user experience (UX) design process. We look at the different types of prototypes, when you should run a prototype test, and then take you step-by-step through the testing process.
What is a prototype?
A prototype is more than a sketch, wireframe, or mockup. It’s an interactive representation of what a product will look like and how it will function in the real world.
UX teams use prototypes to:
Visualize the final product.
Test with users.
Gather feedback to inform the design process.
Prototypes don’t need to be complicated. In fact, they can be rough or more polished depending on your goals and what stage you’re at in the design process.
What is prototype testing?
Prototype testing involves creating a prototype and testing it with real users to validate your design decisions.
There are a couple of primary goals for prototype testing:
To identify any problems or areas for improvement early. That way, you can make necessary changes prior to the development cycle.
To make sure you’re building a product that meets user needs and expectations.
UX design is an iterative process, so testing prototypes early and throughout the entire design process is an important way to ensure you’re building a product your users will find useful.
Before building and testing your prototype, establish some clear goals about what you want to validate. This will help you determine the type of prototype you need. Other factors might also come into play, like where you’re at in the design process and the time and resources you have available.
Once you’ve established your goals and have your prototype ready, it’s time to test. When running a test, aim to recruit participants representative of your target audience. Gathering feedback and seeing how participants interact with the prototype will give you valuable insights on what to improve. We’ll go into this in more detail below.
Why is prototype testing important?
There are several benefits to prototype testing. Let’s explore some of them in more detail.
Testing a prototype helps you validate assumptions in real-life scenarios and see how well your product will work for users.
For example, if you’re developing a photo editing app, you might test whether users can import photos and apply filters, effects, touch-ups, and frames. For an e-commerce store, can your users search for a product, add it to the cart, and complete the checkout process? Do they understand the instructions to sign up to your loyalty program?
Prototype testing gives you the confidence that your designs are usable. And this helps reduce the risk of creating a product that won’t succeed when it goes to market.
Discover design problems early
Imagine if you designed a pet sitting app and then realized people had trouble finding pet sitters in their neighborhood. Or they couldn’t find the messaging function or a pet sitter’s availability calendar. By testing a prototype, you can find issues like this early and make sure they get fixed.
Testing at different stages of the design process can also give you a good idea of the features that are and aren’t working. You might do this by asking follow-up questions and analyzing the test results to identify any major themes.
Testing with users can also give you opportunities to discover features that your target audience might love.
For example, the qualitative data you collect from prototype testing can inspire new features and capabilities. Using our pet sitting app example, what if you discovered users would like to save and tag their favorite sitters? You could take this on board and build it into the next prototype iteration.
Save time and money
It probably goes without saying that fixing a design in the prototyping stage is simpler and easier than fixing it after the product has launched.
Rolling back the launch and making changes will cost money and take time, especially when your team could be moving onto the next project. Not to mention the negative impact it could have on your brand.
Get stakeholder buy-in
It can be difficult getting stakeholder support for a new product or feature. Prototype testing is a good way to gather data that helps validate decisions. Share this with stakeholders in your organization to get them on board.
Types of prototypes
Sometimes pen and paper are all you need to create and test a prototype design. But as new prototyping tools have emerged, UX designers can spin up an interactive digital prototype fairly easily.
So, what prototype formats are there, and what are the pros and cons of each? Let’s find out.
A paper prototype is what it sounds like – a prototype sketched or printed on a piece of paper.
They’re the simplest version of a prototype and can be helpful during early stage concepts to visualize and test multiple ideas quickly.
Quick and simple to create.
Low-lift. Creating a paper prototype doesn’t require any special tools or skills – if you can sketch, you can create a paper prototype.
If you decide to test using a paper prototype, it requires more imagination from your participants. You might have to explain ideas to participants interacting with the prototype.
You can only test paper prototypes in person, which limits your pool of testers.
A digital prototype builds an interactive experience. They’re used during the visual design phase, when you have mockups with colors, fonts, etc. as well as realistic copy, and want to see how your design works in action.
Realistic and shows what the final product will look like.
Users can interact with the prototype themselves, which gives you more flexibility to run a remote or unmoderated test.
Digital prototypes require a design tool, like Figma or Sketch.
A native prototype involves coding a model of your app or website. This typically happens near the end of the product design process, after the visual design is ready but before development starts.
Native prototypes look and work like a real product, and participants can test using real devices.
They’re good for usability testing. Participants can’t tell the difference between a native prototype and a real app or website, so native prototyping allows you to understand a realistic experience and gain useful feedback.
It takes time to create a native prototype.
It requires coding skills. You need to know a programming language or involve a developer.