As product designers and experience strategists, we research how people use systems and design products that tap into users’ natural behaviors. We want people to instinctively know how our product works.
Years of research into the human mind tells us that our brains love patterns, the repeated way in which something happens or is done. Our subconscious mind uses what we’ve learned from patterns - like turning a knob will open a door - to instinctively make decisions about what we do throughout our day. This is why we can walk or breathe without thinking about it - we spend most of our time running on autopilot.
We have an understanding of how people make decisions, but we forget to apply this knowledge when communicating our product vision to stakeholders.
There are Drawbacks to Designing in the Abstract
Experience design deliverables, or artifacts, are abstract. We too often produce artifacts, intended to build a shared understanding of a product vision, that are hard to understand. Low-fidelity wireframes and complex flow diagrams require stakeholders to think hard about what we are trying to communicate. They mentally fill in the gaps where we lack details. We consistently break Steve Krug’s number one rule: “Don’t make me think!”
Imagine how these abstract artifacts skew conversations about a product:
We show a stakeholder some wireframes and talk them through the features. Once they see them they begin to imagine the ways features will look and act based on similar products they have used.
While perfectly natural, this behavior is problematic - what we envision may be nothing like products this stakeholder has previously used. These assumptions your stakeholder makes will lead to you and your stakeholders having different expectations during product development.
You need to make artifacts as real as possible in order to elicit the most unbiased, unimpeachable feedback from users during research. You do not need to build a fully functioning product to validate your idea.You do need to eliminate or reduce the guesswork needed to understand how your product will work.
Make Your Product Vision Real
Prototyping is a great way to eliminate ambiguity so that you get the best results from user research. A prototype is a preliminary model of a product used to show a concept or validate an idea. A prototype should only contain the minimum amount of content, design and functionality needed to demonstrate how the end-product will function.
Context is key to determining fidelity of a prototype. If you are conducting user testing with a tech-savvy group of stakeholders, clickable wireframes may suffice. If you are introducing a new concept to a set of clients, then you may need a higher-fidelity, interactive web page. Your prototype should only contain the fidelity needed to have a meaningful conversation with your users about your product.
Build The Right Prototype For You
There are many different approaches to building prototypes. You can link wireframes together to show user flow with a system like inVision, or build interactive features using an open source CMS like Drupal.
When creating prototypes, make sure to include the following:
The main actions that a user can take and the reactions they will receive from interactive elements.
The key messages you want to communicate to users at different stages of their interaction.
A programmatic way to track user behavior while they use the prototype.
Get Better Results from Your Projects
Some of the many benefits of prototyping are:
It produces more accurate results from user testing, allowing you to better determine what works and what doesn’t.
It gives you more opportunity to focus on interaction design by forcing you to have conversations about interactive elements during user research rather than development.
Prototypes bring less-apparent usability issues to light earlier in the development process.
You have a potential starting point to work from when beginning development, minimizing the amount of work that needs to be done in the long run.
John Whalen said “UX does not happen on a screen. It happens here. In the mind.” Keep that in mind (no pun intended) as you seek to build a shared understanding of, and validate, your product ideas. The more real you make the experience of interacting with your product early in the design process, the more accurate a feedback you will get from your users. For more thoughts on prototyping, check out Frederic Mitchell's "Static Prototyping and Keeping Drupal Simple (KDS)" and "The Devil's in The Details" by Sharon Smith!