Definition: Rapid prototyping is an agile strategy used throughout the product development process. With this approach, 3-dimensional prototypes of a product or feature are created and tested in an attempt to optimize characteristics like shape, size, and overall usability.
See Also: Rapid Experimentation
Rapid prototyping is the creation of product simulations to be used for testing and validation during the product development process, with multiple iterations generated during a short period of time based on user feedback and analysis.
What is rapid prototyping?
Prototyping is a way to validate the hypothesis that a product will solve the problem it is intended to solve. Although not fully functional by any means, a prototype often “looks” real enough that potential users can interact with it and provide feedback.
If the feedback shows the prototype is pretty far off the mark then the company hasn’t spent weeks or months building something that won’t work in the real world, while a positive reaction to a prototype indicates the product concepts are on the right track and development should proceed.
The “rapid” part of this comes into play with the speed that the initial prototype can be produced, how quickly feedback can be gathered and synthesized, and then how fast subsequent iterations can go through the same process. Teams must find a delicate balance between creating a prototype that looks real enough so users are providing genuine reactions and feedback without spending so much time on the prototype that the team will be hesitant to throw away the work because of the resources expended and opportunity costs of going back to square one.
Rapid prototyping techniques
To collect bona fide prototype feedback, users shouldn’t even realize they’re not interacting with the real product; once they know it’s “just a prototype” they will switch into “proactive suggestion” mode instead of providing authentic reactions, which are the true test of a prototype’s viability. This means having a clickable, usable prototype with real data, images, etc., even if it is still somewhat limited.
These high-fidelity prototypes look and behave like the real thing, which requires a few things to make them viable. First, product teams really must think through all the use cases and paths users may pursue while interacting with the prototype. Additionally, real software development and UX expertise must be tapped to create a realistic, high-fidelity prototype—these won’t just be whipped up in an afternoon while spitballing ideas.
However, there are times when building out a fully visualized prototype is premature or too expensive, which is where wireframing comes in. Product managers can create wireframes themselves to illustrate workflow concepts and basic UX concepts.
These can be used for actual user testing but also useful to inform product development regarding what must be in place for a “functional enough” working prototype. While ordinarily product teams are told to leave implementation details to the development and UX teams, a wireframe-based prototype ensures the test includes every parameter the product team requires and shaves some time off the total process.
For product teams willing to settle for prototypes somewhere in between wireframes and fully functional, creating clickable sites (or facade prototyping) can be done quickly using a variety of design and UX tools. These obviously won’t have tons of real data powering them behind the scenes, but it can provide trustworthy user feedback on many elements of the solution.
Rapid prototyping may also include creating multiple prototypes for side-by-side testing (or simultaneous testing by different sets of users). This lets teams settle once and for all if Option A really is superior to Option B.
Why product managers need to understand rapid prototyping
Rapid prototyping allows product managers to “fast forward” to getting real-world customer feedback without expending precious product development resources on unproven and untested concepts. Hypotheses are no longer hypothetical and use cases can be truly tested with real users.
Getting actual customers to try things out and observing what works and what doesn’t is invaluable for creating products that match user needs and shortening the time to market. By validating assumptions and uncovering gotchas much earlier in the process, product teams can move forward with confidence that the final product will find an audience… or go back to the drawing board if things weren’t well received.
Because rapid prototyping is incredibly iterative with short turnaround times from one test to the next, product teams must be prepared to provide input to the developers and UX folks spinning out prototypes, quickly analyze usage and feedback, then recommend what should change in the next round. This requires attentiveness, responsiveness and collaboration, since the development team is effectively idling until the decision is made on whether to spin up another prototype or move forward with full product development.
Rapid prototyping has an added benefit of prioritizing the features and functionality that truly matter to users—if it’s not included in the prototype, does it need to be built at all? The urgency of the process creates a pruning dynamic that focuses on what matters most.
Rapid prototyping can be an invaluable time-saver and disaster-avoider for product teams. With dependable feedback from users interacting with prototypes, product managers have qualitative validation of their assumptions or clear indicators that adjustments are required. This all helps reduce the risk of the final product failing to meet expectations.
Additionally, the externalized thinking that comes from the rapid prototyping process breaks down communication barriers and fills in the gaps to ensure the development organization delivers what the product team envisioned. This creates more efficiency in the overall product development process and puts the best possible product in front of paying customers and prospects.