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How Are Product Prototypes Made? Here's Everything You Need To Know

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A product prototype is the initial or simulated version of an item, created to test and validate ideas with stakeholders such as customers and users, which can be planned in a flowchart maker. In addition, prototyping is an opportunity for the team responsible to deepen their own understanding of the product and refine their proposals.

A prototype is a model, used solely and exclusively to serve as a test for the “raw” version of a product, service or system. Therefore, the objective of creating viable prototypes is to learn about and improve that solution – it is just a tool for improvement, not the final product itself.

Prototyping offers designers the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, test the practicality of the current design, and potentially investigate how a sample of users thinks and feel about a certain product. Even the most complex ideas are testable, using the right tools.

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Why is making a prototype important?

Prototyping and innovation go hand in hand. Prototyping is the safest and cheapest way to test an idea, and is also a way of learning as much as possible about the product or service in question. When developing something innovative, there are no predetermined routes, so each learning experience is worthwhile.

Prototyping is important because, in a lot of cases, the main errors found at this stage are not basic or technical, but strategic. In these cases, solving the problem involves not the correction of one detail, but rather an adjustment in the way of thinking about the proposed solution.

Making adjustments after the product is finished increases the chance of greater errors, and of damaging the user’s image of the brand.

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Prototypes are also important for testing designs and ensuring the customers’ interest, to encourage learning, to get early feedback, to achieve a dynamic development cycle and to strengthen your presentations.

The main elements of prototyping

Prototyping can incorporate several elements of a digital product: colors, titles of fields and buttons, positions of each element on pages, structure and possible flows for users’ navigation.

Among all these elements, the most important ones are the navigation structure and flows, i.e. the definition of which pages, sectors, tabs and buttons are essential for the product and one should lead to another.

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Characteristics such as colors and the names of fields and buttons are important, but should be given less priority initially, as they can be changed more easily during product development. This process is essential so that both the team and the customers have a realistic conception of the product before it enters the development phase.

Prototyping guarantees savings of time and money, by making development more objective and reducing the need for structural changes both during construction and after launch.

Types of product prototyping

Functional prototypes: designed to imitate the functions of the real product as closely as possible, with less importance placed on the appearance of the end product. These types of prototypes are used for products that rely on function and not just the visual part.

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Thumbnails: these are smaller versions of the basic type of the product, focused on the functional aspect and the display aspect. They do not share many qualities with the end product.

Display prototypes: these are designed with greater focus on the product’s appearance than its functions. While these prototypes may or may not work, they accurately represent what the end product will look like.

Prototype levels

Low fidelity: these are drawings and flowcharts made using paper or online tools. At this stage, the most important thing is to identify the main elements of the product (information, menus, pages, etc.) and the interactions which should be available to users.

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Medium fidelity: these prototypes are visually more similar to the expected final product, including proposed icons and colors, and demonstrate the flows and the order in which the screens appear.

High fidelity: these prototypes are the most interesting to share with customers. In addition to incorporating the product’s visual identity, high fidelity prototypes are navigable: some of the icons and buttons are clickable, and it is possible to actually carry out the planned flows.

Fidelity is related to how realistic the prototype looks. So, a low or even medium fidelity prototype does not need to look real. Low fidelity models are the cheapest and quickest to make. High fidelity prototypes are closest to the final product and experience; on the other hand, they take longer to build and are generally more expensive.

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How to build a prototype?

Start with conceptualization. This process begins with product planning, in which meetings are held to elaborate the project and create the design. At this stage, not only are the other phases defined, but all ideas are placed on paper, in order to organize processes and project definitions.

Up next is development. Once you’ve defined your concepts and requirements, it is time to put everything into practice. This step is based on developing the prototype to test the designed concept. At this stage, it is necessary to prototype the product, combining the defined design with the implemented characteristics.

If flaws are identified, corrections must be made to the product — both in design and other requirements.

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The final steps are validation and product launch. With the prototype to hand, evaluate its structures and performance, together with those responsible and, in particular, with the client. Once approved, it is time to start the final production.

Successful entrepreneurs are proactive, innovative and do not wait for failures to occur to come up with new and improved ideas.

This is why product prototypes are so popular in companies around the world. Whatever type of prototype you decide to make, it is sure to increase the odds of success for your product or service.