The history of prototyping goes back hundreds of years, with notable names such as Leonardo Da Vinci even creating designs for inventions that would not be realised for centuries – such as aeroplanes, parachutes, robots and tanks.
Early prototyping often involved the creation of an original version of a design that was improved upon later. This can be seen with the work of aircraft pioneers the Wright Brothers, who improved their design by working on the real thing rather than a mock-up. This technique was also used in early software programming, where developers would create new iterations of an existing product.
This trial-and-error method is not quite prototyping as we know it today, where the invention of computing has allowed for more complex digital versions of physical products. Engineering professor Herbert Voeckler investigated the use of computers to control factory floor machine tools in the 1960s, which led to the creation of the 3D tools that are used today. In the late 1980s, Carl Deckard began using layer-based manufacturing which paved the way for rapid prototyping, whereby tooling and materials are used to create 3D models and software systems are tested before being rolled out onto production.
Prototyping has come a long way since its inception and remains an important part of product development today.
Prototyping is an important part of product development with several types of prototyping and prototyping tools in use, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Here are some of the most common types of prototyping:
1. Sketches and Diagrams
The most basic form of prototyping involves simply sketching out an initial idea on paper. These can vary in detail, but such paper prototypes are a useful starting point for conceptualising an idea for a new product. These allow ideas to be shared so that a design can be formalised for later development.
2. Physical Models
Physical prototypes can range from simple paper-based designs through to more complex versions. These offer a rough idea of a design and show a scaled down version of a concept ahead of the creation of a larger scale model. Used for a range of different designs, these are particularly well suited to smaller objects, but can be used for larger projects such as architectural designs.
3. 3D Printing and Rapid Modelling
3D printing has revolutionised prototyping, allowing engineers to create realistic production design models quickly. These 3D models mean that businesses can identify any flaws or areas for development and move quickly towards the production phase. These prototypes can be adjusted and new versions created, allowing for rapid testing and simplifying and reducing large designs into a more manageable scale.
Wireframes are digital diagrams or layouts of a product, commonly used for software, websites or other digital assets to present a visual information architecture blueprint. They allow designers and other project workers to navigate a digital structure and place content as well as assess a user interface and user flows, allowing for later usability testing to find any usability issues. Such digital representations can be presented as low or high fidelity prototypes.
5. Virtual or Augmented Reality
Virtual or augmented reality tools can be used for some designs, allowing users to ‘experience’ a design as if in the physical world. This can be used for building designs, theme parks and other real-world settings.
6. Feasibility Models
These prototypes can be for either digital or physical models and are used to test features that can be added later in the design process. These allow prototyping designers to augment or adapt an existing prototype with additional features.
7. Working Models
More complex than an initial prototype, a working model allows designers to test whether a product actually functions as intended. These are typically used for mechanical inventions or designs that need to move or fit in a particular manner. These allow designers to see if their designs actually work in reality.
8. Video Prototypes
Animated videos and simulations can be used as a graphical representation of a product, while video can also be used to show other prototypes to help designers, managers and consumers to visualise a product.
9. Horizontal Prototypes
Mainly used in software design, horizontal prototypes show a design from a user’s perspective, including menus, windows, and screens so that user interactions can be tested.
10. Vertical Prototypes
Used for database design, vertical prototypes are digital ‘back end’ models that allow software functions to be tested before the next design stage.
Whichever type of prototyping is used, they are an important part of the design process, allowing designers to test, refine and develop their ideas before committing to a final product. The prototyping process is commonly broken down into five steps:
- Defining the vision: This step includes setting goals and objectives for the prototype
- Key features: Once the objectives have been determined, designers focus on key features that need to be included in the prototype to achieve these aims
- Prototype production: This step involves the creation of a working model of a product or system. This can include anything from basic paper prototypes through to digital or physical models
- Testing and refining: Once created, a prototype is tested and refined until it meets the goals set out in step one. This can include user testing, feedback and further development to allow for more improvements
- Presenting and approval: Once the testing and refinement of the prototype is complete it is typically presented to stakeholders so that approval can be gained for the final product development
These five steps allow designers to ensure products meet their required objectives before committing time and resources into developing a final version.
The most obvious benefit of prototyping involves being able to create early versions of products so they can be tested and developed before a final design is created. However, there are several other benefits to prototyping too:
- Improved Product Design – including the early detection and testing of potential design and manufacturing issues ahead of mass production
- Faster Time to Market – prototyping allows products to reach the market sooner through testing on inexpensive physical or digital iterations
- Reduced Costs – these costs include both physical and time-related costs
- Improved User Experience / Customer Satisfaction – testing and refining a design prevents problems from occurring that could harm your brand when a product reaches the market, while also ensuring the product meets its objectives
- Improved Communication and Collaboration – an often overlooked benefit of prototyping is how it ensures stakeholders, developers and managers are aligned in their goals. This allows for buy-in from investors and makes sure teams are working towards the same goals
Prototyping is an important part of product design, development and manufacturing. It is used across a wide range of industries, from healthcare to transportation, and consumer goods, to manufacturing, construction, software design, and more. It is used to test the look, feel, function, usability and durability of a product before committing to mass production.
Prototyping is also used to validate ideas, gain buy-in from stakeholders ahead of investment, and to improve communication between teams to ensure better collaboration on projects.
With all these benefits, combined with its cost effectiveness, it is clear to see why prototyping is an important part of creating such a wide range of digital and physical products.
What are the challenges of prototyping?
Because prototypes are not fully-functional final versions there can be challenges. The greater the level of detail the easier it is to test, but this still requires you to take account of any compliance issues and undertake essential tests. You should also make sure you choose the correct prototyping process and try not to get side-tracked into wasting time on less important factors, such as aesthetics. It is also easy to end up spending too much time working on new prototype iterations, which can unnecessarily delay the creation of a final product.
How do you choose the right prototype?
Your prototype needs to match the final real-world functionality of the end product as closely as possible. This is the same whether designing a brand-new product or fine-tuning an existing one. The closer you can get to the final product the better. In some instances a physical prototype may be preferable to a digital one, although advances in computer technology means that modern prototyping can be achieved without needing several physical iterations.
How do you test a prototype?
When testing a prototype it is important to be mindful of the final goals of your product. This includes understanding the needs of your users and how your product will meet these. Testing is important but you should not become too tied up in repeat testing, it is best to conduct your testing, assess the results, make modifications and then repeat the process until you are satisfied with the results.
How do you revise a prototype?
Prototype revision involves asking the right questions to meet your goals. Without set goals it is easy to spend too much time and effort needlessly revising a prototype.
What are some common mistakes when prototyping?
There are a number of common mistakes when prototyping, including:
- Not setting clear goals
- Prototyping too early in the design process
- Choosing the wrong prototyping tool or technique
- Not being willing to change an idea based on the results of testing
- Feeling discouraged when a prototype does not work
- Not seeking feedback