A Comprehensive Guide to Rapid Prototyping

May 16, 2024
De-risk product development and accelerate time-to-market with rapid prototyping.
Michael Pearo
Michael Pearo

CX Consulting Director


In the 1990s, the time from validating business requirements to developing an actual application spanned 3 years on average.1 Fast forward to 2013, when the first Google Glass prototype was created in a single day.2
Product development has come a long way from the multi-year long development cycles of the 1990s. A number of strategies and techniques have enabled this shift and for the better. An important technique among these is rapid prototyping, which finds its origins in manufacturing. Rapid prototyping emerged with 3D design solutions, which enabled manufacturers to perfect product design before taking it to the shopfloor and actually producing physical prototypes. This reduced the following:
  • The cost of prototyping
  • Risk associated with engineering new products
  • The time it took to build concepts into market-ready products
With the adoption of rapid prototyping, businesses were able to bring products quickly to the market. As a result, the product starts generating revenues faster, turning it into a self-funding initiative early on.
What is rapid prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is an iterative approach to product development, where short and quick feedback loops enable product teams to quickly move from user requirements to a minimal viable product.
In software and digital product design, the underlying principles of rapid prototyping remain the same. The approach delivers the same benefits as it does in the manufacturing industry. However, in product design, the focus is on incrementally validating a product’s design, key features, interactions, and flows – with the end goal of accelerating the product to market.
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What makes rapid prototyping quintessential in product design today?
Rapid prototyping is more relevant in product design today than it has ever been. When product teams must work with limited funding and short time frames, accelerating time-to-market has become a survival tactic. The faster a product can be developed and rolled out, the faster it can start generating revenues to fund growth and other improvements.
Here’s how rapid prototyping enables this:
  • Rapid Prototyping helps validate assumptions early on in the product design journey. This helps prevent the development of problematic issues that become more expensive to address later on in the development journey.
  • It lays the foundation for improved user adoption. Kickstarting usability testing with a subset of users early in the process enables product teams to identify barriers to adoption before a product hits the market.
  • Rapid prototyping de-risks product development. It helps weed out erroneous assumptions and mismatches of expectations early on, thereby enabling product teams to nail key user journeys.
  • It also helps product teams to iteratively refine the product, from low-fidelity prototypes to high-fidelity ones that mimic the interactions, user journeys, and design features of the final product.
  • Lastly, rapid prototyping is a collaborative approach that shrinks the gap between key stakeholders of the product development process. It ensures that the product owners, developers, designers, and end users are on the same page.
All of these upsides of rapid prototyping enable teams to minimize the product rollout timeframe. At the same time, this approach represents the lowest-cost, lowest-risk strategy to drive a product development project. That’s why high-performing product teams employ rapid prototyping across their product development initiatives.
A closer look at rapid prototyping
In rapid prototyping, a prototype is always a work in progress. It is never complete, but in every iteration, it inches closer to the final product. That said, the rapid prototyping process spans four distinct steps:
#1. Discovery and research
The first step is all about understanding user requirements, validating the viability of the product, and clarifying and setting expectations at the start.
This step takes on different shapes depending on the end goal. For instance, if the product team is working on a SaaS product, the objective will be to define key user journeys, product functionality, and features of the MVP. If they are working on a website, the focus would be on identifying different buying scenarios and paths.
#2. Prototype building / enhancement
The second step is to start building the prototype. Based on the discovery and research, the product team builds a low-fidelity prototype that answers the key questions – what will be the key elements of the layout, where they will be placed, and how they will behave.
The end goal is to move towards higher-fidelity prototypes, based on the observations and feedback gathered in the next (testing) step. The design teams may move from rudimentary sketches to static images, and ultimately to click-through prototypes.
#3. Testing and feedback
Once a prototype is developed, it is tested with the users. In each iteration, the product team validates various aspects of the final product in a ground-up fashion.
When users provide their feedback, it is incorporated into the next iteration of prototyping – given that the feedback is valid and doesn’t contradict the hypotheses established in other iterations.
#4. Final prototype
Ultimately, iterating over the prototype based on user feedback yields the final prototype which will be developed and rolled out.
The overall time frame from discovery and research to the final prototype can take anywhere between a few days to a few weeks depending on the complexity of the product, and the ambiguity/clarity of the requirements.
Practical tips to enhance rapid prototyping outcomes
#1. Bring users and developers into the process early on
A common mistake made by inexperienced product teams is to involve users and developers only after the high-fidelity prototype has been built. This can lead to some issues:
  • Ambiguity about the feasibility of certain interactions and behaviors within the constraints determined in the discovery and research process.
  • The above issue can cause a project to exceed its scope – which typically causes time and cost overruns.
  • Not involving the users leads to missing out on important feedback and a missed opportunity in building a sense of ownership and belonging.
Involve users and developers earlier during the design stage, so that these risks can be curtailed.
#2. Tackle one part at a time
In a hypothetical scenario, multiple teams working towards the same product will not draw the same results from rapid prototyping. The best product teams will typically set a very clear goal for each iteration in the prototyping process.
The focus is on validating one piece at a time – for instance, defining the flow of one user journey, or establishing a functionality or a feature set. This enables the users to deliver targeted feedback on one problem, instead of diverting their focus on multiple items.
#3. Know what to test and at which stage
While a prototype will inevitably progress from a low-fidelity to a high-fidelity one, it is important to know what to test at which stage.
For instance, low-fidelity prototypes can be used to depict the flow from one screen or action to the next in a journey. At this point, it is best to establish how a particular journey will progress. Higher-fidelity prototypes should be used to test more specific behaviors of elements within a particular state.
To understand the difference, consider a workforce management solution. In this solution, the leave application will constitute a journey, which can be tested with low-fidelity prototypes. On the other hand, determining calendar behavior within the leave application journey will be tested in the later stages with a high-fidelity prototype.
Lastly, when working on a major product with stakeholders distributed across time zones, it may be prudent to build a prototyping team across time zones. This helps accelerate prototyping and brings a wider variety of perspectives into the process.
Mobile App Design for a Global Manufacturer
A global manufacturing company needed to develop mobile applications for different categories of customers that would enable them to remotely manage and monitor their appliances.
Birlasoft proposed a two-phased approach -
Phase 1: Requirement documentation, analysis, UX, UI Design and user testing
Phase 2: Focus on the engineering, development, testing and acceptance of the application
Key highlights of the engagement included –
The Birlasoft team performed stakeholder interviews and content audits of existing applications. Unique use cases, workflows, and site maps were created for each app. The team iterated and validated features by sketching wireframes. They wrote test scripts and plans for the in-person and remote usability test sessions. Observations and notes were consolidated into key highlights, findings and recommendations. Further, they expanded the existing design system and component library.
Next steps
Rapid prototyping is the most efficient, fastest, and lowest-risk approach to building sophisticated digital products today. However, its application is not limited to complex products. It is an effective strategy to validate all the ideas and assumptions that underpin product development. In addition, it eliminates conflicts in expectations between users, designers, developers, and testers.
As newer technologies like AI and ML make their way into digital products, it is essential to mitigate every element of risk that affects the success of product development. This makes rapid prototyping all the more important in today’s digital economy. A holistic framework to address every source of uncertainty and ambiguity, rapid prototyping is the key to repeatable success in product development.
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