When building software, the same screen or features can be built in a lot different ways. But only a few paths will result in easy-to-use functionality.
But, how do you know what to build? How do you align stakeholders on design elements?
That’s where software prototypes come in. Keep reading to learn what they are and how they can ensure a successful software product.
What is a Software Prototype?
A prototype in software development is a simulation of how a real product will work and feel. It’s used for design feedback and user testing.
Purposefully broad in definition, they can come in all levels of sophistication– from an idea sketched on the back of a napkin to a clickable prototype that mimics like real software.
And depending on what you need, a prototype can serve as a simulation for an entire mobile app or just one digital interaction.
You can also think of prototypes like scale building models used in architectural design. An architect takes their understanding of a client’s wants and drafts blueprints to match, but the blueprints might not be enough. So, the architect builds a scale model of the building.
In this case, a scale building model is an example of a sophisticated prototype, but sometimes that’s needed for a more complex project. It allows the client to see the plans for the building and provide feedback about what they like or don’t like.
The best part? It’s easier (and cheaper) to make changes at this stage versus when the finishing touches are being made to the building two years later.
Developing software is a similar process. Prototypes are often used to gather early feedback and make changes as needed, rather than letting a development team fully code the application and try to deal with significant design changes after.
Why Prototyping is Important
During the software development process, prototyping is the ideal way to test, evaluate, and validate your idea. It lets you confirm that you are building the RIGHT product before you actually code it.
In other words, it reduces project risk.
Based on an early and quick prototype, you can make decisions before spending effort and money on building the wrong thing.
As some developers like to say, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.”
SPARK Tip: When building prototypes, they don’t need to include ALL the features you may need. Instead, they should focus on the core features needed to solve your problem. This mindset aligns with the same reason you want to start a project with a minimum viable product, or MVP.
Phases of Software Prototyping
Take a look at the different phases of a software prototype and how
1. Handmade Drawings / Paper Wireframes
No matter how rudimentary, it can help to sketch your idea on paper first. And yes, it’s a prototype.
The goal of a paper prototypes isn’t to come up with a final polished design, so don’t worry about artistry.
Instead, it can be an important step in bringing a vague idea to life. The hand-drawing step forces you to move to the concrete.
What would the app look like? What functionality does it need? What kind of buttons and inputs would you use?
You can clarify your ideas to yourself and others. It’ll also help make key decisions about what to include or not include in the initial project scope.
SPARK Tip: Like the picture above, you can sketch out ideas using pre-formatted paper that mimics device screens, which you can download here. It’ll help you to better visualize how you want the software to look like and you can share with your development partner.
2. Wireframes / Low Fidelity Design
There’s wireframes (or low-fidelity designs), which are 2D skeletal outlines of a software application.
Done by a development and design team, they usually represent an initial concept of the product. Through minimum styling, color, and graphics, digital wireframes are like blueprints of the product made with specific software tools (like Invision, Sketch, Adobe, Figma. etc).
Wireframes are a visual representation of the software and focus on functionality, user flow, and how screens will relate to each other. They only include key elements and they’re fast and easy to make.
They're great communication tools for eliciting feedback from stakeholders and users– before any code is written. These don’t require special skills to make and you can involve everyone in the design process to help formulate ideas.
Their rough feel encourages others to make comments because they know they’re still clarifying and defining features. Changes are still possible and easy to make.
SPARK Tip: Some development partners like SPARK deliver wireframes and clickable prototypes as part of a pre-project assessment. For this service, we conduct a thorough project discovery and test ideas before diving into custom software development.
3. Clickable Prototypes
Wireframes can turn into clickable prototypes, which are an interactive set of linked visual screens that can mimic a working app.
A clickable prototype lets users interact with it on a computer or mobile device. You’ll be able to click on buttons and move fluidly between one screen to the next like real software.
But the difference is that no actual coding has taken place. There’s nothing happening in the background.
The main advantage of clickable prototypes is that they give you a clean sense of what the final app will look and feel like, but it’s still easy to make changes as needed.
At SPARK, we often like to have clients sign off on a clickable prototype before we start the development work (actual coding) of a project. It gives the client and our team confidence that we’re aligned on the vision.
SPARK Tip: Since they’re fully-designed, clickable prototypes are a great tool to test with future users. They’re easy to share and you can get candid feedback on what works or doesn’t (and know you can make changes without a hassle).
Benefits of Starting with a Software Prototype
If you’re considering building software, here’s why you want to start a project by building a prototype before jumping into coding.
1. Test and Validate Designs Early
Software prototypes allow you to test your designs early. You’ll get a visual representation of the product without anyone writing code.
Iterating on your software’s design allows you to quickly and efficiently arrive at the best design possible.
2. Impress Investors or Early Adopters
If you’re trying to raise funds or buy-in from early adopters, a prototype can help you explain or show your idea effectively.
Would you rather be pitched an idea verbally or shown a working prototype? Which would inspire more confidence and action?
And, it’s low risk to create a prototype while you’re still testing out an idea to see if there’s any traction for it.
3. Easy and Quick
The best part of prototypes is that they’re fast and easy to make. You can explore different ideas without wasting too much time and effort.
Then when you’re ready to actually develop the software, you’ll be confident that you’re spending your resources on the right functionality and design.
Getting Started with a Prototype
You can use prototypes for any size software project.
For simple ideas, a sketch might be all you need. And a clickable prototype can help you work through any ideas or challenges before development for a complex project.
Have an awesome idea? Start with sketching your own wireframes and share with SPARK to discuss how we can help turn your idea into a real software product.