When building software, the same screen or features can be built in a lot different ways. But only a few paths will result in user-friendly functionality.
So, 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're used to create successful software products.
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 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.
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 (or product) and provide feedback about what they like or don’t like.
Of course, it’s easier (and cheaper) to make changes based on the early scale model (or prototype) than 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 to Software Development
When creating a software product, prototyping is the ideal way to test, evaluate, and validate your idea with users. It lets you confirm that you are building the RIGHT product and features before you actually code anything.
In other words, prototyping reduces project risk.
You don't want to find out AFTER months of costly developer time and budget that the features don't meet real user needs. Instead, starting with a prototype lets you get user feedback on what key features to build.
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, focus only on the core features needed to solve your problem to ensure a quick and valuable feedback loop. This mindset aligns with the same reason you want to start a project with a minimum viable product, or MVP.
Different Types of Software Prototyping
Depending on your needs, you could develop a prototype through the different phases below, or just focus on one phase to communicate your ideas.
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 prototype 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?
Even simple paper drawings can clarify your ideas to yourself and others. It’ll also help you make key decisions about what to include or not include in an initial project scope.
SPARK Tip: Like the picture above, you can sketch out ideas using pre-formatted paper that mimics device screens. Download paper wireframes here. It’ll help you to better visualize how you want you software to look like and you can share them with your development partner.
2. Wireframes / Low Fidelity Design
A step up from paper sketches are 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. Digital wireframes are like blueprints of the product made using minimum styling, color, and graphic. They're 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 and ideas from stakeholders and users during the design process. Their "rough" feel encourages others to make honest comments because they know features are still being clarified and changes are expected.
SPARK Tip: Some development partners like SPARK deliver wireframes and clickable prototypes as part of an initial 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.
You'll have a clear sense of what the final software will look and feel like, but it’s still easy to make changes as needed at this stage.
At SPARK, we often 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 easily make changes).
Why Start a Product with a Software Prototype
Here’s why you should start a software project by building a prototype before jumping into coding.
1. Test, Validate, and Iterate on Designs Early
- Even if you have a clear idea of how your software should look, iterating on a prototype allows you to quickly and efficiently arrive at the best product design possible. You'll be able to incorporate user feedback at each stage to ensure you're spending time and money on the right features.
2. Impress Investors or Early Adopters
If you’re trying to raise funds or get 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?
It’s also low risk and cost-effective to create a prototype to test out if there’s any traction for your idea.
3. Adaptive to Your Needs
The best part of prototypes is that they’re different options of sophistication. Still in the beginning brainstorming phase with lots of ideas? Use paper sketches that don't cost anything to make. Ready to elicit future user feedback on a complex product? Build a clickable prototype that brings your idea to life.
How to Get Started with a Software Prototype
No matter what type you build, prototypes can be key when developing software so you're confident about spending resources on the right functionality and design.
Need help building custom software? Reach out to SPARK to see how we can help you build a prototype and then transform it into real software.