Prototyping is a necessary step for companies wanting to make sure their products are functional and ergonomic before they go to production. New tech, like 3D printing and digital modeling software, has made prototyping more accessible than ever before — making it easy for designers to rapidly iterate on prototypes.
Still, prototyping can become a major resource sink when not approached correctly. A mismade prototype can cause serious issues at any stage in the design process — and these problems can be even worse if you use a method that requires significant lead time.
These do's and don'ts outline prototyping basics and will help any business turn a great idea into a working model.
Do: Keep It Simple
Typically, it's a good idea to hold back on the bells and whistles when you're just getting started. Designers need to make sure their original idea is robust, effective and practical before adding more features.
After all, perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away, to borrow a phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Zeroing in on the core idea of what makes your product worth developing, rather than the extra features, can help you design a strong base product to build on.
Do: Get Ready to Iterate
Only rarely will you get it 100% right on the first attempt. It's better to plan for multiple prototype iterations when budgeting or planning your product development timeline.
Iterating will help you make sure your final product is the best it can be, and that any potential issues are worked out before it's in customers' hands.
Do: Consider Starting With Wireframes or Mock-Ups
If it's not practical to rapid-prototype a product idea, there are many types of prototyping that you can use instead.
For example, it may be better to start with DIY mock-ups rather than take a model or sketch directly to the manufacturer. They can be made from materials like cardboard and are a great way to catch potential issues before you start working with a prototype manufacturer. Depending on your needs, these mock-ups also don't need to be physical — you can use image editors like Photoshop to approximate how a package design will look in the real world.
These mock-ups don't usually take that much time to create. As a result, they can give you a real sense of how your product will work — without waiting days or weeks for your manufacturer to wrap up production on a full prototype.
Do: Test Throughout the Design Process
Don't hold off on prototyping until the end of the design process. Prototyping is useful because it can help you catch issues that are more obvious in a real model than they are on paper.
Waiting until the end of the design process to begin prototyping can mean you'll miss these errors. You may have to rush to fix them all at once so you have time .to prototype your new final design.
Don't: Always Use the Same Manufacturing Method
There is a wide variety of manufacturing approaches you can use to create a prototype.
For example, waterjet cutting is a subtractive manufacturing method that is a good fit for prototypes that need to be made of thicker materials and have minimal burring. 3D printing is a cost-effective additive manufacturing method that enables rapid prototyping and even in-house manufacturing, although the quality of finished prototypes may leave something to be desired.
Don't: Aim for the Perfect
It's tempting to get caught in a cycle of adjusting and prototyping while aiming for the perfect version of a design. Most of the time, however, this isn't practical or effective. As you create new designs, you'll probably catch fewer mistakes — or non-productively pivot between different design decisions.
Knowing when to stop is one of the most important parts of prototype design. Once you feel like you've mostly solved the problems, it's best to move on to the next step of the design and manufacturing process.
Don't: Make the Wrong Kind of Prototype
Many designers distinguish between high-f and low-fidelity prototypes. Low-fi prototypes are often simpler, rougher versions of what the finished product will look like. They're typically rough around the edges and may be made from cheaper materials or lack certain design elements. These prototypes are great if you're trying to feel out a new design and get a sense of how workable it is, without spending serious time or resources on an idea that may not work.
As you move through the design process, however, more complex, high-fi prototypes become more desirable. These will help you get a sense of what the finished product will look and feel like.
No matter the scale of your project, you'll probably feel like you don't have enough time or money. When designing a new product, it's best to start simple and ramp up spending as you have more confidence in your design. Advanced technology and manufacturing methods may be a worthwhile investment for a late-stage prototype. However, for a product that's not so far along in the design process, early spending will likely be wasted in the long run.
Best Practices for Successful Product Prototyping
An efficient prototyping process helps guarantee that you can move from idea to product with as little friction as possible. Following good practices — like ramping up spending over the prototyping process and using various techniques — will help ensure you don't commit too much too soon.
Lexie is a UX designer and digital nomad. If she’s not traveling to various parts of the country, you can find her at the local flea markets or hiking with her goldendoodle. Check out her design blog, Design Roast, and connect with her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.