Prototyping and UX Design: Why Prototyping Matters

In Part 1 of the Prototyping and UX Design series, Dave Broschinsky of LANDESK Software explores why prototyping is a crucial part of the software design and development process.

By Dave Broschinsky, UX Principal at LANDESK Software

Note: Dave Broschinsky talks more about the important role empathy and trust play in UX prototyping in our new podcast: The Storyboard: Conversations About UX (iTunes | Stitcher | Google Play | RSS | Soundcloud).

Have you ever been in a meeting with a group of people and thought you agreed on a project design…only to get three completely different versions of “That’s not what I thought we meant” when you presented your draft? I have a feeling that happens in all creative fields, but it’s certainly been my standard experience in twenty-odd years of UX design.

Everyone thinks differently, and the fundamental challenge of the user experience design process is how to bring together numerous individual ideas and perspectives — sometimes wildly different ones — to create a final product that meets the needs of its customers.

Designers and programmers sometimes see prototyping as a nice-to-have — but too expensive or time-consuming part of the software development process. In reality, prototyping helps save time and cost in product development, by enabling design innovations and corrections early in the process…before the more expensive stages of production have begun.

Empathy Above All

I got my bachelor’s degree in architecture, and thought at first that I’d learned the most important fundamentals of design along the way. But when I started working in customer support at an online service provider at the start of the internet era, I found that the most important part of any design effort is empathy for the customer.

It’s easy for an architect to get caught up in the grandeur of a building: imposing towers, floor-to-ceiling windows that shine like a jewel, or unusual layouts of rooms and corridors that show off the designer’s personality. But without empathy for the people who need to live or work in that building, that grand design can lead to poor environmental design — leaving people shivering in one location, with others sweating just a few yards away. And those shiny windows may bring in so much sunlight that workers can’t see their computer screens.

In the same way, designing software without understanding and empathizing with the customer’s needs can result in unnecessary features, confusing workflows, unreadable screen text, and many other problems. Customer empathy is what helps designers make sure that the final product is not only beautiful on the outside, but functional and even enjoyable on the inside.

Prototyping and Empathy

Creating prototypes is one way a designer expresses that empathy. My long experience in UX design means I’ve learned a lot about how people work with applications and tools, which should mean I’m quick to understand the end user’s point of view. However, those years of experience also mean I have a deep familiarity with technology — much deeper than most consumers have. This means I can’t assume my way of interacting with the world is the same as anyone else’s. So an interactive prototype of my software design lets me find out whether the command or sequence that feels intuitive to me is also intuitive to my customers. I find it very enlightening to see just how many different ways people can be confused or stopped cold by features and workflows I thought were clear and simple to use.

Prototyping and Testing

Prototyping is also a cost-effective way to test your design. There’s a saying in software development: “Paper is cheap, but code is expensive.” You wouldn’t start a software project without mapping out the basic framework of the product. I always brainstorm and plan by sketching — sometimes on paper, sometimes on a tablet. But if I jumped straight from the sketchbook to coding, I would still have processes with too many steps or visual elements that don’t need to be there.

Prototyping tools — like Indigo Studio, of course — help split that difference, so the journey from sketch to code isn’t quite so much like crossing a chasm. A good interactive prototype can keep a programmer from spending a lot of expensive hours on a new feature…that later has to be engineered out of the first product update, because customers just can’t stand it.

What Matters Most

Above all, prototyping builds trust. Your users can trust that the product works not just as you intend it to, but as they want and need it to. Your programmers can trust that building the product will be worth the time and expertise they put into it. And your company’s leadership can trust that the finished product has the best chance to succeed in the marketplace, because you’ve taken the time and effort to find out what features and functionality will meet the needs of the target customer.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore ways that non-designers can take advantage of prototyping, whether they’re venturing into a design task for the first time or playing another part in the development process, such as coding or marketing.

Dave Broschinsky is UX Principal at LANDESK Software, and is the Founder of Usable Patterns (www.usablepatterns.net), a usability consultancy for over 15 years. He has more than 20 years of technical and design experience in the software industry, working across disciplines to help engineers and designers collaborate to ship great products.