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How rapid prototyping helps speed up design

Speed is a measurement that we are all familiar with. It’s a concept that defines how fast something moves from one point to another. Formula1 teams are constantly looking for one more second, athletes are always trying to get faster, the list could go on. It even shows up in product development. So, how can rapid prototyping speed up design?

One thing that comes to mind is time to market or how long it takes to get a product, service or offering from idea to customers’ hands. By looking at rapid prototyping, it’s origins and nuances combined with insight from professional experience plus resources to help you and your team you’ll be able to start figuring out how it can speed up design for you.

Another method worth mentioning is Google’s Sprint as it shares similar values. If you haven’t, check out the book on it. It is however a different topic so I will cover that separately.

Rapid prototyping, what is it?

Since we’re on the topic of speed I should just jump right into it right? No. Like Ye said “You need to pump your brakes and drive slow homie.” I can’t tell you how to get faster without telling you what the heck I’m even talking about. 

I will say that rapid prototyping is a concept heavily attached to lean methodologies and is a tool in a toolset that allows for quicker validation of ideas. It can come in all shapes, sizes and apply to different types of businesses if looked at abstractly.

My views aren’t solely reserved to digital product design as I’ve worked on physical ones too; however most of what I’ll discuss on the topic of rapid prototyping and its ability to increase speed will be focused on digital product design and some of the stuff that has worked.

Typically the product design process follows a linear or cyclical flow depending upon the organization. During the project’s lifetime the design team gets tasked with providing solutions to challenges ranging all sorts of contexts. Most teams have sets of processes and tools to create artifacts that are used to develop an idea into a final, deliverable product.

Oftentimes it’s during a design team’s process that they focus on things like research, ideation, wire-framing, prototyping and testing. These phases can be split apart in more linear organizations that follow a traditional waterfall or agile method. Which leads to the topic of Lean UX and the concept of rapid prototyping.

The latter spawned out of the former as a way to increase a design team’s efficiency in dealing with bureaucracy sometimes faced when trying to instill a methodology of thought known as design thinking. It was a great way for that small team to execute quickly, iterate just as quickly and get concepts to market much faster with less waste.

I will pause to note that the concept of lean relates back to Toyota and their just in time inventory control as well as other notable practices about how their organizations are structured and run.

Really rapid prototyping is a way for teams to move faster into a testable concept and reduce the amount of extra or wasteful activities that prevent them from getting in front of users and gathering feedback. That’s not to say that every project should be approached this way but a lot of projects can. 

Visual communication methods are extremely helpful in sharing ideas. A prototype is just that.

Rapid prototyping, in practice

Ok, great. We know that rapid prototyping was born out of the need for speed so let’s get into how we can start applying this technique. First and foremost, fidelity is probably going to be the most important. 

Is it going to be a paper prototype, interactive prototype, blend of the two or something else? There are quite a few approaches. Most of my experiences relate to interactive prototypes. I’ve used tools like InVision, AxureRP, Justinmind, Figma and even HTML/CSS/JS.

From there it’s simply about finding people to talk to and having things to talk to them about. Depending on the problems that need solving your inquiries will be different. Meaning if you’ve got a pretty solid set of requirements and you can simply implement a quick change to an interface then your questioning might be different from trying to figure out if an idea will work at all or what features it should even have.

Either way you’re going to need a script of sorts. Something to guide the conversation and focus your inquisitions on the purpose of the research session. 

If you are lucky like I have been in the past then you’ll get to work with a researcher or have someone help you facilitate these situations. If you’re not lucky or are responsible for putting it all together yourself then all you have to do is think about the problem that you’re solving for, the design that you created and your intentions behind it.

After that you figure out if your user resonates with what’s going on. 

That can be done by clicking through a set of linked screens explaining scenarios, opinions and ideas. It can be done by prompting the user up front with the question of what they think about what is in front of them. It can also be done by requiring them to try to complete tasks in order to figure out if they’re able to accomplish their goals.

Along the way you’ll be encouraging them to speak openly and probing them with questions about their thoughts of the design, what they might expect to see or how they might expect interactions to behave.

During this time someone or yourself will be diligently capturing notes and hopefully recording the video for future reference. At which point the data will be synthesized, patterns will emerge and improvements or adjustments can be applied. In a way it’s the ultimate collaborative process between the business and the user because the company can get something in front of them and ask if it works or not.

That’s the beauty of design thinking and rapid prototyping. It allows for faster innovation and creativity because it involves others and requires a group to work together.

Rapid prototyping, the nitty gritty

I say all of this to say that working in this manner isn’t some mystical process that removes the need to create artifacts or skip steps. In order for this approach to work the environment has to be right. Max Versteppin can’t win trophies if he is unable to push the car harder each time around the track. Doing so requires a sound machine built by a smoothly operating team. 

The same applies to working lean. If you’re going to start validating quickly with rapid prototyping you’ll need to make sure everything is just right.

The product development lifecycle usually has some sort of process that requires cross-collaborative teams to regularly and openly communicate. That regular and open communication is a big part of the proper environment. It will also change based on the size of the team. In my last position I worked hand in hand with a Senior Visual Designer, User Researcher and the engineering team lead responsible for that product or feature. 

One of the main things we made sure to do early on was have a kickoff meeting. We had regular standups, shared communications through Jira, Storybook, Figma and whatever else was necessary. That helped gauge when we could chat asynchronously or when it was time for a call. Additional communication was often done visually through diagrams and compositions. 

Beyond communicating you’ve got to have a really good sense for design and know your toolkit. In order to break the grid you had to make it to start. Same applies here. You need to know your processes. What’s the current structure like? Is it a team or are you solo? How are things already set up? Do you have all the right tools?

When I said all organizations are different. They’re all different. I’ve worked for a large corporation that had small experimental teams built in. No processes existed. We were able to create our own and press forward with rapid prototyping to test and validate ideas for larger funding initiatives.

I’ve also worked for an organization with a structured waterfall process that was open to reconfiguring it’s approach. My direct and I sat down, put it all on the wall and looked objectively at everything. After figuring out we could chop off weeks we implemented a leaner approach and began shipping way faster.

In that same organization the use of rapid prototyping allowed an engineer and I to experiment with our internal process which boosted product discovery, turn around time and created a framework to spin up apps in our ecosystem.

Rapid prototyping, resources

What I’ve provided is a top level overview of how to approach rapid prototyping for increased speed in design. That’s purposeful as like most things design related it’s contextual. The needs of you or your team may be very different from my exact experiences therefore my being vague is of benefit to you. I think it’s important for everyone working together to create a really great product to have an understanding of lean methodology and how it can be applied to the product design process. Here’s a few resources for learning more and applying it in future projects.

Rapid Prototyping

Prototyping Tools

Lean Methodology

Image of the book Lean UX which talks about rapid prototyping.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all rapid prototyping is a fantastic tool for creating faster design solutions to challenging problems and then getting them in front of your users in order to gain feedback and understanding about their needs and pain points. A lot of steps and tasks might come before the actual art of prototyping. That is all dependent on you, your organization and environment.

Therefore when taking a leaner approach and using rapid prototyping as a tool to speed up design and quickly ship great solutions it’s really important to be self-aware as a designer or a design team trying to implement this. Also be aware of any potential constraints. They can come from a variety of different areas. From there be curious and open to working collaboratively with others. Because really the speed comes from efficiency.

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