Prototyping 3: What is a prototype

In Part 1 of what is a prototype we discussed many dimensions of what a prototype is, but this covers only part of the story, actually half there are many more layers of complexity and if you do not understand them, instead of controlling a prototype, the prototype will control you or worse victimize you. So let’s begin with some prototyping characteristics, for lack of a better term.

Prototyping characteristics

Prototypes have many more important characteristics than just content and fidelity. Knowing what these characteristics are will also help you plan and execute the prototype to the right level of effort. Too numerous to name them all here, here are just a few examples:

Longevity — what is the lifecycle of the prototype. Is it something to be presented and thrown away, or is it part of an evolutionary prototyping design cycle? How long a prototype will continue to haunt you, should effect how much effort you are willing to put into it.

Stage — what stage of development is the product? Usually, the more mature the more detailed the prototype should be.

Speed — how much time do you have? If you have one week, it probably isn’t enough time to make as thorough a prototype as you would like, you may have to adjust your content-fidelity ambitions based on how fast you must work.

Style — will the prototype be narrative (e.g. demo’d) or interactive (e.g. used). Interactive prototypes are more difficult and time consuming than narrative ones.

Medium — will the prototype be in a digital media or physical, if digital will it be on the web, mobile or a desktop application, etc.

Being aware of the characteristics of a prototype, empower you to make much more professional judgement as to what kind of prototype you can make.

Defined audience (s)

Audience — who is the the prototype for? Unlike the end product which is meant for an end user a prototype is meant for certain stakeholders, which may or may not include end users. The prototype should be designed to communicate clearly with the stakeholders. For example, this usually means that a prototype meant for the CEO of the company, will probably look different than a prototype meant for a domain expert

Prototyping tool(s)

Prototyping tools are like tools of the trade, the more you know the better. Likewise for many the simplest software tools suffice for most purposes.

There is no one single prototyping tool that can do everything. Prototyping tools are as varied as there are types of prototypes. Prototypes can just as easily be made in Excel, Powerpoint, Visio, even Word as they can be made in Axure, Dreamweaver, Visual Studio etc.

The point is to match 2 things: First, match the prototyping characteristics with the right toolset. Secondly, of those tools, use the tools you know best. Chances are, your talents in software you know well will outstrip the added functionality of other software tools.

Personally, I no longer use a single tool, but quickly jump between Graphics editors, html editors, scripting tools, layout tools, and yes the occasional prototyping tool.

…but having said that there are some types of tools

  • dedicated prototyping tools
  • Programming tools with prototyping capabilities
  • graphical tools
  • layout tools
  • presentation tools

Dedicated prototyping tools, tools that are only for the creation of prototypes not working software or any other purpose. Examples:

  • Axure
  • Denim
  • Balsamiq

Programming tools with prototyping capabilities — tools that can create full functioning software, but due to their efficient interfaces can allow users to also create prototypes. The theory, or rather myth is if a designer uses one of these tools, a programmer can take over the design and implement it without recreating it. This is rarely true as the html code, or programming code used by a designer (focusing on visualizing something) is completely different in nature to that of a programmer (focusing on implementing something). Examples:

  • Dreamweaver
  • Visual studio
  • Flash

Graphical tools — tools that help you create the visuals of an interface, ideal for wireframes. Sometimes these tools can also mimic interaction making them suitable for a variety of prototypes. Examples:

  • Photoshop
  • Fireworks
  • Paintshop pro

Layout tools — tools that help you layout content. Sometimes these tools include interactivity such as hyperlinks or programming scripts that help create a variety of prototypes.

  • Word
  • Pages
  • Excel
  • Numbers
  • Visio/OmniGraffle

Presentation tools — tools that have some built in narrative capabilities that make it particularly (though not exclusively) suited for narrative prototypes.

  • Powerpoint
  • Keynote
  • Acrobat


Prototyping is much more than just wireframes or a ‘dumbed down’ version of real software. The Methods are many, and in addition to the methods below, there are all sorts of hybrid methods which combine features of other methods. Just to give you a flavor here are some examples of some of my favorite methods:

    • Wireframe Prototyping — A wireframe is a narrative prototype, usually created in the beginning of the design process. This prototype shows high-level sketches, visualizing conceptual assumptions about the product structure and general interaction.
    • Storyboard Prototyping — A storyboard is a narrative prototype, usually created in the early stages of the software-making process to articulate business and marketing requirements in the form of a usage scenario or story. These stories narrate the user actions needed to perform tasks as specified by marketplace, customer, and user requirements.
    • Paper Prototyping — A paper prototype is an interactive prototype that consists of a paper mockup of the user interface. The interface is usually fully functional, even if all the functionality is mocked up on paper. Paper prototypes allow you to test a design with many different stakeholders, including end users.
    • Digital Prototyping — A digital prototype is an interactive prototype that consists of a digital mockup of the user interface. The interface is usually partially functional, even if the functionality is implemented by hyperlinking, screen switching and other methods of mocking up actual interaction. Digital prototypes like paper prototypes allow you to test a design with many different stakeholders, including end users. Unlike paper prototypes, digital prototypes can be tested remotely.
    • Blank Model Prototyping — Blank models are low-fidelity prototypes produced quickly by user study participants using readily available arts and crafts materials to represent their notions about what an intended hardware/software design could be like. This method is used in the early stages of product design to elicit user perceptions and mental models about hardware form factors and interaction controls in conjunction with a software user interface.

And with the prototyping methods that covers the definition of a prototype. Now was that so painful? Now you understand at least to some degree the richness of prototyping. Instead of being victimized by these dimensions you should be wielding them like a weapon. So hopefully know you can understand the basic concepts of effective prototyping: that a prototype is:

  • purpose
  • content
  • content fidelity
  • requirements and assumption
  • prototyping characteristics
  • defined audience (s)
  • toolset
  • method

If any of these concepts are still not clear, I can discuss them in subsequent postings. Next week I will discuss the so-called benefits of prototyping, which probably could better be labelled: the myths of prototyping.

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