Once the requirements for a new product start to come into focus, or even before then, we can learn a lot about the problem and potential solutions by creating prototypes.

The cycle of designing, building and testing prototypes is the key to quick improvement and better outcomes. Whether they are hand-drawn sketches or sophisticated code, prototypes give people something to react to, which helps us learn how to keep improving.

Although prototypes may serve multiple purposes, and can include a wide range of interactivity, here are four general types. When one or more of these types of prototyping are done and those prototypes are placed in front of representative users for feedback, we almost always learn ways to keep making the design more efficient, effective and satisfying.

  • Conceptual Prototypes.
    When we talk about people's mental model of a system, it can often be represented by a conceptual prototype. There are many variations - simple flowcharts, more complex card sorts for menu design, extremely complex thousand page site maps - but one thing they all have in common is that they are abstract versions of the system, rather than something that looks like the final product.
  • Behavioral Prototypes.
    The "behaviors" studied with these prototypes is not system behavior, but human behavior. Again, they rarely look like the final product, because they are intended to help answer questions at a more abstract level. A behavioral prototype can also be a functional prototype; the point is that it must reveal something about people's behavior to be a behavioral prototype.
  • Functional Prototypes.
    Functional prototypes represent functionality, even if they themselves do not offer dynamic interactivity. Annotated wireframes are a classic example of functional prototypes; they show how something should work, not how it should look.
  • Appearance Prototypes.
    Finally we need to sweat the details about how the final product will appear. Appearance prototypes should be very realistic. They give the stakeholders confidence to move ahead, and they answer questions about how details will be resolved.

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