A prototype is a concrete model of a rough idea. Most design fields use prototypes to communicate ideas and these days, it seems to be well-used in learning experience design.
There are many reasons why you might want to prototype. You can use a prototype to think through a design idea. You can use a prototype to show others how something will function or look and feel. And you can prototype to test ideas and get input from users.
Benefits of Prototyping
The advantages of prototyping far outweigh the disadvantages. So, let’s start with the benefits. Prototypes can:
- Serve as a cognitive aid to help you implement your varied ideas
- Help you explore an idea in the real world
- Help you find problems early in the design process
- Support an iterative design process
- Enable you to avoid the error of spending time and money on an idea that won’t work (the fail fast concept)
- Communicate how something will work to others who have no idea what you are talking about
- Help users, learners, sponsors and stakeholders get involved in the design process
- Educate sponsors and stakeholders of the rationale for your design decisions and the effort it takes to develop an effective product
Disadvantages of Prototyping
It’s hard to think of disadvantages to prototyping. I am grudgingly listing a few here.
- Prototyping takes time at the front end of a project. (But, prototyping should save time in the long run).
- Supervisors may not understand why you would take the time to prototype, so this could be a disadvantage.
- Fail fast is an axiom of the prototyping approach. but some work cultures aren’t comfortable with the idea of failing. (Hint: Don’t use that phrase.)
In his book, Leaving ADDIE for SAM, Michael Allen points out that too often, people high up in an organization will dictate training needs and approaches for their people. This often ends up in a learning intervention that is irrelevant or uninteresting. By prototyping for the purpose of showing it to learners, you are likely to elevate the quality of instruction when you use their input and feedback.
What to Prototype
To decide what to prototype, consider what you need to think through, communicate to others or test and evaluate. Let that guide your decision on what to prototype. Remember that you can prototype more than one thing and that you can combine different kinds of prototypes. Some types of prototypes are listed below.
- Look and Feel Prototype. In a look and feel prototype, include the overall design, shapes, color palette, typeface and the user interface (all the controls).
- Interactive Prototype. Identify an interaction you are considering and prototype this, including instructions for completing the activity. This could be a game, a simulation or instructional exercise. Then ask learners to complete the activity and see how they perform.
- Responsive Prototype. If you are designing a product that is responsive (will vary depending on the device), you could prototype how it will appear on each device.
- Feasibility Prototype. If you or a team generate several innovative solutions, then you may want to create models of each one as a proof of each concept to see if the ideas are practical and worth implementing.
How to Prototype
Your prototypes can range from low-fidelity to high-fidelity. You can also start with a low-fidelity prototype and as you refine it through feedback, move to higher fidelity.
Paper and pencil. A sketched prototype is an example of one that is low-fidelity. This can be a surprisingly useful way to start. Imagine you were designing a mobile support app. To start, you could sketch the key screens and navigation using a mobile template. As you refine your design from peer and user input, you could then move to a digital format.
Wireframe Tools. Wireframes show the skeleton of a user interface or web page without getting into too much detail, other than the placement of controls and navigation. There are many online apps for creating design mockups and many are now enabled with interactive features. I use Balsamiq for web page and mobile wireframes.
PowerPoint. I think of PowerPoint as a medium-fidelity prototyping tool. Because it has graphic capabilities and can hyperlink to other slides, you can quickly simulate interactivity. Also, PowerPoint defaults to a horizontal slide orientation, which is commonly used in eLearning. Because you can customize the slide size, you should be able to use PowerPoint for vertical prototypes too.
Authoring/eLearning Production Tools. You have more opportunity to build a high-fidelity prototype using an authoring tool. Experienced prototype designers will tell you to start at a low or medium level of detail at first, and then work your way into a high-fidelity prototype. One advantage of starting out with an authoring tool, is that you won’t need to duplicate the work when you decide on your final design. The disadvantage is that you can dive too quickly into the design details.
Prototyping Apps. Applications that were designed specifically for prototyping tend to focus on web page and mobile design. Therefore, they may suit your needs if you are designing mobile learning, learning portals and HTML-based courses. You’ll find many reviews of prototyping apps.
Although this article focused on digital products, you can prototype nearly any type of learning or performance support intervention. For example, you might facilitate a brief training session as a prototype for a longer workshop. Or you might curate content for a small group of people as a prototype for a company-wide curation effort.
What do you include in your prototypes? Answer in the Comments section below.