So you have an idea for a new product for your business - where do you start? Of course, the answer depends on your unique business maturity and processes. However, there's no question that a prototype is a hugely important step in your product's journey to market.
Prototyping is rewarding as the inventor because it gives you a physical manifestation that brings your dream to life. It's a feeling that no mere napkin sketch can get. If you've ever wondered what that feeling is like, this post is for you! In it, we offer you a complete guide to the benefits of prototyping so you can save time in your research and focus on your primary goal - turning your new product idea into a reality! The importance of prototyping can't be overstated.
What is a prototype?
A prototype is an early example or mock-up used to test a process or product. It's an iteration of your new product that converts it from an idea to physical reality and one that can demonstrate functionality. It was the global design firm Ideo that pioneered a compelling thought about the impact of prototyping:
"If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings."
We couldn't agree more. A prototype is the simplest way to portray and effectively communicate even the most complex thoughts, overcome challenges, and confirm design decisions. It's a lot more than just the final appearance of a future product.
In this article, we'll be exploring the importance of prototyping for a physical product.
How do you make a prototype?
In reality, there are many ways to make a prototype. All it is, after all, is an iteration of a design. You may even have prototyped an idea in the past without realising it. For example, if a thought occurs to you and you write an e-mail to your IT Director to explain the concept, you just prototyped your idea! Your colleague will likely provide feedback that advances the iteration and contributes to the design process.
For process improvements, prototypes can be anything from written guidelines that explain the new concept to short-term working trials of the new methodology.
For product designs, prototypes can include everything from a slide deck containing written and visual information to a fully-functioning model that you can feel with your own two hands. The latter is the prototype we want to focus on here, rather than just a visual prototype. However, there are commonalities with prototypes, so keep that in mind.
Here's our list of the top 11 benefits that a fully-functioning prototype can provide:
Test and refine
In the design phase, it's easy to miss flaws while you sketch out your initial idea. The human brain isn't designed to analyse and predict how your product will interact with the physical world. Maybe one day, our technology will advance enough that a CAD program can do all physical modelling on a computer. Still, until then, we use prototypes for that! The observations you make from working with a prototype are part of the overall testing process. You can later use that data to refine your product further.
Prototyping is an essential step in the product development process because it allows you to test and refine your idea. This iterative approach can ensure that your product is ready for the market. In addition, a prototype will enable you to experience your product tangibly, and by testing it with users, you can gather feedback that will help you improve the design.
An iterative design approach also allows you to reduce the risks associated with bringing a new product to market. By testing your idea and getting feedback from users, you can identify potential problems and fix them before releasing the product.
Prototyping can also help clarify your ideas by forcing you to think through the details of your design. It can also help you to identify potential problems and solutions.
Let's look at some examples of a test and refine approach:
Meet Andy. Andy was a young inventor who used an iterative approach in developing his invention. He started by sketching out his ideas on paper, and then he made a simple prototype to test the concept. Next, he showed the prototype to his friends and family to get their feedback, and then he refined the design based on their feedback. Andy continued this process until he had a finished product that he was happy with.
Now meet Amy. Amy was a young inventor who didn't use an iterative approach in developing her invention. She started by writing out her ideas on paper, and then she made a simple prototype to test the concept. Next, she showed the prototype to her friends and family to get their feedback. Still, they didn't have the technical expertise to offer meaningful feedback. Finally, she refined the design based on their feedback, but she didn't test it with users. As a result, her product failed in the marketplace.
The takeaway? Always test your prototypes with users to get meaningful feedback from people who will use the product.
Analyse the materials used
There is a lot to consider in the design phase of a product. One of the most integral parts is deciding what materials actually to use. While weighing the pros and cons of different manufacturing materials on paper is possible, evaluating a prototype is far more straightforward.
With a physical model of your idea, you can assess the performance of the materials used. Metals, plastics, polymers, rubbers - the list goes on.
Think of it this way - during your initial conceptualisation. It's possible to think that one material is superior to another. However, after prototyping, you may prefer to go with other materials based on durability, cost, or other constraints that your project faces.
By getting the design team to test a prototype with users, you can also gain valuable user data on how the materials perform. This feedback can help you decide which materials to use in the final version of the product.
Here are some examples of how prototypes can help with material selection:
- Durability - When designing a product, selecting suitable materials for the job is essential. A prototype can help you evaluate different materials and make the best choice for your product. By testing a prototype with users, you can also get feedback on how the materials perform. This feedback can help you decide which materials to use in the final version.
- Cost - Another critical factor to consider when selecting materials is cost. A prototype can help you evaluate different materials and make the best choice for your product. By testing a prototype with users, you can also get feedback on how the materials perform. This feedback can help you decide which materials to use in the final product.
- Appearance - The appearance of a product is often essential, and it's crucial to select the suitable materials for the job. A prototype can help you evaluate different materials and make the best choice for your product. By testing a prototype with users, you can also get feedback on how the materials perform. This feedback can help you decide which materials to use in the final product.
- Functionality - The functionality of a product is often essential, and it's crucial to select the suitable materials for the job. A prototype can help you evaluate different materials and make the best choice for your product. By testing a prototype with the target audience, you can also get feedback on various aspects of how the materials perform. This feedback can help you decide which materials to use in the completed design.
Evaluate manufacturing options
When it comes to manufacturing, you have many options to choose from; there are the country of origin, trade barriers, and manufacturing technologies for you to think about. While you may have one particular idea about the manufacturing process, making a prototype only helps clarify which of the long list of options is suitable for you. Producing a professional prototype may open up other fabrication methods or allow you to work with companies that you hadn't previously considered.
Here are some examples of how prototypes can help with evaluating manufacturing options:
- Country of origin - You have many options when selecting a manufacturing location. You can use a prototype to find out if the people who will be using your product want it made in their country or if they would rather have it made in another country.
- Manufacturing technologies - When selecting a manufacturing location, you also have to think about the available manufacturing technologies. For example, suppose you want to make a product that requires a lot of metal stamping. In that case, you will need to find a manufacturing facility with that technology. A prototype can help you determine if the available manufacturing technologies suit your product.
- Feasibility - Testing its design and manufacturing process is essential to ensure that a product is feasible. A prototype can help you to do both of these things. For example, if you want to make a product out of metal, you need to ensure that the manufacturing process is feasible; you need to test the manufacturing process to see if it can produce the product in the quantities you need.
See also Design for Manufacturing.
Provide quality assurance
Not all products are created equal. You know if you've ever ordered something cheap online only to have it break after a few uses. Likely, the manufacturer didn't test that product, or it didn't go through any rigorous quality assurance. But that's not what you want for your new product? Quality assurance gives you the confidence that the development of your product is issue-free. It's comforting as an inventor to know that your final product is fit for everyday use. That's the great thing about a prototype - it's an early way to ensure the final design of your product is top quality before you roll it out for full production.
Here are some examples of how prototypes can help with the quality assurance process:
- Testing - One of the best ways to ensure that your product is high quality is to test it. Prototypes can help you by simulating how the product will be used in the real world. This way, you can catch any errors or problems before they become a reality. A functional prototype captures all the user's interactions with the product; this allows you to test the product realistically and ensure that it is ready for full production.
- Design reviews - A prototype can also help you catch design errors before they become a reality. By having a physical prototype, you can hold design reviews with your team and get their feedback on the design; this can help you improve your product's design and make sure that it is ready for full production.
- Pre-production - Prototypes can help with quality assurance by determining if the product is ready for full production. By testing a prototype, you can find out if there are any problems with the product that needs to be fixed before it goes into full production.
- Feedback - Feedback from potential customers and end-users is another way to ensure the quality of your product right from the early stages through to the final product. New ideas can come from anywhere, so it's important to heed any feedback about your product, which will help you progress in the right direction; this includes feedback from people who test your initial prototype and could involve you using new technologies or different techniques.
Figure out the cost of production
When planning your pitch to your partners or investors, how do you get the data you need to understand your constraints, such as time and cost? A prototype can help your engineers determine the material required for production. It lets your accountants accurately quantify the true cost-per-unit for its eventual production. After all, you'll get a bill from the manufacturer. In it, you'll find lots of helpful costing and materials data that you wouldn't be able to access without going with a prototype.
Here are some examples of how prototypes can help you to figure out the production costs:
- Materials - By creating a prototype, you can determine how much material you need for production; this will help determine the cost of the materials necessary for the product.
- Labour costs - A prototype can also help you estimate the labour costs for production; this helps figure out how much it will cost to produce the product.
- Manufacturing - By having a prototype, you can also figure out the manufacturing costs for the product; this will help you plan and budget for the production of your product.
Find efficiencies and savings.
Think of the prototype stage as a trial run of what it takes to develop your product for the masses. You can take a close look at your processes and revamp them to suit your findings by running a trial. For example, through a prototype stage, you may discover that you don't need a full-time analyst to cover the coordination of the manufacturing process. That reallocation can free up resources for other parts of the design and planning process, further enhancing your end product. In the business world, time is money. The faster you can get your product to market, the more likely you will corner that market. Prototyping can help expedite this process by allowing you to find efficiencies and savings in the production of your product; this includes finding ways to reduce labour, manufacturing, and material costs.
Here are some examples of how an iterative design effort can help you to find efficiencies and savings throughout the design process using physical prototypes:
- Less time-consuming bureaucracy - Sometimes, there can be much bureaucracy and red tape in the design and manufacturing process; this can slow down and increase costs. A prototype can help you bypass some of this bureaucracy by assisting you in determining the feasibility of your product before it goes into full production.
- Leverage insights from each team member - When everyone has a physical prototype to work with, they can better understand the product and contribute their insights for improvement; this includes suggestions from people with different backgrounds, such as engineers, marketers, and salespeople.
- Eliminate waste - A prototype can help you identify and eliminate waste in the production process; this will help you save money and time.
- Prevents overthinking - Overthinking can lead to paralysis by analysis; this can cause delays in the design process and add unnecessary costs. A prototype can help you move forward with your product development by allowing you to test and iterate on your ideas quickly.
- Streamline the manufacturing process - Having a prototype lets you figure out the most efficient way to manufacture your product; this will help to speed up the production process.
Modify your equipment
One of the best benefits of prototyping is that it's iterative. You can make adjustments to your roadmap along the way. For instance, once you do a prototype, you may realise some great benefits from even a simple change to your tooling or equipment. Perhaps one version of the prototype fits better with your industrial process than the next. That consideration gets calculated into the list of pros and cons for your final journey to market.
For example, 3D printing technology has come down in price so much that it is now more affordable for many small businesses.
Suppose you're not currently using 3D printing technology in your prototyping process. In that case, it might be time to consider how this technology can improve your efficiency and save you costs.
Make a more durable product.
The durability of your product relies on much more than just the materials and manufacturing process. Depending on the project, the prototype you commission might simply be the intermediate item in a finished product.
An example is how a company that works in the bicycle accessories niche might develop an impressive new design for a bicycle seat. However, the idea might not make it very far without problem-solving how to attach the seat to the existing materials on a bike. A prototype allows that company to work with a real-world sample to ensure that it's durable, long-lasting and fit for long-term use by its customers.
Any experienced inventor or design engineer knows that the first step in developing a new product is to create a physical representation of the idea; this could be a crude sketch, a detailed drawing, or even a three-dimensional model. This exercise aims better to understand the size and proportions of the various parts. It also allows for a more accurate assessment of the design's manufacturability. It will be necessary to create several prototype iterations before arriving at the final design in many cases. Creating a physical form study prototype, working prototype or just a scale model can help with this process by providing a tangible way to visualise the concept and make necessary adjustments.
When you're designing a new product, it's essential to consider the durability of your design. Will it be able to withstand drops, bumps, and other impacts? Will it break if it's dropped? Analysing the geometric features of your prototype can help you make design decisions that will improve the durability of your product. For example, you can use simulation tools to test how your prototype will respond to different types of impact. This information can help you make changes to your design to make it more resistant to breakage. Additionally, analysing the geometric features of your prototype can also help you to identify potential manufacturing issues. By placing these issues early on, you can change your design to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture.
What do you think is better - going to a financier with a plan and a pocketful of great ideas? Or, going to a financier with all of that plus a working prototype of a specific product idea? You guessed it - door number two is the preferred option. First, investors will take you more seriously if you have a fully working prototype. Showing them a physical object helps set your idea apart from simple sketches or computer-generated images. Great investors see dozens of those per week, so why wouldn't you want to stand out from the crowd? Having a working prototype saves you from that awkward moment when an investor asks you, "so can we see your idea in action?" Instead of standing there stunned, a prototype allows you to demonstrate the real-world value that your idea can bring.
A prototype shows investors that you're serious about your idea, that you've committed your investments, and that you're already one step closer to market.
Resolve internal disputes across the design team
It takes lots of company resources to bring a new idea to market. Sometimes, not all departments or contributors agree with each other along the way. However, a quick mockup can often silence arguments between engineers and designers (or other departments) because it provides a practical example of how the product functions. Then, your design teams can set their differences aside and continue to optimise the design.
Yes, having a prototype helps speed up time-to-market. Still, it can also help prevent costly design errors when different team members don't see eye to eye.
Encourage innovation across your organisation.
Just as a prototype can resolve differences between departments, it can also encourage innovation across your company. No product development cycle can be self-contained to a particular area of expertise. A prototype excites and involves departments all over your organisation in the product development process. Involvement benefits your organisation by helping to build a culture of innovation and contributes to the product since the diverse input adds value to its journey. It also trains your different teams to be experts on the new product, meaning your sales team understands the core features. In addition, the marketing department can successfully portray the product to your audience. Prototypes help get everyone on the same page to speak.
Through prototyping, encouraging and involving your whole team in the product development cycle helps cultivate a company culture of innovation while developing a better product.
How is prototyping used in a design thinking context?
Prototyping is often used as a core element of the design thinking process. It allows designers and other stakeholders to test new ideas and solutions, iterate on existing designs, gather feedback from users and stakeholders, and ultimately create more effective products or services; this can be especially useful in the early stages of product development when there are many unknowns, and the landscape is constantly changing. By creating quick and inexpensive prototypes, designers can test their ideas and assumptions in real-world situations, gather user feedback, refine their designs as needed, and ultimately create more effective products.
Additionally, prototyping also helps engage stakeholders across different departments by encouraging collaboration and experimentation, leading to new insights and ideas that would not have been possible without the prototype.
What are the different types of prototypes?
A prototype is an early sample, model, or product release built to test a concept or process. The word prototype derives from the Greek πρότυπον (prototypon), neuter of πρότυπος (prototypos), literally "first-formed", from πρῶτος (prōtos) "first" + τύπος (tupos) "impression". Prototypes are widely used in many fields, often during the design phase of new products or processes.
Different types of prototypes can be categorised based on their purpose, the level of fidelity, or the methods used to create them.
Based on purpose:
- Proof of concept prototype: A proof of concept prototype is built to test the feasibility of a proposed solution. This type of prototype is usually low fidelity, as the main goal is to test if the concept is viable.
- Functional prototype: A functional prototype is built to test the functionality of a proposed solution. This type of prototype is usually high fidelity, as the main goal is to test how well the proposed solution works.
Based on fidelity:
- Low-fidelity prototype: A low-fidelity prototype is a rough approximation of the final product. It is typically used early in the design process to test concepts and get feedback from users.
- High-fidelity prototype: A high-fidelity prototype is a close approximation of the final product. It is typically used later in the design process to test detailed designs and user interactions.
Based on methods used to create them:
- Manual prototype: A manual prototype is created by hand, using materials such as cardboard, paper, or clay. This type of prototype is usually low fidelity. The main goal is to test concepts and get feedback from users.
- Digital prototype: A digital prototype is created using Adobe Photoshop or Sketch software. This type of prototype is usually high fidelity, as the main goal is to test detailed designs and user interactions.
Also, see our more in-depth article on the different types of prototypes.
What might I use instead of a prototype?
When starting on a new product development journey, you will likely face whether you should create a prototype. While there are many benefits to prototyping, some drawbacks might make you consider alternatives.
One possibility is to create a mockup instead of a prototype. Mockups can be used to test the overall look and feel of a product without the need for costly and time-consuming production. Another possibility is to use computer simulations to test how a product will work in real-world conditions; this can effectively assess the feasibility and identify potential design flaws before moving into production.
Ultimately, whether or not to prototype will come down to your specific needs and objectives. However, it is worth considering all of your options before deciding.
What's the difference between a prototype and a minimum viable product (MVP)?
A prototype is a preliminary version of a product used for testing and evaluation. MVP is a strategy used in product development whereby a basic version of the product is released with only the essential features to get feedback from users and improve the final product. Prototypes are often created using paper or foam board, while MVPs are actual working versions of the product.
The main difference between prototypes and MVPs is that prototypes are used to test ideas and gather feedback. In contrast, MVPs are used to gather feedback about the product itself. Whether to use a prototype or an MVP depends on the stage of product development and the design team's goals. Prototypes are used early in the development process, while MVPs are used later.
What's the difference between a prototype and a beta?
A prototype is a preliminary version of a product used for testing and evaluation. Beta is a pre-release version of a product made available to a limited number of users for testing purposes. The main difference between prototypes and betas is that prototypes are used to test ideas and gather feedback. In contrast, betas are used to test the actual product. Betas are usually released to a broader group of users than prototypes. They are generally more polished and closer to the final product.
How might I go about making a prototype?
The first step in making a prototype is to determine the purpose. Is it for testing a design concept? Is it to gather user feedback? For promoting a product or service? Once the goal is clear, you can start to develop a plan for the prototype. How much detail will be needed? What kind of materials will be used? What kind of budget is available? The answers to these questions will help determine the project's scope.
Once the plan is in place, you can start to build the prototype; this might involve 3D printing, laser cutting, or simply assembling components. The important thing is to create a prototype that accurately represents the end product or service. After all, a prototype is only as good as its ability to simulate the real thing.
What are some common problems with prototypes?
One of the most common problems with prototypes is that they can be expensive and time-consuming; this is especially true if the prototype needs to be made from high-quality materials. Additionally, prototypes can often be inaccurate representations of the final product because they are usually simplified versions that lack many features and details that will be present in the finished product. As a result, they may not provide an accurate picture of how the product will look or work.
Another common problem with prototypes is that they can be challenging to update and change; any changes made to the prototype need to be carefully documented and implemented; this can be a tedious and time-consuming process, ultimately delaying the product development timeline.
What are some benefits of prototyping?
One of the main benefits of prototyping is that it allows you to test ideas and gather feedback early on in the development process; this can save time and money in the long run, as it can help avoid making changes to the final product that may not be necessary. Additionally, prototypes can help build hype and excitement around a new product or service, generating buzz and interest, ultimately leading to more sales.
Another benefit of prototyping is that it allows you to make mistakes; this might sound counterintuitive, but making mistakes during the prototype phase is good. It will enable you to learn from your mistakes and make necessary changes before the product goes to market; this can help to ensure that the end product is of the highest quality possible.
What are some risks of prototyping?
One of the main risks of prototyping is that it can be expensive and time-consuming. If not done correctly, prototypes can also be inaccurate representations of the final product, leading to false expectations and disappointment among users. In addition, prototypes can often be challenging to change and update; this can delay the product development timeline and cause frustration among team members.
Another risk of prototyping is creating a false sense of security for the design teams. A prototype working well doesn't mean that the end product will. Many factors can affect the success of a product, and prototypes can only provide a limited picture of how the finished product will perform.
Using prototypes at various user testing stages will help ensure that the final product is as close to perfect as possible.
Creating a prototype is an essential step in the product development process. Still, it's important to remember that prototypes are not perfect. Several risks and challenges are associated with prototyping, but you can overcome these with careful planning and execution. When done correctly, prototyping can save time and money and help to create a better-finished product.
What are some risks of not prototyping?
If you choose not to prototype your product, you risk making expensive mistakes that you could have avoided. Additionally, you may miss out on valuable feedback that could help to improve the final product. Further, not prototyping can lead to false assumptions about the marketability of a product. without actually testing it with potential customers
Another risk of not prototyping is that you may waste time and resources developing a product that no one wants or needs; prototypes can help validate ideas and ensure they are feasible. In addition, without a prototype, it may be difficult to gauge whether or not a product is worth pursuing.
What are some design considerations for prototypes?
There are a few key design considerations to consider when creating prototypes. First, it's essential to develop prototypes that are realistic representations of the final product; this means paying attention to details like size, weight, and materials. Additionally, it's vital to ensure that prototypes are durable and withstand repeated use.
It's also essential to choose the right level of fidelity for your prototype. You want to strike a balance between accuracy and affordability. Too much detail can be expensive and time-consuming, but insufficient detail can lead to inaccurate results. And finally, you want to make sure that your prototypes are easy to use and understand; this means keeping them simple and avoiding complex features or functionality. By keeping these design considerations in mind, you can create prototypes that will help to improve the final product.
What are some user testing considerations for prototypes?
When conducting user testing on prototypes, it's essential to keep a few things in mind. First, you want to ensure that your prototype represents the final product; this means paying attention to details like size, weight, and materials. Additionally, you want to ensure that your prototype is durable and withstand repeated use.
It's also essential to choose the right level of fidelity for your prototype. You want to strike a balance between accuracy and affordability. Too much detail can be expensive and time-consuming, but insufficient detail can lead to inaccurate results. And finally, you want to make sure that your prototypes are easy to use and understand; this means keeping them simple and avoiding complex features or functionality. By keeping these user testing considerations in mind, you can create prototypes that will help to improve the final product.
What's the difference between conventional prototyping and rapid prototyping?
When it comes to prototyping, there are two main approaches: conventional prototyping and rapid prototyping. Traditional prototyping generally involves creating a prototype by hand, using materials such as clay, wood, or cardboard. This approach can be time-consuming and expensive, but it allows for greater flexibility in the design process.
On the other hand, rapid prototyping generally refers to 3D printing technology to create prototypes. This approach is faster and more cost-effective than conventional prototyping. Still, it can be less flexible since computer software must complete the design.
Ultimately, the best approach for prototyping will depend on the project's specific needs.
When might I want to create multiple prototypes for my new product?
There are a few instances where creating multiple prototypes for a new product might make sense:
- If the product is complex or has multiple features, it may be helpful to create separate prototypes for each element; this can help simplify the testing process and ensure that you thoroughly test each component.
- If you are considering different versions of the product, it may be helpful to create prototypes of each version; this can help compare and contrast the various options and choose the best one.
- If budget is a concern, creating multiple prototypes can help to reduce costs by allowing for smaller batches of each prototype to be completed.
Creating multiple prototypes can be time-consuming and expensive. Still, it can be a helpful way to evaluate different options for a new product.
Innovolo has your prototype covered.
The benefits of prototyping can be as numerous as the number of steps involved in bringing a new product to market. So why not turbocharge your latest product opportunity by working with experts? Innovolo is an award-winning product design company that offers end-to-end assistance for your innovations. That means that you can rest easy knowing that the pros handle the critical stages of your product development.
You may also be interested in these articles:
- 10 Ways to Effectively Plan for Innovation and Product Development
- How Can I Have a Budget for Product Development if My Company is Making a Loss?
- 5 Fundamental Questions You Must Ask When Doing a Product Feasibility Study
- The Top 5 Reasons Why Prototyping Is Really Important for Your New Product Development
- What Is The Difference Between Conventional Prototyping and Rapid Prototyping?
- The main benefits of prototyping are that it can help to improve the final product, reduce costs, and speed up the development process.
- However, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind when conducting user testing on prototypes, such as ensuring that the prototype represents the final product and choosing the right level of fidelity.
- Creating multiple prototypes can also be helpful in certain situations, such as when testing a complex product or evaluating different versions of a product.