The Prototype – One Name, Many Functions

Paper prototyping, rapid prototyping, explorative or evolutionary prototyping, high- or low-fidelity prototyping, vertical or horizontal – at mediaman we use different kinds of prototypes, depending on the task. Why is all of this prototyping so important?

The Primary Purpose of Prototypes: Visualization

Prototypes provide a representation of user interfaces, and we use that representation to visualize information architecture, user flows, or even complex processes. Prototyping also lets us compare different solutions. Most importantly, though, the prototype provides everyone involved in the project access to the future product. Internally, our screen designers, UX designers, and developers use it to collaborate. On the client side, we can then use the prototype for coordination with decision-makers. Without much explanation, the suggested ideas and solutions come to life. That means saved time, less paper passing, and fewer rework rounds.

Since even people without detailed project knowledge are able to provide concrete feedback in early development phases, prototypes can also be used for user testing.

Per se of limited life span

Prototype comes from the Greek “prõtos týpos.” Current definitions vary somewhat, and one comes across meanings such as “throw-away version,” “mockup,” “preliminary version,” or “trial run.” The life span of a prototype clearly varies based on which of these definitions is used. Especially with experimental prototypes, where we usually develop in different directions, the likelihood that we will throw away a prototype is pretty high. And even when a prototype has made it into a digital form (beyond the paper and Lego stages), it is usually not productive software which can be re-used later and transformed or integrated into a final product.
During a product’s development cycle there comes a point where the unfinished product surpasses the prototype – in quality, functionality or scope. At that point, the prototype usually becomes obsolete and disappears into the depths of the project folder. And I agree with that in principle.

But does it have to be this way?

Can a prototype contribute something at the later project stages, or even beyond? We use the positive effects of sometimes even interactive prototypes and reap their benefits beyond development. In documentation.

System documentation used to be dry text deserts, which could span across hundreds of pages. Modern prototyping tools such as Axure offer the option to include the documentation within the prototype exactly at the point where it is needed. Information about specific elements doesn’t have to be buried in an external document, but can now be immediately available one click away.


The prototype becomes a living, interactive form of documentation

We expand prototypes to include written annotated specifications and transform them into a living and immediate form of documentation.

Whether an annotated prototype is sufficient as stand-alone documentation depends on a project’s scope and complexity. In any case it adds a breath of fresh air to the dust-dry documentation landscape. That fresh air is welcomed by our colleagues as well as by our clients.

mediaman Wireframe

Image Credit: Wireframe
Creator: baldiri
Lisence: Creative Commons