The Power of Prototyping Your Next Big Idea ⚡️
When exploring options for creating a new software product, it can be overwhelming to decide where to start. The software development ecosystem is awash with services, processes, and tools – all with different use cases and varying levels of technical expertise needed to utilize them. Beginning your product development journey by immediately jumping into writing code can be time consuming, expensive, and difficult to verify that the product you’re building is the best solution for your users. Instead, by starting with a prototype built from off-the-shelf tools, you can test and iterate quickly on your solution before building a final product from scratch.
Before diving into the prototyping process, let’s start with a few definitions.
Prototype, Proof of Concept, MVP: What’s the Difference?
These terms are used frequently in the software development world and are often mixed and mingled with one another. This can cause confusion when explaining your product to an investor or working with a development partner. At Lithios, we have separated these concepts into distinct steps in the product development process.
Building a prototype of a software product is often the first step in the process. The purpose of a prototype is to verify that the product you are developing actually solves the problem your users have. As we’ll explore below, prototypes are typically built using off-the-shelf tools and services and require little to no code to be written. Prototypes are not typically released to the public, but instead used with a test group of users.
A proof of concept is very similar to a prototype in terms of purpose. Both are built to verify the effectiveness of a proposed software solution. If a prototype is constructed to validate the usefulness of your idea with a target audience, a proof of concept is developed to validate that a specific technical pathway to developing that idea is feasible. For example, if your product will require AI or Machine Learning, you could develop a small-scale proof of concept to prove that the large-scale version is worth investing in.
Once you have validated your solution and technical feasibility, the next step is to develop the first version of your product that will be released to a larger audience. This typically takes the form of a MVP, or Minimum Viable Product. The purpose of a MVP is to only build the features that are 100% necessary to solve your users’ problem. This ensures that you don’t spend unnecessary time or resources building a full product with all the bells and whistles that will need to be iterated on as you scale.
An important (and rather long) note on MVPs: it is important to clearly define the expectations of your user base before beginning development on a minimum viable product. This is primarily to ensure that the features you are building are in fact the minimum features necessary to solve the users’ problem. However, there is an often overlooked reason to carefully consider your users’ presumptions: expectations of the quality of your user experience (UX). When limiting the scope of an MVP, the first impulse of many product owners is to scrap any work on the look or feel of their product to instead focus only on functionality. If you are building a B2B SaaS product or a utility app, this is not necessarily an issue, since your customers will likely be able to overlook the prototype UI and focus on the problem you’re solving for them. A clunky UI does become a problem if you are building an MVP for a consumer population. Consumers have many quality products to choose from, and an aesthetically clunky product can be judged as amateurish even before they try it out. This is especially true if you are trying to break into a product market that asks users to share details about themselves or personal information, like a social media platform, booking service, or payment portal. This kind of application must build a high level of trust with each user immediately in order to be useful, and a clunky UX can make that difficult. All in all, developing a successful MVP is a balancing act of time spent on features and experience. When in doubt, always fall back on your users’ direct needs.
How Can I Get Started Prototyping My Idea?
Contrary to popular belief, it is very possible to build an effective prototype for your product idea without writing a single line of code. The first step is to think about the user experience flow. How will users interact with your app? What actions are most important for users to be able to take? With the answers to these questions, you can begin to plan out which features of your idea will be most important to emulate in a prototype. From here, start exploring services that accomplish components of your solution. Looking to capture data from a user? Instead of a custom form on a website, set up a quick Google Form. Need to store data? Use Google Sheets instead of a custom database. One of our favorite tools for building prototypes is Zapier, which automatically connects different services together, no code required. Store user data, schedule SMS messages, and more just with these no-code integrations.
In many cases, you’ll need to integrate yourself into the prototype workflow as well and do a few manual tasks (early on at least). If your solution requires a monthly email to be sent to customers with a report of their earnings and you can’t find an off-the-shelf solution, take a few minutes to send it yourself. Once you have an initial workflow put together, test it! Communicate with a few select potential users or customers and see if it saves them time, energy, or resources. The best part of this process is that, for the most part, it’s completely free to determine the effectiveness of your solution.
How Can a Dev Shop Help with My Prototype?
Custom solutions are expensive. Lots of off-the-shelf solutions and services provide powerful features to help get your prototype off the ground. A good development shop will have the experience to know what third-party services to use.
Here at Lithios, we begin the product development process with a Discovery phase, where we sit down with our clients and meticulously plan and develop their user experience flow, prototype, proof of concept, or MVP. This can involve market research, user interviews, and UX reviews, but the primary goal of the process is to determine the most effective initial feature set to optimize time and user experience. From there, we help our clients find tools to effectively prototype their solutions, or work with our development team to build and release a MVP.
Throughout the process, we make sure to always be forward-thinking about the transition from prototype to MVP to a full-scale production ready product. Just like a new building is built on a solid foundation, we always take a bit of extra time to ensure that the basic bones of your user experience flow and MVP are solid. If you have any questions about our product design and development process or want to get in touch, drop us a line here.
Brendan Michaelsen is the Director of Technology at Lithios. He enjoys designing and implementing complex technical systems. A fun fact about Brendan, he sleeps on textbooks to absorb knowledge while dormant.