The Digital Product Guide: From Prototype To MVP

10.16.15
Design

This is part two of our Guide To Building A Digital Product. Read part one, on discovering your target market, here.Building and launching a new product can seem difficult. Like you’re fighting a scary, perplexing beast. Providing a value-added experience is the key to a phenomenal product and happy customers.You can tame the beast - we promise. There’s a simple strategy that you will use to rise to the challenge: the development of your Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

What Is An MVP?

An MVP is a product that offers the highest possible return compared to the degree of risk in releasing a product to market. It’s is an actual, live, ready-to-be-used product for release to customers.By focusing on only core features of your product, the MVP route ensures that you’re able to quickly gather actionable data from the marketplace. This means improving your product with the help of real user feedback from day one. Your MVP will help you answer those burning questions: Is my product actually valuable to customers in the marketplace? And, how can I make my product even more valuable to my customers?

Prioritizing Value over Glamour

A great MVP provides bare-bones value to your end user - allowing you to launch your product quickly and inexpensively. Successful companies begin by gathering user feedback from a core group of early adopters. They then iterate to improve their offering and reach a larger market. At their start, most valuable products aren't beautiful and robust applications. Rather, they apply learnings from user feedback to make each release better than the last.When Google launched back in 1998, they weren’t trying to help you find content across the web. Their core thesis was “index the web and make it searchable.” Focusing on this idea helped them succeed. Imagine what would have happened if they had decided they couldn’t launch until they had email, a photo service, a social network, and video sharing? Instead, Google worked to launch an MVP. They gathered a narrow market of innovators - people who believed in what they were doing and saw value in the service. Then they worked to build an audience base among early adopters. In the mid-2000s, Google began to add the features we associate with the tech giant today. The goal of your MVP is not glamour; it's getting the most value for the fewest resources (time, energy, money.) To do this, you'll need a simple and affordable way to test whether a feature is viable and valuable enough to include in your MVP.

Using Prototypes to Define and Validate Your MVP

Prototypes are efficiently developed demonstrations of features or work flows. They assess the value of your product (or more likely, parts of your product) to users within your target audience. Prototyping allows you to quickly collect feedback from internal stakeholders and potential users. Using that feedback, you will gain insight on what is working, what can be improved, and what should be re-assessed. Benefits of using prototypes include:

       
  • Knowledge acquisition from contextualized uses of your product;
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  • Documented and useful feedback from potential and actual users of your product;
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  • Testing assumptions with potential and actual users of your product; and
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  • Reduce risk in developing and launching your MVP;

For product designers, prototypes enable knowledge acquisition from contextual uses of your application. In working to improve user experience, for example, prototyping allows you to explore how transitions between screens can occur. And testing with users helps determine which option is most preferred.Through prototyping you’ll be better informed about the performance of key features. This arms you to make decisions that maximize the chance your MVP will succeed in attracting a strong customer base.

Start with Low-Fidelity Prototypes

When developing new products, speed is a priority. Low-fidelity prototypes allow you to deploy a real and viable test that informs how to proceed. Called “rapid prototyping,” low-fidelity prototypes strive to cut the time between starting product development and testing it with users.Low-fidelity prototypes are usually static or loose representations of the product or service. They help designers identify workflows and usability needs. To test product workflow, you don’t need to have a branded or highly designed digital prototype.We advocate starting immediately - often times during the client-kickoff meeting. Use simple tools at your disposal: notebook paper, whiteboards, or chart paper. Sure, these tools aren’t as robust as an interactive digital prototype. Yet we’ve found that big questions can be addressed, and members of the team can get on the same page about how to move forward. Other types of low-fidelity prototypes include:

       
  • Sketches: Creating simple drawings by hand on paper or whiteboard that quickly prove functionality, workflow, interface elements, or service encounters.
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  • Paper Prototypes: Using cutouts of paper to represent graphical elements that make up an interface. Buttons, lists, sections, total screens, and other UI elements can quickly be rearranged to help plan the design.
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  • Service Staging: Roleplay of the users or with the help of actual users of an existing product or service going through a specific scenario. Service staging is usually captured on video to better help understand and document the user journey and the perceived experience.
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  • Storyboards: A series of drawings or staged photographs that demonstrate the user journey before, during, and after the product or service period. Narrating the user journey helps to better convey personas and express design solutions as a story.
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  • Desktop Models: Using a table-top representation of space (sometimes a 2-D floor plan or zone map) along with small-scale 3-D props to play out encounters with service touch points throughout space. Props can be made out of cheap, accessible materials such as cardboard, paper, game pieces, or Lego’s.
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  • Digital Workflow Prototypes: Using wireframes or compositions of screens and creating links from them to show the workflow between screens in the application. Some tools include Flinto, Notism, and UXPin.
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  • Object/Prop Modeling: Using foam core, cardboard, duct tape, modeling clay or any accessible material to create representations of physical objects. This technique can be used for many prototype processes, including hardware integration projects, industrial design projects, service design projects, and exhibition projects.

Improve with High-Fidelity Prototypes

Upon completing at least one low-fidelity prototyping session, you’ll be prepared to consider high-fidelity prototypes. Hi-fi prototypes are an opportunity to test features and assumptions in preparation or as part of the build for your MVP.Hi-fi prototypes generally include the development of a digital product but could also involve other prototypes for use at conferences, trade shows, or investor meetings. These high-fidelity prototypes include:

       
  • Interactive Prototypes: Created using advanced prototyping software that enables incorporating dynamic animations, interactions, and transitions of a digital application.
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  • Service Prototypes: A full-scale simulation of a service experience, where time is spent in advance of the simulation building props, writing scripts, planning backstage processes, and then the prototype is showcased to simulate the real-life environment.

Remember, the goal here is to cut the input costs while maximizing potential returns. Use the lowest-fidelity prototypes that you can use to determine a path forward in developing your product.

Maximize with Iterative Prototyping

You’ll likely need to use many prototyping methods throughout the design and development of your MVP to test assumptions. For this reason, we stress that effective prototyping is not a single, one-off event. Different actions or requirements may call on different prototyping methods to achieve the best results. The feedback you gain from your prototyping sessions will inform the features, design, and experience of your MVP.

If you’re working to launch a new e-commerce application, for example, there are many processes involved. There are the shopping and browsing experience for the customer. There’s the process of selecting something to buy. There’s the process of checking out and remitting payment for the products. There’s the process of what happens after payment.For each of these processes, there are areas in which prototyping can help you improve the experience of each action. By breaking down your product into stages, you’ll gain key insights that will improve the experience for your customers. Now that prototyping has helped you identify and test core features, you can confidently begin design and development of your MVP. We’ll cover all that in the next article of this series. Stay tuned.Prototyping was key in developing an MVP for our client EmployUs on a quick timeline. For a real world example of the prototyping experience, read their story here.

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