Prototyping is an essential skill for product managers to master. Not only does prototyping offer the opportunity to bring ideas to life, it deliberately reduces risk and ensures that you are not wasting time designing and delivering the wrong thing. As Josh Wexler, head of product at Yieldmo, puts it: “Prototypes are visions of the future — some way of being able to see and experience the future of an idea [where doing so in words would fall short].” In this post, we dive into 8 examples of different prototypes that you can use to capture your vision of the future…and learn from it. 

Previously, we talked about what a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is and why it’s useful. Fundamentally, an MVP is an experiment or process that helps you identify the right product to build while minimizing cost and resources.

So how do you create that experiment? Or more specifically, how do you create a tangible experience that helps you determine if there’s value, or at the very least, an understanding of what you’re building? Why, by using prototypes of course. 

There are a variety of ways you can create something at a low cost to test if people would be interested in it. The first thing you have to do is specify what exactly you’re measuring. Are you seeing if your product’s proposed user experience is usable? Are you gauging if there is potential interest in your proposed idea? Do you want to know if anyone would pay for what you’re offering?

Those are a lot of questions, but they’ll help you figure out how to create a “prototype.” I’m putting prototype in quotes because I’m going to be pretty broad in its definition. We might commonly think of a prototype that is a semi-functional version of a final product. It works, but there are wires and stuff sticking out. 

Here are a few different prototype examples to help you get started.

8 prototype examples for bringing your idea to life

Wireframes

The favorite. Do you know how to draw boxes and arrows? Well congratulations, you’re well on your way to making a wireframe prototype that gives someone a sense of what your product does.

Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than drawing some basic geometric shapes. You need to put some thought into how a product experience should look and feel like and make sure that’s communicated in the wireframes you create.

The wireframe provides a skeleton of your product and gives a very low-fidelity feel for it. There’s still a gap between the wireframe and an actual tangible version of your product. But it’s an excellent low-cost and low-effort for someone to get a feel for what you’re thinking.

In the world of developing an MVP, this can be helpful, but this is more frequently used to gauge a user’s response to your proposed design experience. It’s a great tool to start a conversation with potential users so that you can dive deeper into their needs.

Slide deck

An original. PowerPoint is as pervasive in the office as meetings. You can’t go anywhere without running into them. Well, instead of using them to go on about quarterly projections, you can also use them to prototype a user journey of a product.

PowerPoint is a great way to create a product flow just using mockups. You design your mockups and place each one in a slide. You can even use PowerPoint’s interactive features so you can give the user the feeling of interacting with a product. Henry Tsai at Google Ventures goes into more depth here if you’re interested in building out a PowerPoint prototype.

I’ve seen one successful startup start with a hardcopy printout of PowerPoint slides. The founder would swap out the pages when the user touched the right “button” on the page. It’s pretty low-tech but worked really well for them.

These slide decks may seem like something that’s again better to evaluate experience instead of value. I actually sold a couple of (small) deals on just a PowerPoint prototype at a previous company (technically it was Apple Keynote)!

Landing pages

Ok, it’s time to start thinking about gauging interest for your overall idea. A landing page prototype is a great way to see if someone is interested enough to give you an email address for future updates.

There are so many examples of this because they’re pretty easy to make. One of the most well known is Buffer. They created a landing page that gave a quick articulation of what they were planning on releasing. Those interested could sign up for notifications. These signups signaled to Buffer’s creators how much interest there was. While it doesn’t necessarily gauge willingness to pay, it lets you start somewhere.

Of course, once you have a landing page built (and you can use a host of cheap service to create one), you still have to get traffic there. You can buy ad traffic, use social media, connect with influencers who might promote the page, or use some other similar techniques. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to bring everyone to it, so you’ll have to grind it out to get exposure.

Functional frontend

In our post about MVPs, I mentioned some friends of mine who created a website to see if anyone would be interested in buying “customized” granola. You might think that’s a silly attempt, but you might have heard of a far more successful version of that tactic: Zappos.

The founder of Zappos, realizing there wasn’t a way to buy quality footwear online, decided to see if there was any appetite to buy shoes online. It’s a good thing to question since a lot of folks like to purchase shoes after trying them on. It’s not clear that people would buy shoes online after not having tried them on.

So he went to a nearby shoe store and took a bunch of pictures of shoes. He built a site and put the pictures of the shoes on there. If anyone bought the shoes online, he’d go over to the store, buy the shoes at full price, and ship them to the buyer.

He most likely lost money on the operation, but it’s safe to say that Zappos would more than cover the value of that experiment. There’s a lot of value in making existing processes (i.e., purchasing) more convenient. This extends the landing page idea further to see if there’s a willingness to buy for your idea.

Wizard of Oz

If you’re familiar with the movie, this type of prototype might seem obvious. While you don’t need to operate a giant head while speaking into a microphone, you are running a sort of facade.

At a previous company, we used this approach to see if there was interest in building out a full add-ons marketplace for our product. 

We didn’t have the integration completed. So when a user added an add-on to their infrastructure, one of our engineers would manually add it. Someone else would have to work with the finance department to manually update the billing.

It worked, and we built out a great add-ons marketplace with dozens of partners. The “Wizard of Oz” prototype is very similar to the functional frontend. I wanted to distinguish between replicating an existing process with a layer of value (buying a shoe but on a website) and prototyping an entirely new process (selling services through an existing product).

Video

Just as trailers are a great way to hype a movie, you can use it to hype your product or service. Videos can range from showing a working prototype to just an idea.

Recently, people have become more obsessed with making viral videos, hoping it’d bring fame and fortune. Good luck.

There is no magic to produce a viral video. It happens, or it doesn’t, and anyone who tells you that they know the magical formula is trying to sell you a bridge. If you think a video is a great way to show your product off, stick to simplicity. Dropbox’s video is pretty straightforward (with a couple of quick jokes in there).

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is basically taking the video approach to prototyping and throwing on a payment link. Crowdsourcing is a great way to see if anyone will pay for your product.

Again, like the video idea above, your description and video can range from working product to an idea. If your crowdsourcing page focuses more on an idea, you may need to add some video production quality to capture someone’s eye.

There’s been a lot more attention on folks calling out crowdsourcers who raise money and don’t deliver on the project. Of course, this is a risk they take on, but you need to make sure you can do everything you can to minimize this risk as well. Remember, you’re testing the value of your idea, not selling a dream.

Low fidelity product

You can call this your alpha, beta, or whatever Greek letter suits your fancy. This prototype is a working version of your product that a user can use. You can read more about how we built our Slack integration in 20 days. Part of the process was to create a lo-fi prototype for internal evaluation of the integration before testing it with customers.

You used to need to have some moderate level technical skill to pull off even a working, barely functioning prototype. But with today’s no-code (or low-code) movement, a non-technical person can create a working prototype of something. ProductHunt’s Ryan Hoover offers more insight into the “no-code” movement with a lot of great examples of tools you can use. It’s now so much easier for anyone to get a working prototype built.

Your creativity

The sky’s the limit on how you want to test the value of your idea. The eight listed here are options that I’ve come across, but they are certainly not an exhaustive list. Spend time thinking about what you want to accomplish, and please let us know if you’ve tried some other kinds of prototyping!

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Monty Mitra Sep 12, 2019