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Iterative Design: Three Prototyping Guidelines

usability / user experience / blog

Designing a website or mobile application from scratch is tough. Getting the creative juices flowing is no easy feat. When you do get lucky and think of something new, it can be hard to execute your plans as you had originally intended. Following through with lofty goals for your UI can seem impossible, especially when you take a look at the coding requirements. A seemingly endless mountain of code can dissuade someone from continuing the development of their web tools. Recent FMG research using iterative prototyping and usability testing can turn the mountain of code into a mole hill.

FMG’s User Experience Lab recently worked on a series of usability studies using iterative prototypes. Prototypes are a very helpful tool to use during the design process for many reasons. They can be created and tested quickly, they are inexpensive, no coding expertise is required, and they can identify potentially serious issues. The recent prototyping studies at FMG were a creative whirlwind. We were able to quickly create and improve the prototypes in a truly agile environment. In that agile environment, many lessons were learned that will be applied to future projects. I’d like to share three of those lessons now.

  1. Get input from targeted users before getting started. On the web and in the app store, users decide what rises to the top. When creating functions in our prototypes, we didn’t get bogged down with details before we knew what users wanted to see. A lot of time could have been wasted designing features that ended up being completely irrelevant to the user. To understand what users liked, we took a look at other successful apps and websites to see what was is in demand. After identifying trends, we gathered additional information through interviews to find out what else users would like to see and what was annoying to them. That input guided our initial designs and helped us focus on what was important to the user, as opposed to what was important to the designer.
  2. Take baby steps. Iterative prototyping is a rapid process.However, each iteration may be a small stepping stone towards the final product. Significant improvements can be made from one iteration to the next, but it is also possible for things to get worse before they get better. Our goal for each prototype’s iteration was to make improvements, but in an agile environment, each iteration may not turn out to be a giant leap for mankind. Measuring behavior and taking user feedback into account during the usability tests helped the UX team make measurable improvements, even when the improvements were small.
  3. Don’t worry about design, yet. Prototyping is all about understanding the needs and requirements of the user, not figuring out color schemes. When we asked participants to give feedback, we had them focus on the functionality and navigation, not on the design. In some cases, the majority of the feedback was about adding graphics and the lack of aesthetic appeal. When participants only commented about the design, it suggested to us that participants did not have any issues using the prototype’s functions. Before a prototype transitions to a live app or website, the design needs to be addressed. While working on the prototypes, however, the UX team focused on matching the prototype’s navigation and functionality to users’ expectations.

If you’ve read this far, you get one bonus lesson before the end. Don’t be afraid to take risks! Early in your prototyping you have nothing to lose by adding in potential features that you think your users might love. If it turns out that users hate it, scrap it and move onto the next idea. As the project progresses and features are decided upon, you’ll have fewer opportunities to make additions that don’t overly complicate your sleek design.---

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