Imagine you are going shopping; you try on clothes and buy those that you like the most. The thing is that we want to try and test everything before we buy it. The same logic works with mobile apps. We download it from the market, try it for a few days and decide whether we like it or not. But what about the business owners who want to get a new app? How are they supposed to try the app before “buying” it? Here comes prototyping, the lifesaving step in mobile development that helps validate the idea before full development. In other words, prototyping offers to see and test the future app and decide what you like most and what needs to be changed.
Prototyping is a crucial stage in mobile app development, and even though it adds value to the final development cost at the same time, it may save a lot more. Today, we will talk about prototyping and everything that can make your prototyping efficient and your final product perfect.
What is a mobile app prototype?
The mobile app prototype is the initial visual mockup that looks like the future app and may even be clickable like a real app but without a working code. The purpose of prototyping is to show how your idea looks and feels. It also shows the flow of the app, the transition from one step to the other, and the features within the design of the type. The important part of prototyping is feedback from stakeholders and possible users about the application. Often the prototyping process reveals new challenges and opportunities for the app that may even change core features and direction of development. This stage is critical after design planning and before coding; it helps the team focus on the idea, review, and refine the product until it meets the business objectives and user requirements.
Mobile app prototyping in Design Thinking
Before connecting prototyping to design thinking, let’s define what Design Thinking is and why it is critical in app development. Even though the name makes us link the term with design, it can be referred to anything like business, engineering, art, science, music, and more. Design Thinking is the repeating process of understanding users, challenging assumptions, redefining problems, identifying alternative strategies, and providing solution-based approaches to problem-solving. It is a multi-staged process of idea implementation.
Design Thinking revolves around understanding people who are going to use the product. The strategies of Design Thinking help tackle the problems and re-frame them in customer-centric ways.
There are five phases of Design Thinking that can be applied to any process.
- Empathize with the target users
- Define users’ needs
- Ideate by challenging assumptions and generating ideas
- Prototype to visualize the idea
- Test the solutions
Prototyping is the fourth step of Design Thinking. At this stage, the product development teams learn the feedback of users and how they interact with the product. The feedback and analysis of interaction allow developers to reframe the problems and tackle them with actionable solutions. By taking all the stages of Design Thinking, including prototyping, the product development team can validate or invalidate the concept without spending months on development. With a customer-centric approach of Design Thinking, the final product targets user needs and gains user loyalty, the two most important factors for acquiring competitive advantage in the market.
Types of mobile app prototypes
Mobile app development goes through various stages and substages that take resources and time. After researching and analyzing the competitive market, defining user persona, and building a customer journey map, the product goes through the early design app development period. It is usually done on paper-like quick sketching to use later for more precise and detailed prototyping. Just like app development goes through several steps, prototyping can have several stages and types.
UI/UX designers often use different types of prototyping depending on the requirement of stakeholders and prototyping goals. Usually, app prototyping goes from the simplest to the most complicated stages refining the final look.
Hand sketching and diagrams
When to use: market research, buyer persona identification, brainstorming
Usage: analyzing user flows
The most basic type of prototyping is hand sketching on paper. It can present sketches of different screens and features, taking the user from one step to another to show the flow. Hand sketching is an easy way for designers to iterate ideas during brainstorming and stakeholder discussions. Designers usually sketch any idea that pops up, and often sketching looks like a mess. Later all the sketches are interpreted, filtered, and cleared to transform them into the next type.
When to use: initial idea presentation
Usage: conveying ideas to others
After hand sketching and diagrams, designers work on paper prototyping, creating a version of the app layout on paper. It is the first tangible version of an app. With paper prototyping, the team and stakeholders can more or less imagine the future app.
For effective presentation, paper prototyping is created in detailed interfaces and may even showcase interaction and transition of pages.
When to use: creating a digital copy to define the macro design direction
Usage: visualizing app details
Paper prototyping is later interpreted into a digital prototype still in plain black and white design to engage stakeholders in the discussion process better. Wireframe includes basic elements to show the general layout and interface without wasting time on creating color schemes, icons, and interfaces.
Low-fidelity prototyping more clearly presents user interactions. This stage is essential to gather early user feedback over design, transitions, and features.
When to use: polish visual details and UI
Usage: determine specific UI details and test the visual
The Medium-fidelity prototype is more developed and attractive than the wireframe. Mockups carry more UI and visual elements to gain higher user interaction and gather further feedback. A medium-fidelity prototype is a static design with more precise details, colors and icons, texts, buttons, layout, and more. They are pretty much like the final design but without realistic interactions and clickable buttons.
When to use: creating final draft design
Usage: present the future app design with all details
High-fidelity (Hi-fi) prototyping looks and feels like a real app with clickable buttons and transitions. The prototyping helps to validate the idea and gather final thoughts during usability testing. It is the last step before handling design to the next stage of development. That is why it is crucial to create a prototype that looks exactly like the future app.
How to choose the right prototype?
Ideally, prototyping should go through all five stages, from sketching to mockups. Sometimes, when there is a lack of time or resources, designers cut off paper prototyping and go directly for wireframing and mockup. The choice depends on prototyping goals, project scope, deadlines, and budgeting.
Top 10 Benefits of prototyping your app
The benefits of prototyping are too prominent. Anyways, we will point out the top benefits that you may gain by prototyping your app.
Early discovery of design problems. Prototyping aims to see the design of the app and reveal possible issues. Early detection on the prototyping stages is crucial; it will help avoid problems further down the road during development.
Estimating production costs and time. During the prototyping stages, it becomes possible to give a more precise budget estimation and the period of app development.
Cost-efficiency. Mobile app prototyping may at some point seem a waste of time and resources, but the practice has proved to save more when testing the idea in the initial stages. Defining features, pages, and transitions during prototype testing helps the business cut costs on development.
Client involvement. The prototyping stage gets the full participation of stakeholders. During each phase of prototyping, the client validates the design and functionality suggestions.
UX Validation. Without prototyping, it is impossible to validate usability and UX. The app should be tested for engagement in the first stages of development to have a valuable app that will gain user engagement and have high retention rates.
Short development time. Rapid prototyping speeds up all the other processes following the design validation.
Avoid failure and expensive reworks. The main advantage of prototyping is cutting the risks of failure and reworks during UI/UX design.
Improve user engagement. The purpose of any product is to gain user satisfaction. Prototyping will allow the development team to test whether the app gains user engagement and satisfaction or not.
Determine final functions and design. On top of everything, prototyping is a great way to demonstrate and determine the final design and functionality of the app. Prototyping is a visual presentation of all the technical documentation and presentations that could take hours to present to stakeholders.
Early user testing. A high-fidelity prototype gets test users’ involvement to determine whether the application is user-friendly or not.
How to prototype an app?
As one of the early stages of app development, prototyping follows market research. It is determined as part of the planning stage to prepare everything for development. Let’s define the process of mobile app prototyping to understand how it is blended with the “before” and “after” stages.
Stages before prototyping
- Defining the concept of the mobile app
- Market research, competitor analysis
- Buyer persona creation
The sequence of prototyping
Step 1: Identify functionality requirements
The initial stages establish the requirements of the customers and the solutions to tackle the challenges with the app. For this stage, both sides determine the features for MVP, i.e., must-have features to create the first version of the app. The easiest way to identify must-have features is to list all possible features the app might have and then prioritize those most valuable features for the target users.
Step 2: Create sketches of primary screens
Keeping the user in the center as the main priority, the team starts building the screens and user experience through the screens.
Step 3: Turn sketches into wireframes
As we discussed before, paper sketches are then turned into digital wireframes, bringing the prototyping closer to test users.
Step 4: Transform wireframe into a static prototype
Based on user feedback, the wireframe is updated and transformed into a static prototype for final testing. A/B testing involves a group of experts who test the design, transitions and give feedback on the following questions:
- Is the layout convenient to navigate?
- Are the UI elements and texts easy to understand?
- Can users efficiently perform intended actions using the UI?
- Are there any details disrupting the functionality?
Based on the feedback, the design is polished and passed to the next stage, UI/UX design.
How to make a better prototype?
When creating an app prototype, focus on these details:
- Add as many elements to the prototype as possible. When sketching and prototyping, adds all the details that are discussed so that the idea can be tested visually.
- Make the interface and user flow as simple as possible. Modern consumers do love interaction. But they don’t like complicated designs where they have to move from one page to another to get to the point. The idea is to create a simple design that will be engaging.
- Create and follow the design system. Chaotic prototyping takes more time and resources than one that follows a clean design system. It is created after the research phase and followed throughout prototyping.
- Test on an actual mobile device. For maximum realistic experience, prototyping should be tested on real devices. For better understanding, the design should be tested on both Android and iOS.
- Carry out regular testing. Each stage requires testing among developers, clients, experts, and finally, devoted test users.
Tools for fast prototyping
Today there are platforms giving all the necessary tools to get app prototyping fast with minimal effort. Those tools may cut on prototyping time and be highly cost-effective.
Balsamiq is a popular wireframing tool to create interactive yet straightforward prototypes and test them. It is a basic whiteboard for sketching and a myriad of community-generated content to import and work with.
As an effective prototyping tool, Justinmind helps create prototypes on your wireframe and add changes in real-time. The tool also includes simulations for gesture control, swipe, tap, and hold, etc.
The simple and easy wireframing tool helps work with pre-built material and create customized designs with sliders, image placeholders, etc. Moqups produces wireframes without interactivity. Nevertheless, it is an excellent tool to try.
The mobile prototyping platform is designed to develop simulations and high-fidelity prototypes to test the final product. Projects are created and managed from a single screen, executed on the device, tested, and received feedback.
The prototyping tool is designed to create high-fidelity prototypes with clickable buttons and interactive screens. Prototypes built with UXPin can be tested on both Android and iOS devices with different resolutions. The tool also has real-time commenting and editing.
Here is another tool for prototyping mockups with animations. Keynote is the equivalent of PowerPoint used to work on Mac OS X. With animations with great visual appeal, it is possible to have a high engagement during testing.
Sketch is a great tool to produce early ideas or high-fidelity prototypes. You can use the tool on any stage of prototyping, from sketching, wireframing and playable prototypes.
Adobe Experience Design CC
It is an all-in-one tool to create both mobile app and website prototypes. The simple drag-and-drop tool helps to generate UI without manual adjustments.
InVision is one of the top popular tools for creating user journey whiteboards, brand mood boards, wireframes, and high-fidelity prototypes.
Last but not least prototyping tool is the Fluid UI mobile app design tool that allows to create a wireframe, test among the users, and get feedback.
How much does an app prototype cost?
It all sounds cool, but what about the costs? The competent prototyping with planning, analysis, all the stages from sketching to testing are time-consuming and, therefore, costly. So if prototyping affects the final cost of app development, is the effectiveness justified? If you still ask yourself this question, you’d better read the benefits of prototyping one more time. In short, yes, prototyping is crucial in app development as a core initiative in testing the idea and design. It will give the product a competitive advantage later after deployment so having a priority in this highly competitive market definitely worths effort and resources.
Cost estimation of any project is a complicated process that requires analyzing all aspects, i.e., dedicated team’s location and expertise, product complexity, members involved, hours spent on the project, ongoing support, etc.
The cost estimation of app prototyping is identical to app development cost. So, if you take the average mobile app development agency rate of $50-$99 per hour and 80–160 hours of app prototyping, it would cost around $4000 to $15,840.
Much depends on the responsiveness of stakeholders. The more involved the parties are, the faster prototyping will proceed through stages to test the design.
Prototyping is easy and effective if you know where to start and how to use the generated information. With prototyping tools and platforms, a dedicated team of specialists, and a clear project plan, it will be possible to use prototyping on purpose, gain the maximum advantage of this app development stage and end up with a customer-centric and highly engaging mobile application.