A rapid guide to rapid prototyping: tools and techniques

Building prototypes is an important part of our work both in terms of experimenting with new technologies in Artefacto Labs products and in our work with clients. We believe an iterative, user-driven approach results in much better services and products that are user-friendly, adaptable and engaging. This is key to our product strategy.

Prototyping is also an important part of our innovation workshops where we work with organisations to help them design and launch innovative new products and services for their users. The output of these workshops is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) - a “stripped down version of your product or service in order for you to get real, valuable user feedback”. Some MVPs are fully engineered products. Others fall more on the side of a prototype - an early iteration that may not have every possible feature just yet but with enough working functionality to demonstrate an idea.

Even though this first version might be a little rough around the edges, we want to be getting feedback from users and other stakeholders at the earliest possible stage and before a lot of time and money has been invested in our assumptions. In order to get feedback from users, we can use ready-made tools and other shortcuts to get a prototype up and running quickly.

In this post, we want to share some of the tools out there that can help you take an idea from initial idea conception to something that can help you refine our requirements and have conversations with potential users. The rise of “No code” tools means that it’s now easier than ever to build prototypes even if you don’t have any coding chops yourself. And it can be an engaging and creative process.

Prototyping workshop

Tools for rapid prototyping

Automating things

Nobody likes boring and repetitive tasks. If we find that we’re asking users to repeat the same steps over and over (fill out this form to book a meeting room, click on this many links to find our latest updates), then automating these workflows can be a great new service to offer.

We've used automation tools in digital installations to promote content or collections in interesting ways. Two popular and easy-to-learn automation tools are IFTTT and Zapier.

Microsoft now have their own automation platform too, Flow - useful if you’re in the Microsoft environment at work and want to build workflows around their tools such as Outlook and SharePoint.

Zapier explore page

There's a fair bit of overlap between these tools but IFTTT is often considered a user-facing tool while Zapier is more of an enterprise tool. Both are platforms that allow you to connect different cloud services in order to automate workflows and other actions.

For example, you can use IFTTT to automatically add new newsletter subscribers in Mailchimp to a spreadsheet in Google Drive. Better yet, you can use Zapier to develop an RSS feed from multiple sources that you can then use to build a newsletter using Mailchimp or Mailerlite (or your other Newsletter platform of choice).

You can also use these tools to automate content workflows such as to keep up with the latest updates on a website. Here’s a list of Zapier integrations for that let you subscribe to updates from multiple RSS feeds at a time (and be notified or post these to Social media and lots of other interesting things).

Asking about things

Collecting information from your users is another common process that can be built into a prototype for a new service.

For example, say you want to build more personalisation into your digital services. You can first ask your users about their preferences or areas of interest before directing them to the right content. A quick and easy way to do this is by using a form created using Google Forms, Airtable or Typeform.

This can help iron out any issues before you’ve started (potentially expensive) development work. We’ve worked with a library to prototype a new self-registration workflow for their users which we could prototype in TypeForm to make sure users are being asked the right questions before any work on the Library Management System was undertaken.

Check out the Airtable User Feedback template that can help you get up and running.

If you're looking to prototype something that involves asking for (and responding to) input from users, Twine can be helpful here. Designed for Interactive Fiction (IF) and text-based game development, Twine can also be a great way to develop and test storymaps, online tutorial content and other content that involves user interaction or choice based navigation. We use it for prototyping chatbots and products tours using text inputs to allow users to make choices and share information that then helps customise their experience.

There are also plenty of drag and drop tools for creating chat interfaces - Chatfuel and Flow XO are just two of the options out there (and you can read more about our chatbot development process here.

Talking about things

Prototyping can be a great way to start having conversations about a new digital product or a service gap in a way that can be difficult without something tangible to share.

Before starting to build a new tool you think your users might like, why not build a launch page to get their input and test their interest? You can do this easily with tools like Github pages or Sheet to Site. Google Sites and MailChimp Landing Pages are options if you want to collect email addresses or other info from interested early adopters. Glitch is a great platform for prototyping different web technologies. We’ve used it to build demo Twitter bots, AR apps and lots of other prototypes. Check out their ‘Handy bots’ start apps.

Evernote famously launched their MVP with an explainer video before any product development was even started. Buffer, one of our favourite social media tools also did the same, launching with a website as an MVP.

There are some great video authoring tools out there, like Headliner or Kapwing Video Montage Maker.

Not ready for a pre-launch page? A blog post can also serve as a first iteration of a new product or service. This approach encourages you to outline the benefits of a product or service to the user - a great way of articulating what you’re hoping to achieve (and keeping things nice and user-centric). What are all the amazing features you’d announce to users for this new product you’re planning? Write them down and ask people about it. Start a conversation with them that will lead you to the next, better iteration.

Imagining things

Sometimes, the best way to test an idea out with users is by creating a mockup that you can then show people. These can be fully clickable versions of a website or application or it can be a 'wireframe' - an outline sketch of a website or application.

There are lots of website mockup tools available but many are aimed at professional designers or UX professionals.

Some pretty lightweight options include:

  • Balsamiq - an established and friendly wireframing platform
  • App Inventor - create mockups for mobile apps

You can also build mockups of new Internet of Things devices using readymade tools and platforms. We once built a Tweeting Cat for an event (that would light up and wave everytime someone used the event hashtag) using LittleBits and some cardboard.

Building product prototypes with Arduino

Looking for a device to display bookings outside of a meeting or conference room? Why not trial a DIY room booking system with iPads or Android tablets before turning to a full, expensive enterprise systems? Here's an example of this kind of approach using an Outlook calendar. This is something you can test out in a staff meeting room before putting it in front of users.

If you're at a very early stage don't overlook paper prototyping. Sketching things out on paper is a great way to start the important conversations around new product development.

Talk to us about prototyping

Prototyping is a great way to start all important conversations about new services or products that don’t yet exist. And they can be a great way to collaborate and get your colleagues excited about new, user-centric projects.

Got a prototyping tool that you’d like to add? Let us know. We also run workshops that help organisations design and launch their own prototypes, get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

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