When most people hear I’m a user researcher, they assume I spend the majority of my time doing usability testing. That’s not at all the case.
My job is to ensure that we create software that’s both useful and usable.
This means we start research well before the product gets built and shipped. Before our team determines whether that new feature we’re building is delightful and easy to use, we employ prototype validation to pinpoint critical features or interactions.
The point of prototype validation? To get to a design solution faster through hypothesis testing. It’s all about creating as many ideas as possible, then testing those ideas with real users.
Do it right and you’ll notice many of your ideas won’t solve the problem.
That’s a good thing.
Photo by Jakub Steiner. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.
Prototype validation comes in when you’ve determined what user problem you need to solve, but you haven’t yet figured out how to solve it. It’s a later stage of concept testing that allows you to evaluate how someone feels about a new product before you release it.
While concept testing is traditionally done through surveys, focus groups, and landing page testing, prototype validation uses the interface as a starting point to conversation and learning. It’s a great way reach your design solution faster.
Prototype validation comes in when you’ve determined what user problem you need to solve, but you haven’t yet figured out how to solve it.
Here’s what you need to know to get started with prototype validation.
Start with exploratory research
Know who you’re building for—their motivations and what they find most frustrating about the way they currently accomplish a task.
In-person contextual inquiries (observing users in their own environment) and phone interviews are ways to figure that out. Pay close attention to things like “I dislike … ,” or “I wish there were a way I could … ,” or “I can’t find what I need when I want to … ”
Build your product to solve those problems.
Indi Young’s Mental Models is a great place to start on the path to understanding your users.
Every prototype should be a set of hypotheses
When creating your prototype, list out the set of accompanying assumptions you’re building into the product.
During testing, find out if what people do matches your hypothesis. No match? You’ve invalidated that idea. This process of elimination helps determine what’s actually useful so you can design the right solution.
Test behaviors, not opinions
Ask someone if they’ll use your product, and chances are they’ll say yes—even if they won’t.
A better way to uncover the truth: learn how someone currently performs high-value tasks. Then create a product that lets them more easily accomplish those tasks. Don’t ask ‘Would you use this?’ Ask ‘How would you use this?’
Learn how someone currently performs high-value tasks. Then create a product that lets them more easily accomplish those tasks.
Your prototype is a springboard for discussion
Use navigation elements as discussion triggers. For example, add a navigational element for a feature you don’t have yet. Ask your research participant what they think it does—you’ll gain insight into how someone thinks your product may fit into their life.
Don’t ask “Would you use this?” Ask “How would you use this?”
Choose the right tool
Sketches, wireframes, or high-fidelity mockups are all fine in the early stages of research. Visual styling helps tell a story, but it’ll take longer to create.
Stay lean with paper prototypes. Remember that you’ll be using your first prototypes for generating discussion—they may not necessarily look anything like the final product.
Prototype validation should be cross-functional
The value of including early-stage UX research is in the ability to get answers faster. Always include engineers, product managers, and designers in the discovery process. They shouldn’t have to rely on your interpretation of what the user is saying—they should learn from the user directly. Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group calls this shared learning.
Prototype validation is a critical part of a successful product development process. Early testing means your product will be user-focused—and more likely to succeed.
Design with the user in mind, and you’ll build a useful, usable, and delightful product.
Header image by Aurimas. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.
Meagan Timney leads the product research team at Inkling. She’ll talk your ear off about empathy-driven user experience design and will almost always suggest that you answer your design questions by doing user research. Before moving to San Francisco, she was a postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor at the University of Victoria, where she researched and taught HCI and digital literary studies, and thought a lot about the future of the book. When she’s not at the office, you’ll probably find her lifting heavy objects or doing handstands in random places.