Prototype testing guide

 Test your interactive prototypes with real users to get powerful feedback and validate design decisions.

Introduction

You’ve started designing a brand new feature for your product. You’re pretty happy with how it’s looking and working, but need to get some feedback from real users before you feel confident to hand it over for development. Enter prototype testing.

In this guide, we explore what prototype testing is and why it’s an important step in any user experience (UX) design process. We look at the different types of prototypes, when you should run a prototype test, and then take you step-by-step through the testing process.

Ready to get stuck in?

Prototype Testing

What is a prototype?

A prototype is more than a sketch, wireframe, or mockup. It’s an interactive representation of what a product will look like and how it will function in the real world.

UX teams use prototypes to:

  • Visualize the final product.
  • Test with users.
  • Validate ideas.
  • Gather feedback to inform the design process.

Prototypes don’t need to be complicated. In fact, they can be rough or more polished depending on your goals and what stage you’re at in the design process.

What is prototype testing?

Prototype testing involves creating a prototype and testing it with real users to validate your design decisions. 

There are a couple of primary goals for prototype testing:

  1. To identify any problems or areas for improvement early. That way, you can make necessary changes prior to the development cycle. 
  2. To make sure you’re building a product that meets user needs and expectations.

UX design is an iterative process, so testing prototypes early and throughout the entire design process is an important way to ensure you’re building a product your users will find useful.

Before building and testing your prototype, establish some clear goals about what you want to validate. This will help you determine the type of prototype you need. Other factors might also come into play, like where you’re at in the design process and the time and resources you have available.

Once you’ve established your goals and have your prototype ready, it’s time to test. When running a test, aim to recruit participants representative of your target audience. Gathering feedback and seeing how participants interact with the prototype will give you valuable insights on what to improve. We’ll go into this in more detail below.

Why is prototype testing important?

There are several benefits to prototype testing. Let’s explore some of them in more detail.

Validate assumptions

Testing a prototype helps you validate assumptions in real-life scenarios and see how well your product will work for users.

For example, if you’re developing a photo editing app, you might test whether users can import photos and apply filters, effects, touch-ups, and frames. For an e-commerce store, can your users search for a product, add it to the cart, and complete the checkout process? Do they understand the instructions to sign up to your loyalty program?

Prototype testing gives you the confidence that your designs are usable. And this helps reduce the risk of creating a product that won’t succeed when it goes to market.

Discover design problems early

Imagine if you designed a pet sitting app and then realized people had trouble finding pet sitters in their neighborhood. Or they couldn’t find the messaging function or a pet sitter’s availability calendar. By testing a prototype, you can find issues like this early and make sure they get fixed.

Testing at different stages of the design process can also give you a good idea of the features that are and aren’t working. You might do this by asking follow-up questions and analyzing the test results to identify any major themes.

Discover opportunities

Testing with users can also give you opportunities to discover features that your target audience might love.

For example, the qualitative data you collect from prototype testing can inspire new features and capabilities. Using our pet sitting app example, what if you discovered users would like to save and tag their favorite sitters? You could take this on board and build it into the next prototype iteration.

Save time and money

It probably goes without saying that fixing a design in the prototyping stage is simpler and easier than fixing it after the product has launched.

Rolling back the launch and making changes will cost money and take time, especially when your team could be moving onto the next project. Not to mention the negative impact it could have on your brand.

Get stakeholder buy-in

It can be difficult getting stakeholder support for a new product or feature. Prototype testing is a good way to gather data that helps validate decisions. Share this with stakeholders in your organization to get them on board.

Types of prototypes

Sometimes pen and paper are all you need to create and test a prototype design. But as new prototyping tools have emerged, UX designers can spin up an interactive digital prototype fairly easily.

So, what prototype formats are there, and what are the pros and cons of each? Let’s find out.

Paper prototypes

A paper prototype is what it sounds like – a prototype sketched or printed on a piece of paper.

They’re the simplest version of a prototype and can be helpful during early stage concepts to visualize and test multiple ideas quickly.

Pros:

  • Quick and simple to create. 
  • Low-lift. Creating a paper prototype doesn’t require any special tools or skills – if you can sketch, you can create a paper prototype.

Cons:

  • If you decide to test using a paper prototype, it requires more imagination from your participants. You might have to explain ideas to participants interacting with the prototype.
  • You can only test paper prototypes in person, which limits your pool of testers.

Digital prototypes

A digital prototype builds an interactive experience. They’re used during the visual design phase, when you have mockups with colors, fonts, etc. as well as realistic copy, and want to see how your design works in action.

Pros:

  • Realistic and shows what the final product will look like.
  • Users can interact with the prototype themselves, which gives you more flexibility to run a remote or unmoderated test.

Cons:

  • Digital prototypes require a design tool, like Figma or Sketch.

Native prototypes

A native prototype involves coding a model of your app or website. This typically happens near the end of the product design process, after the visual design is ready but before development starts.

Pros:

  • Native prototypes look and work like a real product, and participants can test using real devices.
  • They’re good for usability testing. Participants can’t tell the difference between a native prototype and a real app or website, so native prototyping allows you to understand a realistic experience and gain useful feedback. 

Cons:

  • It takes time to create a native prototype.
  • It requires coding skills. You need to know a programming language or involve a developer.

When should you test your prototypes?

Deciding when to test your prototype depends on several factors, like time, budget, resources, and the product or feature you’re designing.

The word prototype might suggest a model of the finished product, but in reality, they don’t need to be perfect. In fact, there are different levels of fidelity.

If you’re in the early stages of the design process, you might create a low- or medium-fidelity prototype. If you’re nearer to the end of this process, you might opt for something with higher fidelity. Fidelity is the level of reality that your prototype has.

Let’s explore these different levels of fidelity in more detail.

Low- and medium-fidelity prototypes

The earlier you can test your prototypes, the better. Low-fidelity prototype testing happens in the earlier stages of the design process with a paper or digital prototype. Use them to generate and share feedback and ideas with stakeholders so you can quickly iterate your designs.

What are you testing at this stage?

  • Whether the layout makes sense to your users.
  • Experiments in your initial designs.
  • The information architecture.
  • Basic interactions with the design.

As you take user feedback onboard and improve your design, retest new prototypes using a medium-fidelity prototype. At this stage, you can also add copy.

High-fidelity prototypes

Once you’ve tested and taken in user feedback on your low- and medium-fidelity prototypes, you can move onto creating a high-fidelity prototype. 

This is interactive and closely resembles the final product.

At this stage, you shouldn’t expect huge problems to emerge. Use a high-fidelity prototype as a last step in your design testing process to validate your final design and uncover any hidden usability issues before handing over to the development team.

What are you testing at this stage?

  • The overall design direction.
  • The copy, menu links, and information architecture.
  • User flows: Can users find their way when completing a task?
  • UI components, e.g. drop-down menus, pop-ups.
  • Graphic and visual elements, e.g. image quality, text readability.

Live data prototypes

A live data prototype uses data or APIs to create dynamic experiences. It’s much like the final product, so you might use it if you wanted to test software solutions in real-life environments and conditions.

Building a live data prototype is more involved than a low- or high-fidelity prototype, as you’ll need a developer. But it can be a useful way to learn how your product performs with users in the wild and generate data about how the final product will work. And if the test goes well, you’re already on your way to production-quality software.

Feasibility prototypes

A feasibility prototype focuses on a key feature, technology, or component of the product. You might opt for this type of prototype if you wanted to test something considered high-risk, like a specific feature innovation.

The aim with a feasibility prototype is to establish evidence that the feature, technology, or component will work. You might use it in the early stages of the development process in order to assess and reduce future risks.

What user testing methods can you use to test your prototypes?

Here’s a summary of the different methods you can use to test your prototype.

In-person vs remote user testing

If you’re running an in-person prototype test, you’ll be in the room with the participant. This gives you more control over the testing environment than you would have in a remote setting. You can also gain first-hand observations, for example, the user’s facial expressions and body language.

On the flip side, in-person testing usually involves a participant recruitment process, which has cost and time implications.

If you work as a remote UX designer or UX researcher, it might make more sense to run a remote and virtual prototype test. You won’t be able to control the testing environment, but participants might feel more comfortable in their own space and using their own devices.

Moderated vs unmoderated user testing

A moderated prototype test involves a moderator conducting and overseeing the test. As the moderator, you’ll brief the participant on the task and may also ask them follow-up questions to gain qualitative insights.

Moderated tests are usually run in-person, but can be conducted remotely via video calls. You can record these sessions to refer to later. Depending on the tool you’re using, you can also use screen capture to track and highlight where a user clicks on your prototype.

Unmoderated tests are less structured and can be conducted using a tool like UsabilityHub. You can run tests with your own participants or using a participant recruitment panel, allowing you to gain feedback quickly and easily.

This can be a good option when you’re short on time and budget, or want to test with a wide group of users. Most tools also allow you to ask questions to gather qualitative data. 

Qualitative vs quantitative user testing

Qualitative research helps us understand why something is happening. We can use it to figure out what product or features to build, and whether to build something in a certain way. We can also use qualitative research when we want to innovate or improve a product or service. 

With prototype testing, this could mean using qualitative research to gather insights about a user’s challenges, thoughts, or feelings about your product.

Quantitative research helps us understand what’s happening at a point in time. This can also influence potential gains or losses when developing a product or feature. With prototype testing, we might use quantitative research to gather data on user journey completion rates, clicks from A/B testing, and click clusters in first-click tests.

How to test your prototypes

The below steps are a general guide to running a prototype test.

1. Set your prototype test goals

When running a prototype test, an important first step is to set your end goal. What are you looking to test and discover about your product? Answering this question will help ensure you get the results you need to take action at the end of the testing period.

Be specific with your goals, for example:

  • Instead of “I want to test my prototype,” ask “I want to find out if users can find information about a home loan and fill in and submit an application form.”
  • Instead of “Is the product engaging?” ask, “Does the prototype influence users to engage further and purchase a streaming subscription?”
  • Instead of “Do users like the design?” ask, “Can users interact with the design and navigate to book a walking tour?”

Remember, prototype testing is iterative. You want to be continually testing and gathering feedback throughout the design process. So it’s important to be clear about what you want to discover at each stage.

2. Choose the level of fidelity

The prototype you create and test will depend on your goals and the stage you’re at. 

As mentioned above, low-fidelity tests are often used in the early stages. They can help you uncover early feedback and understand the basics, like whether users can navigate the layout.

High-fidelity prototypes are often used to test during the final stages of the design process. At this stage, you should be pretty confident with your design and be testing for minor usability issues. 

Before creating and testing your prototype, you’ll need to decide which tools you’ll use. Again, this will depend on the type of prototype you’re going for. For example, if you create a digital prototype in Figma, you can then embed the Flows directly in your UsabilityHub test and run a remote unmoderated test with real users.

Prototype Testing
In the UsabilityHub test builder, you can paste or type the prototype Flow link for the prototype you’d like to test.

3. Choose a user testing method

The usability testing technique you choose is how you’ll gather user feedback.

Will you choose a remote or in-person test? Moderated or unmoderated? Again, this all depends on your goals, what stage you’re at, and the tools you’re using, along with other considerations, like resourcing, time, and budget.

Remember that tests can be a combination of these methods, such as unmoderated remote tests.

4. Create a prototype test

The purpose here is to give users a specific task to perform related to the problem your product or website is trying to solve.

Here are some top tips when creating your test:

  • Set a clear task for your users: It might help to create a story that places them in a realistic scenario. This puts the focus on the user’s goals, not on the product’s features and functionality. For example, if you’re designing a clothing resale marketplace, you might test whether users can set up a profile, choose a clothing category for their item, upload photos of their item, add a description, and set a price.
  • Ask specific questions: This is your chance to ask usability questions, so be sure to write questions that will give you useful feedback. 
  • Assure participants they can’t be wrong: Be clear to your participants that the test isn’t about them, it’s about testing the functional design. So they don’t need to worry about being wrong.
  • If testing in-person, be open, engaged, and neutral: If a participant knows you created the prototype, they might avoid offering critical remarks. So try to avoid emotional language to encourage honest feedback.

5. Choose and recruit participants 

In the early design stages, you might test with colleagues in your organization, or with a select group of valued customers. You can also run a pilot test with friends or non-design colleagues to feel confident before testing externally.

Ideally, you want your test participants to represent your target group of users. This might include current customers and those who haven’t used your product before so you can get well-rounded feedback. For example, if you’re designing a recipe organizing app, it makes sense to do app prototype testing with people who like to cook rather than those who use a food delivery service.

If your product will have a global audience, aim to test it with diverse and global audiences. Different cultures and customs might affect how your users use your product.

6. Evaluate and share test results

By now, you’ll likely have a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. Next, you’ll need to evaluate and share the results with your team and your stakeholders.

Prepare a clear report so everyone agrees and understands the next steps.

Whether or not the feedback is positive, it should give you a sign of what needs improving. For example, using our recipe organizing app, if users found the grocery list feature difficult, consider ways to help unblock them.

After making your changes, it’s time to repeat the process with a new prototype. This process continues until you’re satisfied with the prototype and no further changes are needed.

Viewing your Prototype task results in UsabilityHub.
Viewing your Prototype task results in UsabilityHub.

Top tips for prototype testing

You might be tired of us saying this by now, but UX design is iterative. So test your prototypes early, and test often.

To wrap up, here are our top tips for prototype testing:

  • Begin prototype testing early, after the preliminary design stage. This will help you identify and solve problems before you get too far.
  • Prototypes don’t have to be perfect. They can be low-fidelity or high-fidelity.
  • Set clearly defined goals.
  • Choose a testing method that best suits your goals.
  • Define your target audience and recruit participants representative of your target audience.
  • Set clear tasks for your participants.
  • Evaluate the results and implement changes.
  • Keep testing. It’s a great way to gather feedback at different stages of the design process.

Frequently asked questions about prototype testing

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an interactive representation of what a product will look like and how it will function in the real world. Prototypes don’t need to be complicated. In fact, they can be low-fidelity or high-fidelity depending on your goals and what stage you’re at in the design process.

What is prototype testing?

Prototype testing involves creating a prototype and testing it with real users to validate your design decisions. There are a couple of primary goals for prototype testing. You can use it to identify any problems or areas for improvement early and make necessary changes prior to the development cycle. You can also use it to make sure you’re building a product that meets user needs and expectations.

Why is prototype testing done?

UX teams use prototypes to visualize the final product and test with users to validate ideas and gather feedback to inform the design process. There are various benefits to prototype testing, including validating assumptions, discovering design problems early, discovering new opportunities, saving time and money, and getting stakeholder buy-in.

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