When doing any form of skilled labor, the most essential component to doing it well is practice. The same is true for product design – you must practice making the product before you can say you are ready to sell it. The prototype acts as your ‘practice run,’ and is an essential component to designing a product.
Some novice manufacturers may opt to skip this essential step, but doing so is a costly error that could destroy your business.
Here are some of the reasons why prototyping is an essential step in product design.
The most obvious aspect to prototyping is that it gives you a chance to test components of your product in a ‘live’ environment. You can see how various design choices can influence the final product, which will go into tweaking your design. Is your chosen material too flimsy? Are you creating an unexpected inconvenience for your customer? Is your design too heavy?
The opportunity to test a working prototype before you reach production is an essential part of quality control, and allows you to spot crippling flaws before it is too late.
User Experience Testing
When you are testing your prototype, you suffer from a critical flaw – you know how it’s supposed to work. The big question that expert designers ask is whether the average consumer will understand how it is supposed to work.
A big part of product design is understanding the intuition of your user base. You should be able to hand your prototype to a prospective customer and, after explaining its purpose, they should be able to easily divine how it works.
Do not depend on instructions to inform the customer – a lot of people do not read the instructions anyway. Instead, let your design be the instruction booklet itself.
As your design moves closer to the final product, you will want to do some stress testing as well. Prototypes are great for this because they are cheaper than the manufactured model and give you something to ‘safely’ destroy. Stress testing is a major part of consumer goods – you want to see how well your product stands up to damage.
If Apple or Samsung had done more stress testing, I’m sure a lot of smartphone users would have been spared the trouble of fixing a cracked screen.
Prototypes help determine the tolerances of your product and let you proof it against damage that it is expected to receive from repeated use.
When it comes to designing your product to be resistant against stress, remember you do not need something that can withstand a gunshot (unless you are a military contractor), but knowing the limits of your product and comparing it to expected use (informed by user experience testing) will reduce consumer complaints about your product. For example, can your phone’s screen withstand being dropped onto a pavement, or scraped by keys when kept in the user’s pocket or purse?
Discover Unexpected Flaws
As manufactured goods become more complex, they are more likely to experience what software engineers refer to as ‘runtime’ errors. These are mistakes or flaws in the product that are not obvious in the design stage, but only show up when a user does something you didn’t expect.
Never underestimate how ingenious consumers can be in product destruction!
Unlike stress testing, the focus of searching for these flaws is to think about ways it could be used. You do not have to imagine every scenario under the sun, but just imagine a person who does not understand your product doing something silly with it.
You do not have to design your product to be proof against all user errors, but you do have a legal and ethical responsibility to make sure nobody will be seriously injured or killed by product misuse. Prototyping can help you discover these sorts of flaws and make sure the design is adjusted accordingly.
Prototyping Makes Perfect
Taking the time to develop prototypes should be an essential component of any product design challenge. By creating prototypes and subjecting those prototypes to a battery of tests, you can deliver a far better product than you would have just by going with theory and intuition. A good design can make a good product, but good design combined with good prototypes are what allow you to deliver a perfect product.
Prototyping can also be outsourced to specialised companies like Plethora, who are able to make high quality prototypes quickly and efficiently.