What is it?
Prototyping is a form of drafting that happens during the design process. Prototypes are representations of products that users can interact with and give feedback on. Low-fidelity prototypes (such as paper prototypes or wireframes) allow users to provide feedback on the basic layouts and functionality of products and are valuable throughout the design process, especially during brainstorming and early phases of UX design/research. They do not need to be fully functional in order to be effective.
As the design process progresses, high-fidelity prototypes will likely become necessary. These are prototypes that closely resemble and mimic the desired final design and can be used to test UI designs and get feedback before rolling out a finished product.
Why should I do it?
Prototypes not only provide users with opportunities to test products (or ideas for products) and let the designers know their thoughts, but they also provide designers with opportunities to get their creative juices flowing. I know from personal experience that my best ideas for a design usually come when I’m creating some sort of prototype. There’s nothing quite like seeing an idea take physical shape, even if it’s a rough drawing on paper, that sparks imagination and creativity.
Creating prototypes, particularly low-fidelity prototypes, with your clients and/or users can be beneficial as well under the right circumstances. This allows them to get a glimpse of your design process, and just as prototype creation can spark ideas in you as the designer, it can also help your clients and users better discover what they are hoping for in a finished product.
How should it be done?
There is not necessarily a right or a wrong way to create a prototype; prototype creation is completely dependent upon the needs of your current design project. For example, paper prototypes for a website homepage may be able to be drawn quickly and provide fairly accurate representations of what users will see on their computers or other devices. These can be fast and cost-effective ways to get early user feedback. However, paper prototypes of a physical product, such as a computer monitor, may not be as effective because functionality, material, and actual size are nearly impossible to accurately convey through paper or other low-fidelity media. Prototyping should be an iterative process, and it is often best to start with simple, low-fidelity prototypes and work your way to high-fidelity prototypes as you move through the design process.
Prototypes, whether simple or complex, should be made throughout the design process so users can experience small glimpses of your product and let you know what needs to be changed or what should stay the same. Whether this is done on paper, a computer screen, or with a nearly functional example product, any feedback obtained through prototyping can be valuable.