As marketing professionals, we know it’s essential to identify and get organizational alignment around the who", "what," and "why" of customer pain points. When we understand what our customers need, we can ensure we're employing the right approaches to earn their trust and ultimately their business.
Identifying how we can best solve for those pains through experiences on the web can sometimes be a bit trickier—but we can keep our own site development pain to a minimum when we include prototyping in the web-design process.
Prototyping is an extremely useful tool that we can use early in the design process, especially when tackling complex customer experiences.
When we’re trying to help users complete tasks, make navigational choices, or follow sophisticated workflows, it's important to identify potential friction points and confusing steps along the journey and solve them—before it’s time to program the site.
But prototyping sounds time-consuming and needlessly expensive.
Can't we just build the site?
Let's be honest: seeing things come to life in creative design and technical development is so much more gratifying than working through discovery sessions, reviewing wireframes, getting into the weeds to find the right approach for form validation...
That said, moving too quickly into final design and technical development can lead to costly rework and bewildered (or lost) customers.
"It's 100 times cheaper to make a change before any code has been written than it is to wait until after the implementation is complete."
—Jacob Nielsen, User Experience Guru
The savings you get from prototyping is substantial. Really substantial. Too often, really great-looking designs are built on sound "best practices" and heuristics—but they just do not work for your unique business problem.
And, while web analytics solutions like Google Analytics are an extremely important part of our toolset, they can’t really speak to the “why” of a potential user experience issue and won’t be helpful for an app or website you haven’t launched yet. They can’t provide some of the meaningful insight that you get from actually talking to real users and working through their thought processes. (Jared Spool, web usability and engineering expert, provides a great explanation of why out-of-the-box analytics aren’t actually helpful for designing a great user experience—and why relying on them can have you running in unproductive circles.)
Once you have built in poor user experience, you can’t avoid the issue by blaming it on bad design instincts or careless analysis. At that point, post-implementation changes become an expensive reality.
So... what can we do?
We can prototype—and here are a few more reasons why.
1) Prototypes can be tested by customers, early.
Prototypes, whether they are paper or clickable, are a great way to get your data-driven hunches and subject matter expertise in front of real users and see how they fare. Best-case scenario, you've validated your assumptions. Worst-case scenario, it's back to the drawing board (but, fortunately, not back into code).
The tools in this space are just getting better and the options more abundant. A few of our favorites for sketching and sharing wireframes and designs:
Tools like these make it easy to test concepts with customers in the wild. If that just isn't in the cards, at the very least we can bounce prototypes off of informed stakeholders and subject-matter experts.
2) Prototypes align teams and create internal buzz.
Customers are our top priority. Getting business stakeholders and the teams responsible for delivery on board is a very close second.
Prototyping takes the mystique out of complex business problems and projects, surfaces issues and opportunities, and generally gets teams excited. At this stage, people start to envision real ways of solving customer service issues, removing friction in the sale, and generally delighting customers.
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3) And of course, prototyping can save you time and money.
Making changes to a prototype can be as simple as pulling out a new piece of paper, erasing screens on a white board or making some adjustments to a wireframe. In the early concepting stage, there's a general sense of freedom for teams to explore new ideas, collaborate on solutions, and get priceless feedback from actual customers.
Once you’ve made the investment to go to high fidelity design or even code, significant changes in direction can be really expensive—and frankly, it’s hard on project teams when corrective action needs to be taken.
When you’re done, you’re really not done.
Digital experiences should be built to evolve. Ongoing changes should be expected as, over time, we learn more about customers and develop new products and offerings. Prototyping helps you anticipate and prepare for those changes in a flexible and cost-effective way.
Consider prototyping early in the design process and any time you’re adding or changing site content or functionality. Whether you like it or not, you will be "testing" your design at some point. It’s just a lot better to test before it’s really hard to make critical changes.