10
Dec
2012

What is user-centred rapid prototyping? Part 1: Discovery phase

by Sari Griffiths

We were talking about how user-centred rapid prototyping works the other day, and thought it will be an interesting thing to share with the wider world. 

So what is it?

Rapid prototyping

First, let me attempt to define rapid prototyping in the context of Red Badger.

It can come in various size and forms, from 2 days to 8 weeks, depending on the propositions we want to test. The final format can be anything from paper prototypes to fully functional products.

Sketch

Basically, it is a short burst of project to launch a concept in its purest form. The aim is to create a minimum viable product (often mentioned as ‘MVP’) – that is the smallest possible construction you can get away with in order to prove this concept.

Remember the early days of Twitter? I don’t think it was a rapid prototype project, but it’s a good example to illustrate what an MVP is.

Twitter started off with just an ability to post a 140 letter message, follow others and not much else. (It’s the days of a lol cat fixing their servers if I remember correctly.) But these simple propositions were what Twitter was all about. It was the minimum viable product. 

Rapid prototype projects aim to uncover the very essence of a concept and to create a small collection of features and user experience that best represent this essence.

Why essence only? Because sometimes you just have to try it to see if something works, especially if it’s something new. And the last thing you want to do is to discover that it just doesn’t work after spending months designing and developing.

The minimum viable product allows you to start learning as early as possible (For example, it might be user reactions or data performance you’re looking for) so you can start improving. You can still build more features on top later, and you’re in a much better position to judge what to add once the MVP started its lifecycle, than building everything upfront not knowing potential glitches.

It also helps you to really focus on a concept. It’s easy to lose sight of what you set out to achieve in projects because there is just soooo much you can do. If you can’t pin down a MVP, is there really a concept worth exploring?

The things to remember: you can rapidly prototype because a MVP is so focused. It’s not the other way round.

Discovery phase

Explore wider context

If it is appropriate for the proposition we’re testing and its timeline allows us, we usually kick-start a rapid prototype project by exploring and pushing our concept a bit further and it’s a vital part of the whole rapid prototyping process.

This might sound strange as what we are trying to do is to narrow down.

The thing is, how can you tell where to focus if you don’t have a bigger picture? How wide and where we explore is mostly depending on the concept – we might look at competitors, technologies, theories and papers.

And one area we always look at is the audience. 

Persona

All user experience we explore will be underpinned by personas.

A persona is a typical profile of a targeted user base. Each project can have any number of personas – some clients have already defined who the personas are, some not. These profiles are an amalgamation of real people who were interviewed or surveyed to represent different types of audience.

Personas tend to have names and look as if they exist. What work do they do? What magazines do they read? Do they watch sport? Do they like shopping? Friends and family commitments? How do they spend their day? These details bring them to life and help us get into their mind-set. 

User journeys

Once we have personas, we can look at their journeys in and out of the potential concept. 

Where is the touch point? Emily might be using this on a train on her mobile, while Luke might be using this on a desktop at work during the lunch break. Is there any features they’d like? How can this concept help them more?

We then focus on developing user experience around these user journeys. Simply because these are the places our audience will want / need to be.

Branding

Understanding of branding is important at this stage too. I’m not talking about logos, typography and colours, but about brand values and personalities. (If you want to know a bit more about branding, here is the one I’ve written earlier about branding)

While we are working on the BBC Now project, we often asked ourselves “Does this feel like the BBC?”. Established brands are like personalities on their own right, the audience will feel odd (or probably something worse) if they do something completely out of character. 

Or it could be about the first impression. One of the other projects we are currently working on aims at kids. Do we want kids to feel comfortable? Or do we want them to feel they are challenged? Is it about learning? Or wonder and discovery?

And focus again

While we look at personas, user journeys and branding, time constraints are the last thing on our mind. But once they are explored, familiar with the personas point of view, it’s time to discuss what the most compelling element of this concept is.

We create a list* of features and stories that each describe snippets of user experience, and we order it based on how essential each item is. And so, features and stories near the top will constitute the bulk of the minimum viable product, ready to be tested and developed.

*This list is called a ‘product backlog’ in Red Badger as we run all projects in agile project management methodologies. 

User testing to validate the concept

Again, it’s depending on the project, but once the concept is boiled down, it’s a perfect time to touch base with users if a timescale allows this to happen. We can show ideas in paper form and ask questions. Or create a quick and dirty prototype for them to play around with. Or it may be a large scale A/B testing (the audience are randomly shown one of the options and you can decide if A or B is better by looking at the statistics of click through etc) with real audience.

With BBC Now, we created a Flash prototype that looks reasonably realistic, so that the user can focus more on detailed interactions than trying to imagine hypothetical situations. Whereas for the project with kids, we showed them user journeys in scamps (hand drawn sketches) to encourage more creative input. 

User testing at this stage help us confirm that we’re focusing on the right area and answer any questions raised during the discovery phase. 

By this time we’ll have developed a set of scamps or wireframes of key user journeys and visual design style to go with our backlog.

And finally we are ready to start developing!

Continue to What is user-centred rapid prototyping? Part 2