Prototype testing: how to nail your next product launch

Kirsty Finlayson

Jul 29, 2020

You’ve been working relentlessly on the latest design—it’s looking great and you’re raring to go. Nice one. But before you confidently hand it over to the engineering team to make it a reality, it’s time to get some feedback and test your prototype with users. 

In this article, we take you through a step-by-step process on how to test your prototype, and give you some tips on how to get effective results. We spoke to Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise, and Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim and former Lead Product Designer at TravelPerk, to provide you with expert tips on the matter. But before we get started, let’s look at the benefits of testing a prototype and when you should test in the design process.

What are the benefits of testing a prototype?

There are many benefits to prototype testing, including launching a product confidently, knowing your design works and has been validated with real users before release, and finding and fixing major usability issues at the design stage. Let’s look at the five main benefits of testing your prototype.

1. Find issues in your design

Imagine launching a product and then realizing that people take a lot of time finding the “confirm” button. That’s going to be a headache to solve when it’s already live and coded. By testing your prototype, you can find these “black holes” in your design before it goes live and patch them up.

For instance, Yuna Akazawa, Product Designer at Braze, tested two versions of a prototype with users which helped her determine the best user flow and placement of a “Media upload” preview on the page.

2. Test your hypotheses

Can people actually navigate through your app? Do people understand what your copy instructs them to do? Does the design encourage discoverability? By testing your prototype with real people, you get to examine and refine your ideas early in the product development process and launch confidently. 

“Put simply, if you’re not trying to prove or debunk a hypothesis then don’t go to the lengths to create a prototype.”

Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim

3. Get invaluable customer feedback early

If your customers’ experience with your product isn’t great, you will be met with negative feedback sooner or later. By getting input from real people before you release, you can avoid negative user experiences and feedback when you launch your product. Caitlin shares why early feedback is so valuable:

“Our main objective is always to get real users’ eyes on the product—getting an early read on how the design is working, what they understand, and what they don’t. Things that might be clear to us on the product team are often totally incomprehensible to real users!”

Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise

4. Save a whole lot of $$$

It’s cheaper to fix a design in the prototype stage than when you’ve coded the product and it’s already launched. In fact, it can be 100 times more costly if you have to fix the problem post-launch. Furthermore, you can save up to 50% of rework time if you have a solid prototype testing regime in place. As Caitlin says:

“It’s so important to have a broad perspective on the designs we’ve made and identify issues before we invest money and time in developing them fully with the dev team. We can catch these issues before they go to build and invest our time into things we have higher confidence in succeeding.”

Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise

5. Get stakeholder buy-in

Say the marketing department isn’t keen on a redesign, but the PM backs up the idea all the way. By testing a prototype with users, you can use quantitative and qualitative feedback to get buy-in and back up decisions with data at the design stage. What’s more convincing than real feedback from your target audience?

When should you test your prototype?

Testing your prototype and getting early-stage feedback on your work is essential. A product that hasn’t been tested with users is doomed to fail. It might be perfect in your head—hey, you’ve been working for hours on it—but by being so close to the project, you could be overlooking major problems in your product. 

“Fail faster, succeed sooner.”

David Kelley

By testing your prototype early, you can bring your customers into the process and incorporate their feedback into the final product iteration. 

Low- to medium-fidelity prototype testing

The sooner you get your users to view your design work, the better. Lo-fi prototype testing happens at the earliest stages of the design process with a paper prototype or basic wireframe.

With a low-fidelity prototype, you can test:

  • If the layout of the design makes sense to other people
  • Experiments in your initial design—you might have two or more design ideas, test them out here
  • The hierarchy of your information architecture
  • Basic interactions with the design. You can mimic these manually or through a prototype testing tool.

As you move onto your medium-fidelity designs, you should be taking all the user feedback onboard, polishing your design up, and begin to add some early-stage copy. You want to really validate your concepts here—test early and test often.

High-fidelity prototype testing

After you’ve made your changes based upon the findings of your low- to medium-fidelity tests—it’s time to get user feedback on your hi-fi design. 

At this stage, you should be pretty confident with your design—any big issues should have been solved during earlier tests. You shouldn’t be looking for huge UX flaws, instead, this hi-fi prototype test should be a final step in your design testing process to truly validate your final iteration and to uncover any hidden usability issues before handing over the designs to the development team.

With a hi-fi prototype, you can get insights on:

  • The overall design direction of a new product or feature
  • The copy: does it add value to the user experience?
  • The user flows: can people find their way when completing user tasks?
  • UI components, e.g., accordions, drop-down menus
  • Graphical elements e.g., image quality, text readability

How to test your prototype: step-by-step

You’ve made the decision to test your prototype—excellent choice. So how do you go about actioning this? No sweat, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide for you to follow.

1. Know exactly what you're testing

Clarity is key here. What exactly are you looking to test? Avoid being vague with your end goal to ensure you get those key results that will be actionable at the end of the testing.

❌ “I want to test my prototype” 

✅  “I want to find out if people can book a hotel through my prototype” 
---

❌ “I want to see if people like the design”

✅ “I want to see if users can navigate with ease through my app”
---

❌  “Is the copy engaging?”

✅  “Does the copy encourage people to make a purchase?”

It's important you determine the goal of your prototype test before you create the prototype. Being clear on the goal will help you determine the kind of prototype you need (low vs. high-fidelity), and the type of elements you need to include in it (e.g., copy, illustrations).

2. Create the prototype

An obvious one here—without a prototype there will be no prototype testing. What kind of prototype you create will depend on what stage of testing you’re at and, as mentioned above, on your test goal. If you’re doing lo-fi prototype testing, it might be on paper or be online in its most basic form, whereas if you’re at the hi-fi prototype stage, you’ll be using a tool like Figma or Sketch to create an interactive prototype that's as close to the real product as possible. 

Is your prototype ready? Import it into Maze to start testing

3. Choose the right audience

Who will you invite to test your prototype? If you’re launching a fitness tracking app, it would make sense to only send your test to people who work out at least twice a week. 

Similarly, if you were launching a product that helps undergrad students manage their workload, you’d want to limit the age to under 25. You only have so much time to test and to get the best insights. Like Caitlin says:

“You have to prioritize getting the best insights you can in the time you have. For us, this means choosing the right mix of different perspectives to catch different sorts of issues and raise different sorts of insights.”

Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise

When you test your prototype, you should look to include both current customers and users who haven’t interacted with your product before to get the best results, Caitlin recommends the following:

“Generally, you want a diverse group of testers reflecting the different personas within your product—but also often people who are not currently users but might become them. Especially when you’re building a new product or feature, this can highlight the pain points that stop you from reaching a larger audience.”

Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise

4. Choose your method

What usability method are you going to use to test your prototype? Will it be moderated or unmoderated? Will you invite users into the office or would you rather test remotely? It generally depends on the product and the goals of your test. 

If you have a tangible product, it makes sense to invite users into the office to try things out as IKEA does to test their chairs. But this is a costly way of testing. For those of us in the digital world, it might be quicker to use an online testing platform that allows us to get insights from users around the world. 

→ Want to get actionable insights quickly and remotely? Discover how Maze’s user testing works.

5. Give people a clear objective

Set a clear task for users to achieve. To encourage action, tell a story about your scenario that broadens their mind.

“You can approach a test as task-based or exploratory. In both cases, I like to be as open and informal as possible, allowing the candidate to move through the product in a way that feels natural to them.”

Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim

For example, imagine you’re working on a new product that will help people find the best brunch bars in town for them. Instead of simply asking them to pick somewhere to go eat, create a scenario that  places the user in a realistic scenario:

“It’s a Saturday morning and you’re in the mood for Eggs Benedict. You want to go with two of your friends to get some food, but don’t want to walk more than one mile. Choose somewhere to go that will cost you less than $20 per head.”

This gives your user the opportunity to take their own path as they test your prototype. Different people will interact in different ways and you can really understand how people are using it when you write great usability tasks.

6. Pick the right questions to ask users

Throughout your prototype testing, you have the chance to ask usability questions that will give you even more insight. Make sure you pick the right ones to get effective feedback. Over to Caitlin for her best icebreaker question for prototype testing:

“First off, I like to ask the user a little about themselves and their motivations for using the product. It’s a great icebreaker and gives you the chance to get a little context for their answers.”

Caitlin Goodale, Senior Product Designer at Memrise

Curious for more questions? Here are some examples of prototype testing questions to ask at various stages of the process:

Screening
  • How much time do you spend online each day?
  • Have you ever used our website/app before?
  • What industry do you work in?
Before the test
  • Have you used any products in the [X industry] before?
  • What type of product do you use to do [X action]?
  • How confident are you with doing [X action]? 
During the test
  • What did you think about the [X] experience?
  • How was the language used on this page?
  • Can you tell us what you think of [X]? 
After the test
  • What did you like the most/least about this product? Why?
  • Would you use such a product to do [X activity] in real life?
  • What would you change about the product?

Wrapping up a prototype test can be difficult. Users have spent a certain amount of time interacting with your design and you want to maximize your insights before they go. Chris recommends asking “What one thing would you improve about X?” as your final question. And the reason behind it is a great one:

“People tend to be overly polite and even after a horrendous session they will often answer that ‘it was OK’ when asked general, ‘How did you find that?’ questions. In framing it more concretely and requesting that they change one thing, it helps them to be more honest.”

Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim

7. Launch your test

The time has come—it’s prototype testing day. Consider a trial run with a colleague or friend if you’re going to be doing the testing in-house, or set up a pilot test in your remote testing app so that you’re 110% prepared.

“It’s always interesting to see how others see and use your product. Despite all your best guesses, it’s always very humbling to see people use your product in new ways which no-one had even considered.”

Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim

→ Check out what a prototype test with Maze looks like here.

8. Share the results

After you go through your responses and analyze the test results—it’s time to share them with all key stakeholders. Whether it’s good—cue the beers—or not so great, you now know what you need to improve and iterate on to get to the next stage of your product launch process. 

Make sure to create and share a test report so everyone is on the same page and consider bullet-pointing the next steps. Chris explains why this is essential: 

“Centralize your results and distribute the highlights to the team—testing done in vacuum is useless. In gathering feedback in a centralized space, everyone has access to it but often people won’t go digging. So distil the best parts and make sure everyone from sales to marketing to engineering knows all of the interesting things you just found out.”

Chris Roy, CPO at Boatim

Our wrap-up tips for prototype testing

It will take a few tries to really nail your prototype tests and you’ll learn along the way what works best for your industry or sector. Here's our top tips to send you on your way:

  • Know exactly why you’re doing your testing before jumping in
  • Choose the right people and ask the right questions
  • Make sure your prototype is as interactive as it can be for best results
  • Test your prototype with friends or non-design colleagues before you test externally
  • Always remember to be agile in your testing and recruit your users as quickly as you can
  • Keep an executive summary at the top of your testing documents
  • It sounds obvious, but remind your users it’s not the final product