If you are not a UI designer and hear the word “prototype,” what comes to your mind? If you are a UI designer, please forget about your background knowledge for a while and try to answer the question as well.
There are two things coming to my mind. On the one hand there are sentences like “She is the prototype of a businesswoman.” or “He is the prototype of a professional sportsman.” On the other hand I know that prototypes of cars are created in the auto industry.
In an article by Forbes on car prototypes I found a paragraph that intrigued me: “Many of the cars aren’t expected to be roadworthy (many don’t run or even have engines or moving parts), but a few could be made to work with minor tweaks.”
If you paraphrase this a bit, you get the definition of a user interface prototype as I see it.
A UI prototype is certainly not roadworthy and you would not want to sell it to a customer. But like the car prototype it is so close to being roadworthy, that it creates the illusion of a real application.
So let´s imagine our user interface prototype is a car where everything except of the wheels works. What use would it be to get into this car?
Well, the chassis and coachwork are there so you get a first impression of the design and also of its purpose. If the doors are working you know how to access the system. Getting into the driver´s seat your can discover two important features: First the makers of the car definitely made a user-centric design and provided him with a comfortable environment adapted to his needs. Second you can see the colors and the material of the seats and the dashboard. In our application this would translate to the colors and the look of the feel of the pages and controls.
Strap on the seat belt and you know that error-handling is taken care of! Turn on the radio, the air conditioning or open the glove compartment and you will know that all the extra features you wanted are working and where they are located and how you can activate them. The steering wheel and the blinkers help you to navigate through the application. And finally, is there a trunk? If yes, that´s where you store your data!
Coming back to the world of software, a prototype helps you or your end users to test and experience aspects of your application in a realistic environment. This can be anywhere in the application, at the very front end or somewhere in the backend.