You’ve probably heard that prototyping is becoming a critical skill in digital agencies. But what does it mean to prototype effectively for big brands?
Large digital-native companies like Google and Adobe have long embraced prototyping — and now companies of all kinds have come around to seeing the benefits of working this way. With clients such as Apple, Lyft, Marriott, ALDO, Acorns, and Planned Parenthood, few have embedded prototyping into their process as deeply as Work & Co.
We took an inside look with Design Lead Joris Rigerl, who’s based in the digital agency’s Brooklyn office. He shares some of his learnings, favorite tools, concrete reasons for why prototyping leads to shipping best-in-class digital products, as well as some real-life examples of how it’s been baked into projects by big brands.
Q: At this point, it’s widely agreed that prototyping is a sound strategy. But from your point of view, why has it become so important now?
Joris: When you look at how people made digital products in the past, there was a lot of effort and money that went into making something before users saw it for the first time. When you’re trying to make something really simple, that’s usually fine, but the more complex our products and ecosystems become, the more of a risk you’ll be taking as a business.
Consequently, the practice of prototyping — meaning building small, low-effort, testable things to be put in front of users — and then iterating on those hypotheses makes sense. The sooner you learn what works and what doesn’t, which ideas to pursue and which to drop, the more successful the final result will be. And when it comes time to launch, you’ll feel much more confident since you’ve seen real people use your product for weeks or months already.
Q: How would you describe the way you use prototyping at Work & Co, and how is the process different from other companies?
It happens really early. Earlier than any other place I’ve worked. Because most of my colleagues know how to put together prototypes, we use that skill to communicate our ideas. This means we often have something to put in front of users within four weeks of the project kick-off.
When we start a project, we ask ourselves the question: “what are the key problems we’re trying to solve?” and really focus in on that. Usually, each team member develops her or his individual design approach to solve the problem and shares those concepts with the team. Because of that, we usually wind up arriving at multiple solutions for the same problem, which is great material for the client and stakeholders to give feedback on.
These ideas are then refined and consolidated before we start building high-fidelity, fully-featured prototypes to take into user testing. By that time, the prototype will already feel very close to a refined product, allowing us to get very informed feedback from users.
Q: What forms do the prototypes take?
Prototypes can be as simple as paper sketches or as complex as detailed motion studies or digital products that mimic full functionality. It really depends on what we are trying to communicate and what kind of feedback we are looking to get.
Motion design specifically plays an important role in the success and experience of a digital product — animations can be an enabler, working to explain the interface as you’re using it. Refining these subtleties and getting feedback on a living interface is virtually impossible through static comps.
Q: What tools do you use for prototyping?
In general, it’s best to try not to box people in but allow them to use whatever they are comfortable in to communicate their ideas. I rely a lot on Principle for quick interactive sketches and light user flows. I turn to Framer or HTML/CSS/JS for more of the heavy lifting. We’ve also used many other tools at Work & Co like Invision, Origami, and Keynote for various tasks.
Q: What are the benefits of prototyping for project teams?
At the heart of it, design is just really about solving problems. In my experience, integrating prototyping early on leads to better solutions. For one thing, we are less at risk of making too many assumptions about the user experience and falling back on safe (and potentially boring) patterns. It unleashes different possible solutions because prototyping allows you to explore unconventional and exciting solutions. Also there’s an inherent efficiency. Being able to test quickly, and evolve or reject them before investing too much time and money in their development is really valuable.
Q: What’s an example of a project you've used prototyping on?
It’s hard to think of times when we haven’t used it, to be honest! We used prototyping extensively during the entire digital relaunch of Virgin America — from website to app. The end result, which was an extremely simplified experience in which the booking process unfolds step by step, could only really be conveyed with animated prototypes. For the app, we focused a lot on speed, creating a booking flow that could be completed in under 60 seconds, But it tooks hundreds of iterations, prototypes and user tests to actually get there.
Another one where we used prototyping heavily, and at scale, was designing an app for the global hotel chain Marriott. We had come up with lots of possible ways to improve the experience. But in the final stages of the project, the team hit upon a really novel new navigation paradigm — a one-button interaction that scrapped a homepage, and allowed users to quickly toggle between sections of the app.
An idea is one thing. Execution is the hard part. Because it’s important for users to use the app on-the-go, possibly while juggling luggage and other items, it needed to be seamless. If not for rapid prototyping, we wouldn’t have been able to get this right — not only over the course of the user testing, which took place across six countries, but also internally as we handed our phones around to co-workers to see if they would “get” the interaction right away.
Joris and the team at Work & Co