product management Tag Archives - General Assembly Blog

How to Build a Brilliant Visual Product Roadmap

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roadmap

As Product Managers, building product roadmaps is a crucial part of our job. Yet most of us still use outdated tools for product roadmapping — Excel, PowerPoint, wikis, etc. — to try and keep multiple teams on track toward the same goals. It’s painful. The good news is that there’s a better way.

We understand that building a strategic product roadmap is not easy and that your business colleagues always want to know what’s coming next. It’s time to lead your product with conviction. Take a radical new approach to roadmapping because your company needs it and you deserve to build the future and enjoy what you do.

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5 Things Great Product Managers Do Every Day

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Assessing-You-Products-Market-ViabilityMy favorite product managers are quietly powerful. Every day they take small steps that move their teams and business forward in a meaningful way. But they do it without a lot of hoopla, taking a confident yet unassuming approach.

After all, product managers have a lot on their plate every day. They are responsible for the strategy, roadmap, and feature definition for their product. It is a big responsibility that requires facilitating and collaborating with many different teams — both internal and external — without the formal authority to manage those teams. It requires a unique mix of humility and strength.

However, that quiet power does not mean leading product is easy. I realized early on that the daily life of a product manager is unpredictable, hectic, and sometimes very tough.

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10 Sentences A Product Manager Should Never Say

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Your words can be a powerful ally or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use them. So, how often do you think deeply about what you are going to say before you say it?

Product managers, in particular, cannot afford to be careless in their speech.

After all, good product management demands leadership and requires frequent conversations with other teams as well as different external stakeholders. These are not casual conversations; instead, they have some urgency and gravity. The success or failure of the product may depend on how well the product manager communicates with others.

But mastering the art of effective communication is not easy. If you are not careful, your words can undermine your effectiveness and authority.

That is why PMs must root out responses that convey a negative attitude and shut down communication, hindering their progress as a team.

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Don’t Frustrate Users With Gaps in Your Product Experience

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There are countless steps where the product experience can break down.

There are countless steps where the product experience can break down.

There are countless steps where the product experience can break down. Have you ever been waiting at the corner for a ride-sharing pickup, and while the app swears the driver is right there, there is no car in sight? Or how about seamlessly ordering groceries in an app, then waiting well past the delivery window with no sign of your avocados? Ever called customer service by phone to learn they have no record of the two detailed chats you had with online agents about your issue? We’ve all been there.

As consumers who increasingly rely on technology to help us wrangle a vast range of goods and services, we’ve all experienced pain points when really good software doesn’t equate a really good experience. All too often, there’s a breakdown that occurs outside product screens, when a product or process hits the reality of the human experience or a user fails.

Take a peek at the diagram above, which charts the various user touch points that can occur with your brand in a product experience loop. Users interact with a product through many different channels and modes of communication, and bridging the gaps between them is essential to your product’s success. If you present users with a custom call to action in a social media ad, your customer service teams must be ready to respond. If you build an offer email that is redeemable at a brick-and-mortar retail location, the cashier will need tools to redeem it.

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How Blending Lean, Agile, and Design Thinking Will Transform Your Team

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Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf’s new book, Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking

The following is an adapted excerpt from Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking by designer, team leader, and business coach Jeff Gothelf.

In 2016, I was preparing with clients for an upcoming training workshop focused on coaching a cross-functional team of designers, software engineers, product managers, and business stakeholders on integrating product discovery practices into their delivery cadences. During our conversation, my client said to me, “Our tech teams are learning Agile. Our product teams are learning Lean, and our design teams are learning Design Thinking. Which one is right?”

The client found the different disciplines at odds because these seemingly complementary practices forced each discipline into different cadences, with different practices and vocabularies targeting different measures of success.

The engineering teams, using Agile, were focused on shipping bug-free code in regular release cycles (many teams call these “sprints”). Their ultimate goal was an increased velocity — the quantity of code they could ship in each sprint. Product managers, using Lean, were most interested in driving efficiency, quality, and reduction of waste through tactical backlog prioritization and grooming techniques.

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How Customer Development Leads Product Managers from Start to Finish

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It’s virtually impossible to develop a successful product without knowing who’s going to use it. Enter customer development, the practice in which product managers and user experience (UX) designers interact with customers to learn more about their problems in order to create a product that meets their wants and needs.

Customers include any current or prospective people who buy, use, or support your product. When product managers understand their customers, their problems, the environment in which those problems occur, and the value of solving them, the products will very likely succeed.

Customer Development in Action

Imagine you’ve joined a team to launch a new mapping product for field technicians who inspect oil and gas assets (e.g., oil wells, pipelines, valves, etc.). In many cases, the assets are located in rural locations far from paved roads. The initial hypothesis is the technicians will buy a mapping solution that displays an asset’s geographic location and basic information on a map. In order to test this hypothesis using customer development, you spend several days in the field with customers. During that time, you learn that the technicians already have ways of displaying asset locations on a map, making your proposed solution not valuable.

However, during your time in the field you observe a more challenging problem: the technicians driving to the assets. While sometimes an asset may be only 200 feet off the road, if it’s on the other side of a creek or a hill then it could be 10 miles or more to drive to it. Many technicians rotated through assets and didn’t know the best way to get to them, and finding a path could waste several hours in a day.

The technicians wanted a way to mark how they get to an asset on the map as they were going to it, so each technician would know the best route for future inspections. This would save time and fuel, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on this information, you add waypoints — the ability to mark points on the way to an asset — to the initial product release.

In this example, customer development early in the product life cycle ensured the product would solve a challenging customer problem.

Customer Development Throughout the Product Life Cycle

Customer development starts before the first piece of code is written and continues until the product’s end-of-life stage. As the product progresses through its life cycle, the tools used with customers increases in fidelity from simple sketches, to wireframes, to mockups, to code. The continual customer interactions ensure product managers accurately represent the voice of the customer at each stage.

The product development life cycle has seven phases. During the Conceive and Plan phases, customer development interactions usually consist of interviews, sketches, and wireframes. As the product moves into the Develop phase, the most common interactions are mockups, proof-of-concept code, and beta releases. During the Launch and Iterate phases, the product will expand to solve more customer problems using all of the customer interaction tools. Customer development is important in the Steady State and End-of-Life phases to make sure customers continue to buy the product and can eventually easily migrate to a new solution.

By interacting with customers early and often, customer development increases the understanding of customer problems and how they value them, and provides useful information to turn into potential solutions. By using hypotheses, the most important customer information is identified and collected. The results from practicing customer development are used to prioritize product development and ensures you build products your customers love to buy and use.

Customer Development at General Assembly

Customer development is a core practice in developing profitable solutions with product-market fit that customers love to use. At General Assembly, we cover this early in our part-time Product Management course and reinforce it throughout to ensure that students learn how to apply the appropriate tool to match the situation.

In the course, students select a product idea to use for their course project. Once they identify their target and develop some initial hypotheses, they start the customer development process. As they develop their projects, continual customer interactions ensure they are on target to graduate with a clear and compelling example of the skills learned. Many times, these projects are a critical differentiator as they make a career transition into a new field.

Students in our UX design courses — the full-time Immersive program or part-time on-campus or online courses — also cover elements of customer development through skills like user research, usability testingcustomer journey mapping, and more.

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Meet Our Expert

Alex McCarthy, a Product Management instructor at General Assembly’s Austin campus, has worked in product management, software development, marketing, and sales roles, at companies ranging from early-stage startups to global, publicly traded companies. Alex has expertise in areas including oil and gas, measurement and automation, Internet of Things (IoT), professional consulting services, and more. He built successful product management and marketing teams for embedded hardware, enterprise software, and web application solutions.

Coming from a long line of teachers, he is passionate about education. He has mentored in public schools and served on various school boards, committees, and organizations. He recently founded Navigate Next, a company dedicated to helping leaders navigate to new careers in which they’re more passionate and engaged.

“Product management is not only critical to a company’s success — it is the best job ever. Knowing my students will have strong PM skills and a competitive advantage in their career transition is very rewarding.”

-Alex McCarthy, Product Management Instructor, General Assembly Austin

Understanding MVPs: How Minimum Viable Products Test Your Strategies

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Let’s say you want to create a wedding cake for someone, but you’re not sure exactly what they want that cake to be. There are far too many variables involved to just jump into creating a full three-tier, fondant-covered, fully decorated cake, right? You’d have to choose what kind of cake, filling, and frosting, what colors should be on the cake, how the cake should be structured, and so on.

So how do we know what the customer wants, and how we can delight them with the perfect cake for their perfect occasion? It’s simple: We start with a cupcake. It’s small, easy, covers all the necessary bases, and confirms what the customer wants before we fire up the bakery and decoration team to create the final product. That cupcake is our wedding cake MVP.

The term MVP, which stands for “minimum viable product,” is widely used throughout the product development world. The term dates back to the early days of Agile product development and was coined in 2001 by Frank Robinson, now CEO of the product development firm SyncDev. It has since been popularized throughout the industry by such authors and thought leaders as Steve Blank, Marty Kagan, and Eric Ries. As such, it’s become somewhat of a buzzword — and like many such buzzwords, it is often both misused and misunderstood.

The basic concept of a minimum viable product is simple — it’s the smallest amount of work you can do to deliver something of value to your market. It’s something that can be used to validate (or invalidate) a specific set of assumptions, to derisk potential complications in your go-to-market plan, and/or to test one or more specific hypotheses about your target users. Keep in mind, though, that the more you’re trying to do with your MVP, the less likely it is to really be an MVP.

Understanding what an MVP really is and why it’s important is critical to the success of most startup businesses and for the career trajectory of someone who wants to be a product manager. Product managers must have laser focus and ruthless dedication to focusing their organization’s efforts of achieving its MVP before iterating on it, and ensuring that each subsequent iteration is itself an MVP.

An MVP Is “Minimal”

The easiest-understood aspect of an MVP is that it is, in fact, “minimal” — meaning it reflects the smallest amount of work needed to test your hypotheses or solve a user problem. However, this is often difficult to achieve in practice — during the product development process, nearly everyone involved will want to add to the MVP, but nearly nobody will be willing to subtract from it.

Product managers must be able to mercilessly cut scope and fight feature creep in order to keep the product team focused on delivering the MVP. I once read a great thread on Quora that addresses this by imagining hypothetical discussions with the product manager for Dropbox — in my opinion, one of the best examples of a true MVP. You put files in a folder, and they synced to the cloud. That’s it. Some stakeholder probably asked about user rights — and the PM probably answered, “It doesn’t do that.” Someone probably asked about syncing multiple folders, and the PM answered, “It doesn’t do that.” Ruthless dedication to delivering exactly the minimum set of features needed to delight its users really allowed Dropbox to have exceptional success in a market that many had tried previously to conquer.

An MVP Is “Viable”

After we establish the minimum set of features we should be building into our product, we have to make sure the product is actually viable. Essentially, this means that it solves an actual problem that people have, and the product is constructed in a way that’s useful to those people.

If your MVP can’t stand up for more than a few hours without manual intervention, it’s not viable. If your MVP has such a poor user interface that people can’t intuitively figure out how to use it, it’s not viable. If your MVP takes longer to solve the problem than the method that people are currently using, it’s not viable. If your MVP can’t be used by more than five people at a time, it’s not viable. All of these things might start to sound like “scope creep” — more functionality that is absolutely necessary to achieve your goals. But the important thing to note is that security, user experience, and scalability are not features to be cut to reach your MVP; rather they are fundamental aspects of your product that you simply have to implement in order to actually have an MVP.

An MVP Is a “Product”

Finally, an MVP must actually be a “product” — that is, it has to be something that solves a valuable problem across a wide enough market space to be feasible as a moneymaking proposition. If you’re making an MVP that suits a small number of people, it’s probably a tool rather than a product. If you’re making an MVP that nobody is actually willing to pay for, you’re doing charity work and not building a product.

Now, keep in mind that the user doesn’t have to be the one paying for it — Facebook makes billions of dollars on the backs of its advertisers while its users engage regularly for free. But you do need to have some concept of who will be willing to pay for your product, and evidence that this path is sustainable.

MVP at General Assembly

At General Assembly, understanding the concept of MVP is a core component of our part-time Product Management course. Students engage in coursework and exercises that force prioritization decisions, backlog management, and stakeholder negotiation. The course’s final project is a pitch for an MVP solution to a valuable market problem, which sums up all of the skills and capabilities developed over the 10 weeks in class.

Learn More About Product Management at GA

Meet Our Expert

For nearly 15 years, Cliff Gilley has been a product manager and Agile coach at a wide variety of companies across many different industries, and is currently working as a technical product manager for the K2 corporation in Bellevue, Washington. He teaches General Assembly’s 10-week, part-time Product Management course, as well as shorter-form product management workshops at GA’s Seattle campus. He also blogs regularly as the Clever PM and is an active board member with the Pacific Northwest Product Management Community.

“GA’s courses are highly collaborative and outcome-driven. Leveraging GA facilities and programs around the world provides alumni with an ever-expanding range of opportunities to connect and learn from experts in the field.”

– Cliff Gilley, Product Management Instructor, General Assembly Seattle

Using SWOT Analysis At Every Level of Product Management

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Whether you’re starting a new project, evaluating the state of your business, or trying to decide how viable a new product might be, here’s a remarkably simple yet powerful tool that can help you move forward: SWOT analysis.

SWOT is a strategic planning method structured on four elements of concern —  strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. SWOT can be terrific tool for strategic planning, and it helps to better manage the future of a product or organization. It’s often used by product owners, marketing managers, and business analysts, but may be undertaken by entrepreneurs and other business decision-makers as well. A SWOT analysis can benefit a business at any stage, and its popularity has driven its use to noncommercial organizations, industries, and even entire countries.

A SWOT analysis is often created during a strategic planning session as the result of brainstorming exercises. It can be constructed quickly and the results are usually broad and simplistic, but they can help jumpstart discussions of strategic priorities.

Considering Internal and External Factors

A SWOT analysis includes factors both internal to the company and outside in the greater environment. Strengths and weaknesses are internal. They are the things the organization does — or doesn’t — do well. Recent research has shown that these are the most important factors, and they’re within the organization’s control. For instance, when performing a SWOT analysis on a company, the internal factors may include the organization’s people and culture, client and vendor relationships, physical plant and equipment, financial assets, manufacturing prowess, intellectual property, marketing capabilities, and beyond.

Opportunities and threats are external factors. These are the forces that are outside the organization, but could still have a significant impact on the ability to reach the stated objective. For a company, these may include competitors and vendors, technology, macroeconomic trends, government policy and regulations, changing demographics, and more.

How SWOT Analysis Works

SWOT analyses have emerged as a valuable approach because they’re fast, flexible, and give a quick overview of the company’s situation. The method works like this:

  1. Clearly state your objective.
  2. Identify strengths — things you do well that may help reach the objective.
  3. Identify weaknesses — areas that need improvement and may hinder you.
  4. Identify opportunities — places ripe for growth or advantage moving forward.
  5. Identify threats — competitors or conditions that could harm your efforts.
  6. Recognize relationships between the identified elements.
  7. Prune and prioritize to those topics you can focus on to drive change going forward.

The elements proposed in a SWOT may be wide ranging, yet the analysis must be realistic and rigorous. SWOT is a strategic tool. It is about planning for the future, so focus on things that could actually impact reaching the stated objective.

Threat of new upstart competitor? Yes.

Threat of zombie apocalypse? Not so much.

A SWOT analysis can help reveal issues and determine whether the desired objective is feasible in the operating environment. SWOT results can be simply listed or shown in a series of columns. However, the most common representation is a matrix like, this:

Strengths Weaknesses
Positive characteristics, tangible or intangible, that will help your efforts. These are things that are going well! e.g., Proprietary technology; brand equity Negative attributes that may detract from your ability to execute. These are things that could be improved. e.g., Lack of experienced UX designers; dependance on a single supplier
Opportunities Threats
Conditions or elements in the environment that can be exploited to help grow. These outside forces may be a benefit. e.g., Market growth in India; possible strategic alliance with Google Outside forces that might cause problems and hinder progress. These may require contingency plans. e.g., Entry of Amazon into related industry; proposed legislation to restrict distribution

A SWOT analysis can be used early in a strategic planning session as a conversation starter to surface issues like market positioning or technology changes. Or, it can be taken deep and used as a more comprehensive study.

As a planning tool, SWOT analysis can utilized at many levels. It can be used to:

  • evaluate a product,
  • appraise a line of business,
  • assess a team, or
  • analyze an entire organization.

SWOT Analysis at General Assembly

At General Assembly, students learn about SWOT analysis in our User Experience Design Immersive in the unit on business analysis. It’s also covered in our part-time Product Management course, as it’s key in understanding the path to product-market fit. Students are taught to be aware of the competition and what they are doing, but to not let that be the only determinant of what your product should be. They must also appreciate the assets they have to leverage and how it all fits together.

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Meet Our Expert

Jason Reynolds teaches the User Experience Design Immersive program and related workshops at General Assembly’s Boston campus. He is passionate about user experience and process improvement and is excited to share his knowledge and experiences with others — especially those new to the field of UX.

“Thoughtful product design is essential. It’s no longer enough to bring a functional product to market. Companies must differentiate on UX and customers want delightful experiences. It’s a great time to be in UX!”

– Jason Reynolds, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Boston

How to Organize User Interviews to Inform Product Development

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We all know the products that are successful; the ones that seemed to come out of nowhere and then change the way we go about our lives — like the smartphone, ridesharing, or turn-by-turn navigation. But there are a lot of products that didn’t make it. Though there are many reasons why products aren’t successful, one that often comes up is that people don’t see value in what it does. Or, they don’t see enough value in it to pay for it.

One way to avoid going down that path is by conducting user interviews. This is where product teams go out into the world and talk to people who fit their product or service’s personas, observe their behavior, and ask them questions. A persona is a representation of users who have the same problem or goal. Though personas are not real people, they are created based on real user data, often generated or validated by user interviews.

User interviews were introduced in 1990 when the authors of a report called Contextual Design: An Emergent View of System Design talked about “contextual inquiry” as part of the product development process. The goal of an interview is to discover what problems users have that product teams might be able to solve. This is done by visiting users in the environment in which they use the product or a competitor product, or where a problem is occurring; watching their behavior; asking them questions about their behavior; and then drawing conclusions from what they observed.

Anyone and everyone on a product development team — including product managers and user experience designers — is encouraged to take part in a user interview at some point. It’s very easy for teams to get caught up in their own assumptions around what products users want or need. By observing real people, in context, experiencing a problem, team members build empathy and have a strong desire to personally solve it. So the act of interviewing can result in not only more successful products, but also more inspired teams who find meaning in their work.

Oftentimes, user interviews are criticized as “asking users what they want.” That is a misnomer and not the true objective. As researchers, the goal is always to observe current behavior so that we can understand as much as we possibly can about the problems users experience, relative to the solution we’re able to provide. We try to prove that the problem is real, in what context it occurs, how a user currently solves the problem, the frequency with which it occurs, and how frustrated a user is when it’s occurring.

Critics will often add that they understand problems enough by looking at analytics, or quantitative data. Unfortunately, quantitative data can only tell you that there is a problem — it’s qualitative data that will tell you what that problem is and why it exists. The insights the team gets from truly understanding and empathizing with the problem allows them to think more broadly about their solutions and truly build the next set of innovative and successful products.

How to Find Users to Interview

A key step in planning user interviews is, of course, finding your users or potential users. Sometimes seeking out people who are willing to talk to you can be as simple as doing an intercept interview, where you approach people on the street, in a place of business, or digitally while they are using your product, and ask them if you can have a few moments of their time. It’s OK if they say no! Simply move on to the next person (who will most likely say yes).

You can also find people by asking your product or service’s current users via an email blast, or by reaching out to those who have submitted a support issue.

It’s common practice for researchers to compensate interviewees, though it’s encouraged to try to compensate as little as possible. That’s why you’ll often see companies recruit by saying something like, “Talk to us for 30 minutes and get entered to win a $25 gift card.” The idea is to provide just enough compensation to entice people to participate, but not too much to introduce additional bias into the data.

If you have a large budget and are looking to speak with very targeted users, you can also hire a company to recruit users for your test. This can be very expensive and can also inject a bit of bias because those users tend to be compensated at a greater rate than willing participants from other methods. But sometimes that route is the only efficient way to get access to a specific group of people.

Depending on where your users are located, you might conduct an interview in person, on the phone, or over video conference. It’s best to have two people from your team there to conduct the interview so that one person can ask the questions and have a conversation while the other takes notes. (It’s quite difficult to simultaneously take notes and practice active listening.) If you record the interview, make sure to tell the user beforehand.

How to Ensure a Successful User Interview

The goal of a user interview is to get at why users behave the way they do and how they feel about their experiences. Because of this, it’s important to ask open-ended questions that focus on the person’s past or current behavior. Interview prompts can even be phrased in a way that it isn’t a question, such as, “Tell me about a time that you [used a self-checkout/searched for clothes online/scheduled an appointment with a doctor],” or, “Tell me about the last time you…”

After the user has described what happened, follow up with questions that get at why they behaved or reacted the way they did. Ask them questions about how they felt. Watch their body language as they answer those questions. Sometimes the most important information about how to proceed can come from what people don’t say.

Above all, do not ask users to predict what they will do in the future. If you find yourself asking questions like “Would you use this product?” or “Would you pay for this service?” or “What would you like to see in future updates?”, simply pause, and rephrase the question so that it asks about past behavior. “Why did you use this product or similar products?” “Have you ever paid for a service like this?” “Why have you stopped using this product or similar products?” By focusing on past behavior, teams will gather information about the problems users are facing so that they can use their collective wisdom and skills to come up with innovative solutions that succeed in market.

User Interviews at General Assembly

In General Assembly’s full-time User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI), part-time User Experience Design, and part-time Product Management courses, students get firsthand practice conducting interviews. We first discuss how to interview and learn best practices for being effective. Then we jump in and start interviewing. Students draft questions and an interview script, practice with one another, and get immediate feedback from their peers. Then they set out to find and talk to real users who have the problem they’re looking to solve. In UXDI, students work with real-world clients and conduct interviews with their current or potential users.

After their first interviews, students generally say that the experience of approaching and talking to strangers was a bit scary, but also that it gave them so much good information that they need to take their projects in a whole new direction. Essentially, they discovered that their assumptions were incorrect and they now understand what problems are worth putting more time and effort into exploring and solving.

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Meet Our Expert

Tricia Cervenan is an instructor for General Assembly’s part-time Product Management course in Seattle. She has been developing products for over eight years and currently helps clients solve software problems at the product agency L4 Digital. You can find Tricia on Twitter at @triciacervenan.

“Product managers are a stand-in for users, customers, stakeholders, and our development teams — depending on who we are talking to. We need to be able to share the feelings of any of those people throughout a project.”

– Tricia Cervenan, Product Management Instructor, General Assembly Seattle

How Using Rapid Prototyping Tests Product Efficiency & Usability

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It was a strange sight: a 40-year-old man taking a block of wood out of his shirt pocket, then pretending to scribble something on it with a stick. He stopped, then tap, tap, scribble again. After that he put it back into his shirt pocket.

The man is Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the PalmPilot, the first handheld device that put computers into our pockets.

Hawkins had launched a similar venture a few years earlier, an amazing handheld computer called GRiDPaD. This was before we had LED monitors, when laptops weighed more than 10 pounds, so it was an impressive piece of hardware — but it was a flop because it wasn’t small enough for people to carry around. This is why he decided to simulate the experience of carrying around the device by cutting a block of wood representative of its size, sticking a piece of paper on it to simulate the interface, and carrying it around for months. Every time he needed to make an appointment, he’d take it out and pretend to check his calendar on the “device” and add the appointment to it.

This story illustrates prototyping — a quick and cheap way to simulate a product experience in order to reduce risks — very well. In the Palm Pilot example, the biggest risk was that the device might be too big to carry around. This type of prototype looks very crude because the focus is on realistic scenarios.

Prototypes can be really close to the final product with all of the features that will be included when the product is launched. But designers often start out by making a rapid prototype, the quickest and easiest way to prototype, in which the designer tries to mimic the experience without actually building or creating anything.

In software development and product design, rapid prototyping refers to techniques used to simulate the experience of using the software. In most cases, these techniques involve no coding in order to optimize speed and minimize cost. The goal is still to reduce risks — in this case, having to do with the product’s efficiency and effectiveness.

What Is the Purpose of Prototyping?

Effectiveness and efficiency are essential in user experience (UX) design. Effectiveness means the product’s user is able to get the value they come to the product for. If you’re an Airbnb user, you want to be able to book a place to stay while traveling. How do you do this? You would visit Airbnb’s website or open its mobile app. Can you accomplish this task (booking a room) using the website or app? If you can, then it’s effective — it’s giving you the result you desire.

Now, just because a product is effective doesn’t mean it’s efficient. Efficiency means you can complete the task with very little effort. If booking a room on Airbnb’s website takes you over an hour or too many steps, you probably wouldn’t use it often.

To determine whether a product is effective and efficient, we need to test it. And if the product is not built yet, we create a prototype and test it with real users.

Prototyping in UX Design

The UX design process is based on design thinking framework, a problem-solving approach used by designers that’s centered around the target audience for which they design. It starts with understanding who they’re designing for (called a persona) and the problem the persona has before coming up with solution ideas. This way, the solution directly addresses an actual problem the target audience is experiencing.

The design thinking framework looks like this:

  1. Empathize: Understand who your users are and the pain point(s) they experience.

  2. Define (the problem): Using the problem as a starting point, generate ideas for potential solutions.

  3. Ideation: Generate ideas and choose the one or two most promising.

  4. Prototype: Create prototypes of the best idea or two.

  5. Test: Test the prototypes, and use the learnings to improve the solution. After testing, you’ll return to the appropriate step. For example, if the idea is not effective, you’d go back to ideating more or simply choosing another idea to prototype, then test again.

UX designers go through this iteration loop multiple times until they find an effective and efficient solution.

The focus of prototyping is to get as much learning as possible with the least amount of effort. This means we only put into the prototype what we need to test, based on what we want to learn about our product idea. In Lean Startup, a methodology to build businesses and products, this concept is called building the minimum viable product, or MVP. The focus here is the viability of the product idea — is it going to work?

How Do You Create a Rapid Prototype?

When creating prototypes for digital products, like apps and websites, there are many tools available. These tools allow designers to create prototypes, regardless of whether they know how to code. Some of the platforms commonly used by professional product and UX designers include InVision, Marvel, Flinto, UX Pin, proto.io, and Axure.

Creating a prototype with these tools is very easy. Here are the steps:

1. Use a UI design application like Sketch or Adobe Photoshop to upload screen mockups (typically in the PNG file format).

2. Add hotspots — areas with which users can interact — to a screen and define what should happen when the user interacts with it (e.g., take the user to another screen, transition between pages, etc.).

3. Preview the prototype to make sure it’s doing what you want it to do.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each screen.

Once you’ve connected all the screens, you can then use this prototype to test your design in usability test sessions. You’d show the users your prototype, then ask them to complete the specific task for which you’re designing the prototype. This would allow you to discover, then address issues that block them from completing the task.

Rapid Prototyping at General Assembly

At General Assembly, students in our full-time User Experience Design Immersive and part-time User Experience Design course (on campus and online) learn hands-on how to create a rapid prototype by using Sketch to create the screens, then InVision to connect those screens and make them interactive. This portion of the course happens right before the students learn how to conduct usability testing to make sure their design work well.

In order to determine what to prototype, students create user flows, wireframes, and information architecture before they create the screens in Sketch. By the end of the course, students have both the theory and hands-on experience of applying the design process.

Students in GA’s part-time Product Management course also learn to create rapid prototypes; after drawing drafts of their wireframes on paper, students turn to platforms like Sketch, InVision, and more to digitize their designs and create interactive prototypes.

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Meet Our Expert

Danny Setiawan is a UX professional with 15-plus years of experience. He is currently the managing director of CoCreate, a UX consulting firm, and a product mentor at Starta Accelerator. Danny has worked with brands like Yahoo! Finance, The Economist, PwC, MSN, Kimberly-Clark, and Microsoft. Danny teaches the part-time User Experience Design course at General Assembly’s New York campus.

“More and more companies are realizing that if they don’t improve their products’ user experience, they’ll lose their customers. That means there’s growing demand for UX designers, making now a great time to enter the field.”

Danny Setiawan, User Experience Design Instructor, GA New York