Six factors for digital prototyping success

In a previous article I looked at making the case for prototyping in digital projects.

Recently we’ve been prototyping for a variety of purposes and using some different approaches which got me thinking about how we plan our prototyping. This article describes six factors that you need to address for prototyping success.

Two examples

The two examples below demonstrate some of the possibilities.

University client #1
With a web team in permanent fire-fighting mode, its manager wanted to disrupt business-as-usual. The manager wanted to kick-start the process of building a vision for the future and to experiment with what it was really like to design for user journeys rather than whoever was shouting loudest.

Senior management and staff throughout the organisation also needed to be convinced of the new design approach and the web team was keen to test its ideas as early as possible with users.

With a CMS procurement process underway, the web team also wanted to arm itself with a collection of “How would you do this?” questions for prospective suppliers.

This scenario demanded the development of a prototype that demonstrated working functionality using real content.

Client #2
The Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) for a large organisation was building momentum on a digital transformation initiative. He needed to follow up his initial high-level agenda-setting activities with evidence of the need for fundamental change. To engage with staff he wanted to paint a picture of what transformed digital experiences would be like for users.

This scenario demanded a much more lightweight, visually focused prototype than in the previous example.

Six factors for success

So, what factors do you need to consider when planning the best approach to a specific prototyping activity? Here are six.

1. Visual fidelity

Think about whether you need a highly designed, visually precise prototype. If you need to get sign-off for a design concept you’ll need to invest in design. If, like the CKO above, you need to paint a picture of future user experiences you’ll also need the prototype to look right. However, if you need to test architecture, user journeys and interactions, simple monochrome layouts containing accurate content will do the job.

2. Interactivity

If you need users to actually interact with content or you need to show stakeholders features in action you’ll need to build interaction logic. To communicate a high-level vision or design concept, minimal or even no interaction might be fine. Building interactivity quickly increases the complexity and therefore cost of a project so keep things as simple as possible.

3. Tools

In the first example above it was really important to enable users to interact with lists, taxonomies and related content and it was important for editors to explore content workflows. Consequently, the extra effort required to prototype using a CMS was justified.

In workshops, tools like Balsamiq and Axure can be used for real-time wireframing to provide a baseline for CMS-based implementation if needed later.

On the other hand, painting a picture of future digital experiences required a presentation that could be quickly tailored to different audiences and different presentation situations. Only the simplest of user interactions needed to be shown. Photoshopped mockups in a Powerpoint presentation made for the most flexible, reusable presentation.

4. Team

If your objectives include disrupting day-to-day working or improving team collaboration it goes without saying that you need to involve the entire team.

So, what are the key roles for a project where you are building an interactive prototype?

  • Content people. Not only will you need people who can write representative content, but you’ll also need people who have a vision for the bigger picture, understand brand messages and can create taxonomies and other content relationships.
  • A UX designer. You’ll need a UX designer who can wireframe in real-time.
  • People who know about users and business objectives. You might need to bring in people from other business functions, or there might be sufficient knowledge in the web/digital team to move forward without their input.
  • A CMS developer. If you are prototyping using a CMS, it goes without saying that you will need someone who can build fast – taking outputs from workshop sessions – usually wireframes – as a basis for implementing working front and back-ends.
  • A reviewer. We’ve found that it is really helpful to have someone – usually a business sponsor – who is not necessarily present for all of the workshop sessions but can participate in end-of-day reviews.
  • A facilitator. Finally, someone needs to run the show. The facilitator needs to judge when to dive deep into specific issues arising and when to move the agenda on.
Is it worth bringing in external assistance?

The more you can do in-house the better for team coherence and team learning. However, if progress is blocked because you’ve got a gap in one or a few capabilities or you don’t have the confidence because you haven’t worked this way before then consider bringing in external help.

5. Process

Avoiding distractions is really important. Barricade yourselves as far away from daily working life as you dare.

For a CMS-based prototyping exercise you will need several intensive sessions of several days each. The closer together in time you can make them the better so that too much momentum doesn’t get lost in between.

Here’s the sort of agenda you’ll want to cover in a session of three to four days.

  • User journeys
  • Mapping
  • Ideas generation
  • Real-time wireframing
  • CMS-based build
  • Content preparation
  • Review and iterate

6. Life cycle

Finally, before you embark on the whole process of prototyping something, make some plans for what you want to do with it.

Are you just going to do some user testing? If so, who do you need to recruit and what do you want to test? That’s going to help determine how much content you need and in what areas.

If you also want to use the prototype to facilitate discussions with stakeholders, what are the priority areas? Again, that is going to impact where you focus attention and effort.


Prototyping offers all sorts of potential benefits. When you are planning to use prototyping to move forward with your next digital project use the six factors described here to organise your plans and optimise your approach.