How to build a prototype without a designer

Build a prototype if you can

Not every product can be prototyped physically, but even physical products can be prototyped easily. Let that sink in! The main way I see folks get bogged down in prototyping is because they don't know where to start, not because they don't have the skills to get started. So then, the art of prototyping is all about finding a place to start.

Finding a place to start

It's hard to give prescriptive advice here, so I'll use an example. When we were working on WeighUp we were using 3D printers to create the chassis that holds the load cell (side note, if you haven't read that case study I recommend doing that now because I'll use the project as an example later). Our data wasn't very steady, so I thought we should prototype a metal housing. Now we could've paid a lot of money to have one made, but instead we went down to the hardware store to see what we could find.

An early prototype of WeighUp

It's easy to have the picture of what you want in your head and get stuck because you don't know how to create it. Instead of shooting for done, shoot for getting started. Scrounge around in your garage for spare parts. Use glue, tape, wood, cardboard, and other readily available materials. It doesn't have to look like the finished product.

The finished product - WeighUp

In the event you can't get started with a physical prototype, there are always easier ways to get started, so let's talk about those.

Easy ways to prototype anything

If you can't scrounge together a physical prototype of your product you still have options. If you have digital chops then you can start creating wireframes or even finished screens, but I'm going to discuss the simplest way of all - sticky notes.

Yes, every design thinker's favorite trope strikes again. But really, you can easily create a prototype of any product using sticky notes. Don't think of this prototype as less useful than what you imagined you could create, think of it as way more useful than having nothing. Don't let perfection keep you from starting - that's the ethos of one of our core values: Action > Perfection.

I recommend using this generic approach to get started prototyping with sticky notes:

  1. List out the problems your product solves on paper. Prioritize those problems based on which you think are the biggest problem. Now transcribe them all onto stickies, one note for each problem. Place the biggest problem up high on a wall and place the next one 6-12" below that. More problems is not always better - keep it simple. For WeighUp this would've been "bars cannot track lost bottles or pours".
  2. Make one solution stickie for each problem on the board. If you have multiple solutions in mind, place them side by side, trailing off to the right. For example "allows bars to track pours". Place these stickies a foot or two to the right of the problems and at the same height.
  3. List out every feature of your product on stickies, one note for each feature and stick these in a cluster to the side. For WeighUp this would've been things like "connects to multiple devices" and "measures the weight of each bottle".
  4. Now go through those features and place them between the problem & solution stickies to which the feature applies.

You're done with the easy part! Now step back, look at the board, and make some observations about what you see. You may have multiple features to solve one problem, problems with no features to solve them, or very low priority problems with tons of features. What needs development? What can you eliminate? If you make one change, then guess what, you've just prototyped your product. Prototyping is not about creating a thing, it's about going through a process that helps you solve problems.

Next up

If you're trying to solve an important problem and getting stuck, hit us up. We're happy to chat! But we hope that providing resources like this one will be enough to help a lot of you get unstuck.

Next up we're going to talk about one of the first big steps once you've decided you want to hire an expert to help you solve some of the problems you're facing, and that starts with budgeting for a development project.

Evan Reese
Oct 28, 2021
Evan Reese
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