5 Best Practices for Prototyping Mobile Apps

3 minute read

5 Best Practices for Prototyping Mobile Apps

Prototyping is the first step to bring your app idea to life. At Alta, we regularly build wireframes in Balsamiq, create high fidelity designs in Figma and test interactive prototypes using our own tool Alta. We aim to speak with at least 5 users each week to share our prototypes and get customer feedback, so we are continuously improving our product. We also follow these 5 best practices for prototyping new features: 

  1. Ideate to produce many ideas
  2. Make paper prototypes and wireframes
  3. Build high fidelity prototypes
  4. Test prototypes with real users
  5. Iterate and incorporate feedback

Prototyping is a key component in several popular product development frameworks. One of the most famous is design thinking, an important framework from the Stanford and IDEO. Design thinking focuses on human centered design. One of the core beliefs of design thinking is that in order to create meaningful innovations, founders and designers need to know their users and care about their lives. Therefore, customer empathy is a fundamental step in design thinking and building great prototypes. 

At larger companies, teams of designers, product managers, marketers and engineers will often participate in a 3-5 day process called design sprints to prototype, test and launch new product features. At smaller companies, founders can also lead a shorter design thinking process with their co-founders and early employees. Oftentimes, design sprints will start with scheduling customer interviews or reviewing data about the users in order to build customer empathy and kick off the ideation process before prototyping. 

As you prototype and launch your next mobile app, here are 5 best practices to keep in mind: 

1. Ideate to produce many ideas

Before starting to prototype, it is important to clearly define the problem you are looking to solve and the user’s jobs to be done. Turn problems into questions to better brainstorm solutions and create problem statements such as: “How might we encourage teenagers to recycle?” or “How might we help restaurants efficiently get online orders?”

During the ideation phase, encourage everyone to come up with a large number of wild, creative ideas as quantity is valued over quality at this stage of the process. To start generating ideas, get a group together of the key members of your team. This could include design, engineering, UX research, marketing, sales, customer service or data scientists. Spend time brainstorming and coming up with ideas collaboratively to improve your product. There are no bad ideas when you are starting ideation. 

A common mistake is that people often get hung up on the quality of the ideas and not the quantity in the ideation phase. Therefore, it’s good to remember that the goal is quantity over quality when brainstorming. In order to find big, innovative solutions, it’s important to start broad as teams can always narrow it down later. Once you have a list of ideas, it’s important to determine which ones will have the biggest impact and prioritize those for prototyping. 

Some of my favorite ideation tools come from design thinking exercises. One great example is Crazy 8’s where everyone is encouraged to quietly come up with 8 ideas in 8 minutes and draw or write them down on a piece of paper folded into 8 rectangles. Afterwards, everyone has 5 minutes to share their best ideas, and the team can vote on the best ones to prioritize.

Another great exercise is called “Copy Hat.” This exercise asks you to put on the hats of different people or companies and generate ideas based on wearing that hat. A sample ideation prompt might be “Imagine you are making a dating app: How would Google or Snapchat do it? How would Elon Musk or Kylie Jenner do it?” Once again, everyone gets an opportunity to share their ideas and are encouraged to vote at the end of the session on the top ideas for prototyping.

2. Make paper prototypes and wireframes

Once you have created a prioritized list of ideas, you can start the fun process of sketching them out. Rapid prototyping is one of the most exciting activities for designers and product teams. It’s an opportunity to unleash creativity, experiment with seemingly crazy ideas, and develop ideas together without boundaries.

A prototype is the smallest possible product that allows you to test your hypothesis. My favorite tools to get started are paper and pencil. Paper and pencil gives you the ability to quickly sketch out your ideas and erase or re-organize flows without getting distracted by making something pretty. After you’re happy with your initial flow, I recommend digitizing your prototype using tools such as Balsamiq to create low-fidelity wireframes quickly. Some designers also use Figma or Adobe XD; however, I would highly recommend starting with lower-fidelity wireframes as you can get much quicker user feedback on your app without distracting users with flashy colors and branding. You will also get more honest feedback from users if the prototype is not too polished; otherwise, your friends and family may not want to hurt your feelings if the product looks finalized and will more likely give you fake compliments rather than useful feedback to help you significantly improve your product before building it. 

Other examples of rapid prototyping include making videos or landing pages that explain your idea and seeing how many sign-ups you can get for it. One great example of a rapid prototype is Dropbox’s stick figure launch video, which they shared with their network and users. The short 3-minute video explains their product in a humorous way and increased sign-ups from 5,000 people to 75,000 overnight.

3. Build high fidelity prototypes

After you’re satisfied with your initial wireframes, it’s time to build a high fidelity prototype. You can partner with a designer to bring your paper prototypes or wireframes to life with colors, branding and interactions in Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch or Invision. No designer? No problem. With Alta, you can find templates that can be easily updated to create your prototypes and update them with your logo and branding to build beautiful, high fidelity prototypes. 

4. Test prototypes with real users

The next step after building your prototype is to share it with potential users to validate your ideas and assumptions. In order to test your prototype, first put together a user research document with your learning objectives and key questions. Ask users to talk aloud as they go through your prototype and describe what they think is going on. Ask them specifics on what they’re thinking and feeling as they interact with your prototype. You can also ask them to perform a specific task to determine if the flow you designed makes sense, such as “How would you find the right shoes to purchase, add them to your cart and checkout?” Do a run through with your team to validate everything works as expected before scheduling interviews online or in person with real users. 

In Alta, you can easily share your prototype with early users by clicking the “Share” button. This will generate a website link to open your prototype on a desktop computer or a QR code to open the app on a mobile device. We also offer a “Record” option where users can talk out loud as they go through your prototype, and you can see and hear how they react to it. You can also add questions as new screens in your prototype to gather feedback from your users. You can then use their responses to iterate on your prototypes. 

5. Iterate and incorporate feedback

In order to launch the best products, it is very important to listen to your customers and learn what they like and don’t like about your product. You can then prioritize their feedback and quickly iterate on your prototypes to address their major concerns before spending more time or money building your product. When hiring engineers to build your product can cost $50,000 to $100,000, having prototypes to validate your hypotheses and quickly update designs can save you a significant amount of time and money. 

Many of the best ideas to improve your product can be found through customer interviews and talking to your sales and customer success teams. These conversations can help you learn about your customer’s pain points and also partner with your marketing team to understand what your customers value most. 

My favorite tools for user research include Google forms, Typeform, Qualtrics and Usabilla. Early stage companies can use surveys to get feedback on their early product betas or to learn if they’re making progress toward product market fit. Superhuman’s founder Rahul Vohra likes to ask his users a simple question: “How would you feel if you could no longer use our product? A) Very disappointed B) Somewhat disappointed C) Not disappointed” and measure the percentage who reply “Very Disappointed.” Using a benchmark number of 40%, you can track if you’re making progress toward improving this metric over time as you prototype, test and iterate. As a startup founder, you need to filter the user feedback and use it to prioritize your roadmap features based on the greatest impact and highest likelihood of helping you reach product market fit. 

Overall, prototyping is a very important step in building great products. Remember, as you are launching new experiences that product development is an iterative process and in order to build great products, founders and designers must learn from customers and stakeholders to ideate a large number of ideas & prioritize those with the highest impact. Create quick, low fidelity prototypes to validate your customer pain points & solution, and test new ideas with users from around the world to build the best products. 

Start building your mobile app prototype today with Alta and share it with your beta testers using a web link or QR code in seconds. 

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