Prototypes are an important part of the hardware development process. At the simplest level, a prototype is an initial or preliminary model of the product. You build a prototype to test key assumptions that you have about the product. Prototypes can be used to test feasibility risks and to test desirability. You can put a prototype in a customer's hands to answer questions that you might have about how well the product satisfies your market requirements.
Rapid prototyping saves time and costs
Prototyping tools provide a useful method for quickly developing a functioning prototype. Developers can rapidly develop fully functional working prototypes, saving 75% of your prototype development time. Furthermore, being able to develop prototypes more quickly and less costly allows you to put your product in your user's hands earlier, test your assumptions, and gather data. Through the feedback your prototype receives, you can better understand your user and product purpose or use case. Your marketing and engineering teams can use prototypes to get necessary feedback, test the use cases, and ultimately build a better product.
Not all prototypes are the same
The type of prototype you need will be informed by the stage of development you are in and the type of data you need. In early stages, spreadsheets, illustrations, storyboards, wireframes, paper prototypes, and other low fidelity prototypes may be sufficient to generate the feedback you need for initial buy-in. Later product decisions may require a functional prototype or proof of concept. For example, you might explore alternative ways to solve a problem by prototyping a few solutions and putting them in the hands of your customers to observe the interaction. You might use a prototype to test and measure how the design affects power consumption or Wi-Fi range. Or you might use a prototype to test the behavior of a sensor in a wearable device where the contact to the skin or motion of the person makes it challenging to make the measurement.
The more information and data that you can capture from prototyping before manufacturing, the more likely you are to develop a product that satisfies your use case. Also, the less likely you are to make product decisions that are too costly to reverse.
Tips for prototype development
Prioritize the risks to focus your work – work only on what is most important, that is those things that reduce your project's risk and help you understand your customers' needs.
You need to be very disciplined in prototyping to preserve your development budget. Always be mindful of the audience for your prototype, the purpose it will serve, and the questions that you want to be answered by this prototype. Your question(s) should be specific and narrowly focused. Be clear on the data that you can collect and how you will analyze and use it.
Ultimately, prototypes demonstrate progress toward developing a product that is ready for manufacture. New development platforms have greatly simplified prototyping, enabling rapid prototyping of electronic hardware products. By using disciplined prototyping to test decision-making during the development process, you can secure buy-in from stakeholders and wisely get the most from your development time and dollars.