The Minimum Viable Prototype

08810_2003_001.tif Flying machine patent drawing by W.F. Quinby 10/5/1869
Flying machine patent drawing by W.F. Quinby 10/5/1869

I admit that I kinda forgot about this, but a few years ago, I wrote a post about a new way to design by prototyping first. At the time, I had a lot of reasons about why this would be helpful that I think I just sorta forgot about (such is life…). But some recent experiences reminded me of that post and I think it’s worth a bit more discussion again.

So if you haven’t done so, go read that post and come back.

Ready? Ok. Here we go.

It’s all about process

In the beginning, I don’t really care what a product or feature really looks like. It’s really antithetical to want resolve that up front, so I don’t even bother with it.

Instead, in the beginning, I focus on principles.

Every creative person probably goes through some sort of process that starts off rough, and ends up with beautiful details. Part of the trouble is having to answer about details too early, but I’ll leave that for another blog post. But even if you look at great works of art and how the artists created them, there was never a scenario where the Sistine Chapel ceiling (for example) just sprung forth into existence. There were most likely numerous studies and changes and revisions that Michelangelo went through which led to the final work that can still be seen today.

Most design projects are no different. In order to get to that magical end point of design that people love to talk about, it requires a solid process that starts off rough and ends up more detailed.

The Minimum Viable Prototype

When I wrote that article years ago, I only mentioned about not going into final detail early on.

Now let’s get some stuff clear. To me, prototyping of the kind I am referring to is not intended to be the high fidelity, dot every “I” and cross every “t”, kind of prototype. This is lo-fi stuff, which is to do the most minimal amount of detail work to communicate the idea. Basically, you want to make it as lo-fi as you can get away with, while still making your point.

What I neglected to talk about was how these early stage prototypes are more focused on defining and understanding the design principles that we want the product to embody.

Design principles are the foundation that you use to build great products upon (and yes, this involves engineering as well, so pay attention!). Using good principles will help that foundation be more solid, so that when it comes time to quickly iterate on product refinements, you actually have something substantial to build on for increased growth and retention.

Early prototypes (especially when combined with usability testing) can help you define and understand those principles far more effectively because you then have something that can be experienced, and not just looked at.


Often when the word ‘prototype’ comes up, people start thinking about all the technology they’ll need to investigate, how to get servers up, what frameworks to use, etc. That stuff is important of course, but not right in the beginning.

Instead, when I prototype, I use whatever is easiest and simplest or quickest to build so that the prototype conveys the idea. It doesn’t have to actually be fully functional software to convey how fully functional software can work. (Repeat that to yourself 5 times!) Think of it like the “Minimum Viable Product” but substitute “Prototype” for the final P.

Tools that I’ve used for this are things like:

  • Powerpoint/Keynote
  • Invision/Balsamiq/POP
  • HTML + CSS

But don’t confine yourself to this list. I’m sure there’s lots more you could use, and it’s all stuff that designers should already be familiar with, so there’s no reason not to do it.

By building these MVP’s, you get to see and experience how a design could actually function. For a designer, it is incredibly important to get a sense of this as fast as possible, and not just in terms of mockups, but actual clickable interactive things. As I mentioned in the other article, Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb by sketching out ideas. He made hundreds of bad lightbulbs first!

Getting into (and out of) trouble

Not gonna lie. Not everyone is comfortable with reviewing designs that aren’t polished. I wish it wasn’t that way, but you can’t fault someone for expecting pristine visual designs from a designer. It doesn’t diminish the importance of lo-fi prototyping, however. It’s still really important to make these MVPs, just be careful about who, how, what, when you show them.

Another thing that people may push back on is the time factor. This type of process may sound like it takes a long time, but in the grand scheme of your product, it is way more valuable to execute a quick and simple prototype to gather feedback, than make something that costs engineering time that you then have to remake again and again. Furthermore, because prototypes can be used to show how software can work, it saves you from having to write highly detailed specifications! Not sure how something should function? There are prototypes to show you!

It may seem strange to run a usability test on unfinished designs, but when I’ve done it, I was able to gather valuable feedback on high-level design problems, the things you need to  understand early on. Some may say you shouldn’t do this, but to be perfectly honest, the customer doesn’t really know the difference, especially when it’s something new! As long as you go into it knowing how to parse the feedback appropriately, there should be no problem with lo-fi prototyping.

The Final Word

As I wrote in the original article, invention is based on working models, not drawings of working models. As a designer, throughout the course of your career, you will probably create thousands of drawings of working models. But none of it has any real value until you can get it into the hands of someone else to use. By prototyping quickly, in this minimum viable prototyping method, you can definitely accomplish that, which will help not just the people you work with, but also the customers you serve!

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The Minimum Viable Prototype

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