The Best Prototyping Tools… Are the Ones You Already Have

prototyping tools

Prototypes let you see the future. Prototyping tools help you quickly build that future.

Have you ever worked on something for weeks and then found out it wasn’t what
the client wanted? Ever realized that a problem was way more complex than you
initially thought and had to throw away your first solution?

Prototypes let you see the outcome long before it happens and adjust. What gives
prototypes their power? Prototypes are quick to build and easy to change. They
are “low friction” and flexible, which encourages you to make as many revisions
as you need to nail the right solution. They are interactive, which means you’ll
naturally learn things that you wouldn’t from a static mockup.

First rule of prototypes: Don’t build your prototype with the tools you use to build your
system. You won’t be able to build as quickly and you’ll feel sunk cost lock-in.

Second rule of prototypes: Use whatever gets it built fast.

Third rule of prototypes: Keep friction so low that you never feel resistance to
trying one more thing.

You can use a dedicated prototyping app if you want, but you don’t have to. Here
are some other tools that we use that work for us:

Twine

This one is courtesy of Lee. Twine is a tool for creating
interactive, non-linear stories. It is most commonly used to develop text
adventure games. We’ve used it to quickly map out complex workflows and walk
through all of the different paths. It is fun enough that you want to keep
using it, which actually qualifies as a negative friction factor.

Excel or Google Sheets

A spreadsheet collects data, manipulates it, and then outputs it. Your app
collects data, manipulates it, and then outputs it. That makes a spreadsheet a
great tool for prototyping the flows in your app. All the tools are there for
formatting things, storing and validating data, drawing UI elements, jumping
between pages, etc.

Excel also comes with the world’s most commonly written programming language (the
excel formula), and your clients probably already know how to use it, so everyone
can get in on the prototyping game.

Index cards

Grab pens and a stack of index cards. Start drawing an application. Sit down
with your team and “execute” the cards with your mental computer. Don’t let
anyone cheat by “executing” any “code” or “clicking” any “buttons” that aren’t
on the cards. It sounds silly, but I promise you will gain a lot of insight
without spending a minute of keyboard time.

The point is: the process is important, not the tools. Use whatever keeps you
learning early and often.

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