If you’ve been following our short series “How To Turn Your Idea Into an App,” you may recall that the first step in bringing your idea to fruition is a thorough competitive analysis. The very act of taking a hard look at your competition is immensely valuable in a number of ways. It helps you understand your competitive landscape, define the core features and differentiating features of your app, and it helps develop app personas – the people who will actually be using your app. Once you have those gems firmly in your grasp, you’re ready to prototype your app idea!

But before we get into the “how” of prototyping, it’s important to understand the “why.” I find it’s best to think of prototyping as marketing research. The purpose of your prototype is merely to test the assumptions and hypotheses you developed during your competitive analysis. It’s figuring out whether people think your app idea is valuable and useful before spending lots of time and/or money developing it. It’s refining and perfecting the user experience before a single line of code is written, so that if and when it does go into development, production is faster and there are fewer hangups. The purpose of prototyping is not to test feasibility. It’s not to test how much money your idea could potentially bring in. To put it in layman’s terms, the point of prototyping is to find out if your app idea is a good idea without spending any money.

So with that in mind, the prototyping process should look something like this:

Rapid-Prototyping

Prototype

The best way to get your prototype started is to simply sketch it out on paper. It’s the fastest way to get the ball rolling and the creative juices flowing. Your finished sketch is essentially a “low fidelity” prototype intended to help you define the overall structure of your app, and the primary screens you’ll be showing your potential users later on. You can get a jump start on this during your competitive analysis by sketching out useful/necessary elements found in similar apps, or your competitor’s app. You don’t have to be a great artist to sketch out a great low fidelity prototype. As long as you can draw boxes and rectangles, you’ll be fine.

Once you’ve finished your low fidelity prototype, it’s time to make it look sexy. Class it up with a high fidelity prototype using a more advanced tool like JustInMind. Why? Because at the end of the day, most people have a hard time seeing your vision. Getting actionable feedback is next to impossible if your potential users don’t have something resembling a finished product. The better they can visualize themselves using the real thing, the better your feedback will be. If you’re not experience with photoshop or other design programs, you’ll find JustInMind has a pretty steep learning curve. It’s our top choice because it’s the only tool out there that has a perpetually free option (not just a free trial), and makes it super easy to load a very convincing high fidelity prototype onto your own mobile device. But, if JustInMind feels too daunting, you can also use Keynote. Yup. Keynote.

Show Users

Get out there and show people your prototype! I mean really get out there. Friends and family are easy places to start of course, but they most likely won’t fit the user personas you identified during your competitive analysis. Your Uncle Joe who barely knows how to check email on his phone isn’t going to help you. You need actionable and authentic feedback from the people most likely to use your app, so get out there and find creative ways to reach your target user. I promise you no one is going to copy your idea, so there’s no need for NDA’s and no need to look over your shoulder.

Get Feedback/Refine

The hardest part of collecting feedback is 1) regularly logging it in a physical/digital journal (your memory of numerous conversations will inevitably prove insufficient), and 2) avoiding response bias by refraining from leading questions. Remember, the goal is to get actionable and authentic feedback. It’s surprisingly easy to get excited about your prototype and lead your user to make conclusions that fit your desired result. In your first go-around, it’s best to simply ask “What do you think of [insert feature/functionality]?” as an icebreaker, and follow up with “Why?” as many times as you can without sounding like a broken record. You’ll quickly learn how to rephrase your “Why’s” so you don’t sound like a talking parrot, and ask better probing questions that get to the root of your users’ needs and the core value they want your app to deliver.

New Idea

The more detailed and organized your feedback logs are, the easier it will be to extract insights. In many ways, your feedback log is the roadmap to your next big idea – a new feature, functionality or user-flows to add or change. Once you’ve found it, it’s time to rinse and repeat the rapid prototyping process. Go through it as many times as you feel are necessary to reach prototype that perfectly reflects a minimum viable product once it’s put into development. There’s no right or wrong number so long as you get enough actionable and authentic feedback, and don’t fall prey to “paralysis by analysis.”