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Prototyping for product managers

Watch Alex Cowan discusses what jobs prototypes are good for, how to develop good prototypes, and how to continually make them more relevant.
Everybody loves a prototype. And fun fact, we’re actually recording today on Valentine’s Day. Now, why do they love prototypes so much? I think the reason is because creating prototypes feels like real work. I mean, it kind of looks like the software it may eventually become. And that feels more natural and people like it. And it’s very tangible. However, it is only good at doing certain jobs. In this video, we’re going to talk about what jobs prototypes are good for, how to develop good prototypes, and how to continually make them more relevant with the rest of the key methods we’re applying here. Prototypes are good here. They’re good for engineering usability. They’re not good for testing motivation.
If you create a prototype and you say, hey, customer do you like this green on this screen? They’ll probably just be like yeah, it’s terrific, nice job. Because they don’t want to argue with you, and they just want to go home. However, that response will not be a good predictor of their future behavior or their propensity to use your product. So, no prototypes here to speak of, at least not in the sense that we’re meaning for prototypes. But they are good here, they’re good for thinking about what’s going to be a highly usable pattern for your customer.
Your job is to work with your designers to learn from the customer, observe from the customer, what interface patterns is the user going to most,
be most, are going to be the most natural for your customer, your user, when they encounter your software based on other things they use for similar jobs. When I hear a designer or a product manager, rather, tell me how much they love their designers because the designers have created an interface that nobody could possibly imagine or conceive of, it’s very painful to me because, I mean, that’s, unless there’s a super compelling reason for that, which there rarely is, that product is going to struggle because you’re forcing a user to learn something totally new. And they don’t like that, they just want to get the reward from your product.
You want to answer this question on ongoing basis with your designers and create a strong interface between your designers and your development team. The best way to do this is to start with really strong user stories, user stories that stem from validated learning, user stories that map to a learned understanding of what your user is actually doing when they’re using your product, and what rewards they are seeking. And then we move forward to prototypes. I said, use well understood patterns that the user might be expecting. How do that? Well, you want to look out in the world at sites that are not necessarily sort of topically similar to your sire, but where the user does similar jobs.
So for instance, if we are making an app where heating and air-conditioning technicians can search for parts, maybe e-commerce is a good metaphor since there’s that same kind of searching among many different things and making a selection that has kind of different layers. And if you’re going to do this, do it across a lot of sites. And then there’s sites that do this, and there’s a few UI pattern libraries that are mentioned in the resources section. And do not just zero in on the market leader and say, they must have done everything super well because they are the market leader. Let’s use their patterns.
I mean, you can learn from them, but they do what they do because of a very specific experience that they put together and iterated on over the years. So, you can, what you want to do when you’re looking at patterns is look at very specific things and talk about why you like them or don’t like them for your particular purpose, your particular user story. And again, the idea is to look at what patterns is the user going to know that might apply to what we’re doing. So, for example, here are a bunch of user stories and here are some Balsamiq mockups based on one concept for searching for parts for an HVAC, like an air conditioning part.
And here’s a detail page for it. And here’s the final page for the individual part. So this is an example what how rough these mockups might look. These are still extremely useful. But here’s a second concept, and you should always do, for an important interface, at least two concepts. So this is the exact same jobs that we’re trying to help the customer do, the same stories, but this one’s more based on photo, social. As you can see, it’s more visual, it has rollovers, maybe it’s more mobile friendly. Or maybe it doesn’t work at all. But we find that out through testing.
And we find it out through trying a lot of different things and seeing which ones work best for our users. So, start from strong user stories, move forward to strong prototypes that map to the patterns that your users come to expect, and make sure you’re finding those out in the real world where they really exist. That’s how I think prototypes will most help you. They’re also a great way to communicate. There’s a saying that’s attributed to Twitter, a prototype is worth a thousand meanings. And that’s true, too. So, this is a really great way to move from strong user stories to specific, discussable understandings of how you’re going to build great software for your user.

In this video, Alex talks about what prototypes are good for, how to develop good prototypes, and how to continually make them more relevant. He recommends starting from strong user stories, moving forward to strong prototypes that map to the patterns that your user has come to expect, and making sure you’re finding those out in the real world where they really exist. Think about how learning about user story mapping in the previous video gives you a foundation for creating the prototypes in this one.

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