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An introduction to UI prototyping

When visitors land on your product or website, how do you ensure your user interface (UI) is easy to navigate, helps intuitively guide people to achieve their tasks, and simplifies their path to convert into paying customers? And how do you achieve this without creating dozens of interfaces that could be a hit or miss with your users? Enter: UI prototyping.

UI prototyping lets you map out, visualize, and test future user journeys before you spend time and money building your product’s actual user interface.

But before you get started and communicate the requirements to your design team, you need to ensure you speak one language and understand the basics of UI prototyping.

Last updated

13 Jan 2023

This introductory guide to UI prototyping walks you through all the basics you need to start shaping your product’s customer-facing interface and ensure you’re in alignment with your design team. In this guide, we cover: 

What is a UI prototype?

3 reasons to do UI prototyping

Examples and types of prototypes

The difference between wireframes and prototypes

3 common mistakes of UI prototyping (and how to avoid them)

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What is UI prototyping?

User interface (UI) prototyping is an early phase of UI development where you create a digital mock-up of a future customer-facing interface. This is where you have a chance to validate your design and see how real users respond to your UI—in-app interactions that you design for them—before you invest heavily into product development.

If you want to create an interface that doesn’t scare users away but hooks them, you can’t miss this step.

3 reasons to do UI prototyping

Still not sure you need to invest your teams’ resources in UI  prototyping? Here are three reasons to reconsider your views:

1. Design and test user flows 

A user flow is a path a person takes inside your product interface—from their entry point right through to their final interaction.

The goal of a UI designer is to ensure users have a smooth and intuitive interaction with the product throughout all these points. UI prototyping helps you achieve just that.

For example, in a language learning app, you would try to map out each interaction from the moment a user takes their first language proficiency test. User flows help you identify any areas of confusion or complexity and identify opportunities to improve the user experience (UX). By creating a visual representation of an application and testing it with a focus group, you see how actual users perceive and navigate your product.

2. Identify and prevent roadblocks 

Creating a UI prototype helps teams identify any potential usability issues with the user experience or product design that may arise during the development process, allowing designers and developers to make improvements before release.

When you see the final design product, you can be sure there was plenty of time spent bringing it to life. The closer it is to the final version, the harder it is to make changes. That's why I strongly believe that prototyping is an essential stage of the design process. It allows the designer to explore the problematic areas of the product and find the best solutions to solve them in the earliest steps of the process.

Kateryna Karpenko
Marketing Designer, Readdle

3. Align with your stakeholders and get buy-in

A UI prototype demonstrates a product’s design and functionality to stakeholders, clients, and potential users. 

A prototype gives stakeholders a better understanding of how users interact with the product, website, or application while it’s in the design and development process. This allows them to make decisions about features, design, and functionality before they finalize and release the product to the public.

One top reason to do UI prototyping is to quickly and effectively communicate design ideas to stakeholders and team members. Prototyping allows designers to create a visual representation of their concepts, which can be helpful in getting feedback and buy-in from others. It also allows designers to test and iterate on their designs before committing to the final implementation, which can save time and resources in the long run.

Chris Bryant
Freelance UI/UX Designer and Author, Graphic Pie

💡How to determine if you need a prototype💡

Whether you need to create a UI prototype or not depends on the complexity of your project. 

When you work on a comprehensive product with multiple user flows, prototyping is a must. On the other hand, simple one-pagers don’t require prototypes.

“UI prototyping is beneficial for usability testing, says Design Hub’s CEO Samuel McGraw, “but if a product is straightforward and requires no complex user interaction, prototyping probably won’t be necessary.”

“Let’s say a small business wants to create a brochure website to promote its services. This website will require only essential functions, such as clear navigation and a contact form. It doesn’t have any interactive elements.

“In this case, there’s no need for UI prototyping. UI prototyping would typically be used for more complex user interfaces and websites that would require user input, such as product or service orders, or would have multiple interactive elements.

Examples and types of prototypes

Depending on their complexity, UI prototypes are split into two categories:

1. Low-fidelity UI prototypes: wireframes

Low-fidelity prototypes, also known as wireframes, are the most basic type of prototype. Wireframes help businesses test and verify the product’s functionality rather than visualize the future product appearance

The goal of a low-fidelity UI prototype is to give stakeholders a general idea of the product’s layout and functionality.

Once you’ve designed and approved a wireframe, you’ll move on to developing a high-fidelity prototype.

#An example of a low-fidelity UI prototype.
An example of a low-fidelity UI prototype.

2. High-fidelity UI prototypes

A high-fidelity prototype, on the other hand, is much more detailed and closely resembles the final product. It’s an interactive representation of the future product that matches the look and feel of the actual app or website.

The goal of a high-fidelity prototype is to give stakeholders a realistic preview of the product’s design and functionality.

#An example of a high-fidelity UI prototype.
An example of a high-fidelity UI prototype.

The difference between wireframes and prototypes

The main difference between the two types of prototypes is the level of detail. Low-fidelity prototypes are simpler and faster to create, while high-fidelity prototypes are more complex and require more time and effort.

How do you know whether you need a wireframe or a high-fidelity prototype for your product?

You need a wireframe when:

1. You’re in the early stages of product design and the product team wants to get a sense of the overall structure and design of the product.

2. You’re brainstorming and exploring different ideas for the product.

3. You want to quickly map out user flows before moving on to creating a high-fidelity prototype.

You need a high-fidelity prototype when:

1. You need to test the usability of the product.

2. You want to get real user feedback on the product.

3. You need to demonstrate the product’s functionality to potential investors or customers.

Summing up, you’ll always start with a wireframe, which develops into an interactive prototype as your product vision gets more mature. Let's take a look at the tools you need to create a prototype.

🔧3 tools to create an amazing UI prototype

To create an interactive prototype, your designers need a dedicated prototyping solution. It’s important that the tool not only includes robust features, like interactive designs and advanced transitions, but also makes it easy for all stakeholders to collaborate on the project.

Here are three UI design tools to help you create a prototype: 

1. Figma

Figma is a collaborative interface design tool. The software lets you build prototypes and translate those designs into life. With embedded collaboration features, Figma is an all-in-one tool for design and product teams. 

Why choose Figma: the ease of use. 

2. UXPin 

Like Figma, UXPin also fosters collaboration between design and product teams. The tool automatically generates specifications for all designs and prototypes, making the handoff process as seamless as possible.

Why choose UXPin: it has more advanced prototyping features and integrations than Figma and is good for experienced designers. 

3. Sketch

Sketch is a prototyping tool with a smooth learning curve for cross-functional teams. The main difference between Sketch and Figma is that the latter is a web app while Sketch is local design software. It also offers functionality for interactive prototype development, easy handoffs, and cross-functional collaboration.

Why choose Sketch: as a desktop app, it’s great for bigger projects. 

3 common mistakes of UI prototyping (and how to avoid them)

Prototyping can easily go wrong if you don’t have a clear action plan. Let’s take a look at the three major mistakes you can make on your way to designing a prototype and how to avoid them. 

1. Lack of purpose and clear direction

If stakeholders aren’t clear about their goals and expectations, it's easy for designers to veer off course when creating the UI prototype, as it becomes bogged down with unnecessary features or design elements.

This lack of purpose and clear direction can lead to scope creep, which is when the project continues to grow and becomes more complex as stakeholders continually add new features and design elements without a specific goal in mind.

As a result, the prototype can become overcomplicated, making it difficult to test and evaluate. This can result in a poor user experience, which leads to costly redesigns and reworks down the line.

💡Pro tip: before you get down to prototyping, do the research. Discover what your users really want from the product and what the market offers so far. Next, document your product vision so that you don’t deviate from your goals in the long term.

2. Ineffective communication with designers

Designers and product teams often have different ideas about how a product should look and function. Without effective communication between designers and the product team, it becomes difficult to create a cohesive product.

If the product team can’t articulate their vision effectively to designers and vice versa, delays occur in the development process, increasing the cost of the project.

💡Pro tip: encourage open communication between different teams involved in the UI design process to ensure everyone is in alignment. Use collaborative tools for product design where everyone can openly share their feedback and make adjustments to the project.

3. Starting off with a picture-perfect prototype

Perfectionism is the biggest enemy of early-stage startups. The prototype will go through various iterations and changes as you test and refine it. By focusing too much on perfection, you can’t remain agile and responsive to the feedback you receive along the way.

💡Pro tip: nobody builds a high-fidelity prototype without having a wireframe as a reference. Start with a low-fidelity prototype to map out the major user journeys and collect feedback from stakeholders first.

Keep your users at the heart of your UI prototype

Creating a prototype is essential if you need to design a complex UI with multiple interactive elements—and build a user-friendly product your customers love. 

The better you know your users and what they want to achieve with your product, the better your prototype and UI design will turn out. After you build your prototype, use product experience insights tools, like customer interviews and recordings, to discover what your future customers think of your UI and iterate on their feedback to build a user-centric product.

Use Hotjar to improve your UI with user behavior insights

Gorgeous UI isn’t built overnight. Use Hotjar to optimize your product design for higher user engagement based on real customer data.

FAQs about UI prototyping