5 tips for building a low-cost prototype & user-testing it
Reading time 9 mins
- Prototypes are an essential part of the product design process but can be costly if done incorrectly
- Low-cost prototypes will improve communication with your design team, minimise errors, save time and money in the long run, and help you attract investors
- Tips include using DIY options, reducing components, using modular design, sourcing second-hand components, and asking for help
- User testing and feedback are also essential: it helps to identify potential issues and ensures that it’s based on real users who have used the product in a natural setting
- DO target a wide variety of users and get their feedback early on
- DON’T make user testing too elaborate or focus too strongly on aesthetics
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Prototypes are an early version of a proposed product idea. They are essential to allowing designers and investors to feel or see the outcome, understand its functionality, and improve the final version based on feedback. Developing a low-cost prototype can help you save time and money in the long run by allowing you to test your ideas before committing resources to full-scale production. In product design, prototypes are also crucial for minimising errors, improving team communication, and attracting investors.
However, prototyping can be expensive if done incorrectly. Here are five tips for building a low-cost prototype of your product idea that will achieve the desired results:
- DIY Prototypes
- Reduce the component count
- Use a modular design
- Source second-hand components
- Ask for help
Low-cost prototype tip #1: DIY
DIY prototype options are becoming increasingly popular as they allow even inexperienced makers to create prototypes quickly and cost-effectively. With 3D printing, laser cutting, open-source products, free prototyping tools, and pre-made electronics, it’s becoming more accessible than ever to create affordable prototypes with basic knowledge and a few tools. You can even find tutorials or instructional videos online for a step-by-step guide that walks you through the process.
In addition, you won’t have to pay any out-sourcing fees or risk a third-party supplier stealing your idea. If you are going to use a third party to help with your prototype, remember to protect your intellectual property. Download our free Non-Disclosure Agreement template and keep your product design ideas safe.
Low-cost prototype tip #2: Reduce the component count
Reducing the number of components used in your design will help keep costs down and make assembly much faster and easier, which saves a lot of time. Select components carefully so you don’t include anything unnecessary – less is more when creating prototypes.
Low-cost prototype tip #3: Use a modular design
Modular design is an approach to producing a complete product by integrating or combining smaller parts that are independent of each other. This helps reduce costs because components don’t need to be individually manufactured for each specific product: instead, different modules can be used for different designs depending on what’s required. This type of design also helps keep complexity in check since each module has its own purpose, so there won’t be any confusion on where parts fit together during assembly stages either.
Low-cost prototype tip #4: Source second-hand components
Another way to reduce costs is by sourcing second-hand components whenever possible. This could mean purchasing used electronics or reusing existing components from previous projects. When buying second-hand parts, ensure they are still functional by testing them before purchase.
Low-cost prototype tip #5: Ask for help
Reaching out to others to get an outside opinion on your proposed solution can often lead to surprising results that might have been overlooked otherwise. Professors or colleagues can offer valuable insights into their research or advice on tackling specific elements within a project, which could be invaluable in reducing costs during the development stages.
User-testing your prototype: Dos and Don’ts
User testing is an essential part of the product development process. It helps to identify issues early on (which is especially useful for low-cost prototype design) and ensures that any changes made are based on feedback from real users who have interacted with the product in a natural setting. While this process seems logical, there are common mistakes that even the most experienced designers make.
Don’t complicate it
User testing can be complicated, so don’t add too much complexity by making it overly elaborate. The idea is to test basic functionality, not to create a full-fledged version of the final product – so stick to simple tasks which provide precise results.
Do invite a variety of users
Invite different types of users when conducting user tests, such as members from diverse age groups or backgrounds. This will help you better understand how diverse audiences interact with your product and provide valuable insights into potential improvement areas later down the line. If your users are testing an initial low-cost prototype option and the final product will use different materials, ensure this is communicated to receive relevant feedback.
Don’t pay too much attention to aesthetics
It’s tempting to focus solely on aesthetic elements during user testing but remember that usability should always be at the forefront when interacting with customers. Focusing too much on aesthetics is one of the most common product design mistakes, so make sure this doesn’t happen to you: ensure that basic features (e.g. wheels, handlebars and brakes) function correctly before adding bells, baskets, and whistles. After all, no one wants a pretty but useless product.
Do gather feedback as early as possible
Remember that it’s not simply end-users who should be giving feedback: ideally, start your feedback and documentation processes earlier with your colleagues or team members. That said, avoid getting feedback from family and friends, as they tend to be biased towards protecting your feelings! Identify your target market by:
- Hosting focus groups in your local area
- Putting out a call for beta testers in communities your potential audience interacts with
- Survey existing customers if you already sell online
Gathering customer feedback as soon as possible is essential since it allows you to quickly iterate and make changes (while there’s still time to do so) without wasting valuable resources. Ensure you have an effective way of capturing user feedback (e.g. surveys or interviews). Ask questions such as what they would change, how they would improve it, whether they would buy it, and how much they would pay.
Act on these results swiftly to keep iterating in the right direction – but remember to take them with a pinch of salt: analyse each proposed change according to its impact on an entire customer base.
Don’t Stop Testing
Never assume that everything is perfect once you’ve tested your prototype with a sample target market. How will your final product differ from the low-cost prototype users initially tested? Instead, keep up frequent user testing even after launch (social media platforms can help keep tabs on what users are saying/feeling about your product). Make adjustments if necessary or take advantage of new opportunities which may arise over time so your product is sustainable and can survive market changes.
Ready to start prototyping and testing?
Building a low-cost prototype and testing it with users is one of the most exciting stages of the product design process. Not only does a product which began as an image in your mind or a concept on a board finally become real, but you finally get to see how those you designed it for feel about it. This second part can be daunting as we all fear negative feedback and criticism. Remember to take it positively and use this to return to the drawing board so you can come back with a better version.
Have you prototyped a product idea before, or are you starting to? What were (or are) your biggest challenges? Get in touch if you’ve got low-cost prototype tips you’d like to share or challenges you’d like some help with.
If you’re prototype-prepped and ready to go, keep an eye out for our next series of posts, where we’ll share our insights on funding. Subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already, and we’ll keep you in the loop!