ARTICLE: Chris Albert

Fuel smarter EdTech product development plans with discovery phase prototypes

The discovery phase of any EdTech project — whether a new product launch or a feature update — is all about gathering information. Of course, this usually includes a variety of activities. You might simultaneously be hammering out business objectives, performing a competitive analysis, and interviewing your users, among other activities. The goal? To emerge with a full understanding of your big-picture problem, as well as a keen sense of how best to solve it. 

But one thing the discovery phase usually doesn’t include is prototyping. After all, prototypes are most often used to test and refine increasingly high-fidelity concepts. And those concepts can only be identified once discovery is complete. However, we’ve found that prototypes can be both useful and cost-effective during discovery. 

Approached carefully, discovery prototypes can give you a better understanding of your users’ needs — and enable you to quickly identify the MVP feature set that best meets them. 

Why Prototypes are Useful in the Discovery Stage

During product development, prototypes are used to test and validate the usability of a design solution. With each round of user testing, UX researchers zero in on specific workflows and functionalities. As they gather user feedback, they further refine and evolve the prototype toward a higher and higher fidelity. 

Discovery prototypes serve a completely different purpose. In this context, prototypes are used to explore a wide range of possible solutions to a given problem. They give users something to react to — a series of prompts that reveal users’ needs and preferences. 

Unlike later-stage prototypes, discovery prototypes are intentionally low fidelity. They contain just enough detail to orient users and communicate basic functionality. The purpose of these prototypes isn’t to determine whether you’re solving a problem in the right way. Rather, they help you discover whether you’re solving the right problem to begin with. 

Validating Ideas with Discovery Prototypes

Put another way, discovery prototypes are best used to validate ideas rather than usability. 

For example, let’s say you’re setting out to build a new product or feature set. Based on your previous experience, you already have a pretty strong understanding of what it is you’ll build. But you also know you still have a few knowledge gaps related to your users’ journeys and how your solution can best meet their needs. This is a situation in which early prototyping could be a big help. 

You might start by mocking up four or five rough wireframes showing different solutions or feature sets that address the same problem. Rather than methodically testing the various wireframes, you can use them as prompts for free-wheeling discussions with your users. Which solutions offer value by aligning with users’ expectations, mental models, and existing workflows? Based on your users’ responses, you should get an instant read on the solutions and features that are worth pursuing — and which can be discarded. 

The Benefits (and Risks) of Discovery Prototypes for EdTech Product Development

Discovery prototyping isn’t the right choice in every situation. And at Openfield, we advise our clients on when and how to incorporate prototyping into the discovery process. 

However, by understanding the benefits and risks this approach presents, you can make an informed decision about when to include prototypes in your discovery process. In addition, you can create a carefully considered plan that minimizes risks and maximizes the value of the exercise. 

Benefits

Discovery phase prototypes allow your team to: 

  • Save time and money in discovery. Using prototypes as discovery tools can translate into a faster, more cost-effective discovery phase. If you have knowledge gaps about your users but don’t have the budget or time for comprehensive discovery research, discovery prototyping can help fill in those gaps. Even if you already have strong discovery data, discovery prototypes can be used to quickly probe any remaining knowledge gaps. 
  • Quickly define an MVP feature set. Discovery prototypes are especially helpful when you want to explore a wide range of ideas and determine which ones are most valuable to your users. By presenting users with a set of prototypes depicting a range of possible solutions, you give them something concrete to respond to. This allows you to quickly zero in on the must-have features in your MVP feature set. 
  • Dig deeper than typical usability tests. Because discovery prototypes are used to validate ideas rather than the quality of an execution, they allow for more freedom during user interviews. They can act as prompts to ask more open-ended questions. In doing so, you can dig a little deeper into your users’ journeys and mental models than a typical usability test allows. 

Risks

Discovery prototypes can be extremely beneficial, but they also carry some risks. Fortunately, the following risks can be ameliorated with proper planning. In particular, when you use discovery prototypes, you run the risk of: 

  • Artificially limiting your options. Discovery prototypes are based on educated assumptions about your users’ pain points. But those assumptions may not be accurate or complete. When you translate them into prototype form, you run the risk of limiting feedback to just those ideas you’ve put on the table. You must make it clear that it’s possible none of the existing prototypes will address your users’ needs in a meaningful way. Encourage participants to feel comfortable indicating which (if any) solutions seem to have potential. Embolden them to “think outside the prototypes” as they share their thoughts on what would be helpful. 
  • Getting shallow or incomplete feedback. Simply asking your users to share their preferences among the ideas shown defeats the purpose of the discovery process. The remedy? Your UX researcher must be adept at guiding the conversation in a way that encourages your participants to more deeply explain why they like or dislike particular solutions. 
  • Giving users the impression that your prototypes are fully baked. It’s critical that you keep discovery prototypes loose in terms of how they’re executed. A more polished design may give participants the impression that your proposed solutions are already fully baked (rather than the seeds of solutions). If your users get that false impression, they may be less likely to give the uncensored critical feedback you want and need. You want your discovery prototypes to invite criticism and discussion. By allowing them to remain a little “slapdash,” you give your participants the confidence to tear them down. 

When Openfield works with clients to create discovery prototypes, we take the lead in ensuring that the prototypes are built to the right fidelity. In addition, we deftly guide our conversations with users to ensure that we get the most robust and illuminating feedback possible. Want to learn more about how Openfield handles discovery prototyping? We’d love to talk

  • Photo of Chris Albert
    Chris Albert

    As a Design Director at Openfield, Chris is a deep thinker with a savant-like ability to untangle and simplify complex systems. Now in his 8th year with Openfield, the wisdom of his 20+ year career in design and his tireless devotion to his work and clients inspires everyone at Openfield. Out of the office, you’ll find him doing the same thing he does at work – ever advancing one of his many crafts and interests. He’s a letterpressing photographing traveling gaming car guy. Chris is our Renaissance man.

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