Case Study 6: Prototyping at Dan4, Inc.
Dan4 is a design practice dedicated to creating clear and engaging software applications, device interfaces, and multichannel services.
How do you prototype at Dan4?
We use prototyping essentially three ways at Dan4. First, we see prototyping as a natural part of the design process, allowing us to capture, communicate, and manipulate our ideas—quickly and fluently. In a way, prototyping is designing. For us, creating prototypes is not a tangential task or a project luxury. It is simply good design practice.
Second, prototypes are useful props during user research and user testing. During the early days of a project when we are seeking insights and inspiration, prototypes can help stimulate responses from users that reveal opportunities or risks about a concept. After the research phase, we frequently user-test prototype designs, helping us identify design problems and validate our design decisions.
Last, we always look for opportunities to adapt and reuse our prototypes, for instance, to support formal design specification documents, where the prototypes are referenced during the development process. We've also used prototypes to help with marketing efforts, product demos, and investor presentations.
How do you choose your prototyping approach?
We factor in the usual constraints—time, budget, and scope—but also how the wider development team works and how the prototypes could be reused. For example, we will consider the tools being used, the development approach, workflows, and degree of project formality. From there, we choose the fidelity and the technology for the prototypes.
Can you provide some examples?
While working on a location-based messaging platform for small retailers and franchisees, we wanted to help shopkeepers envision the richness of an iPhone interface. We felt that static, low-fidelity prototypes and mock-ups would not describe the user experience clearly. We opted to create a more experiential prototype, using Keynote [Figure CS6.1]. One of the useful things about Keynote for prototyping is that it offers many of the animations and transitions you see on the iPhone through Build Effects. It enables you to mimic the default UIKit transitions and animations and create more sophisticated behaviors involving fades, flips, zooms, ease-ins, and ease-outs that can be developed using Core Animation.
Figure CS6.1 Keynote prototype for a messaging platform. A video of the prototype and "how-to" information can be found at .
But sometimes low fidelity is fine. During an innovation workshop with a network security systems provider, we spent a half-day creating a very "quick and dirty" prototype. We wanted to communicate the overall product concept but also examine a hunch we had about the practicality of the proposition.
Using photos of pencil sketches, stop-frame animation, an ambient soundtrack, and sounds sourced from the Internet, we created a demonstration that helped the attendees, mostly software developers and managers, quickly gain a common understanding of the concept and an appreciation of the relevance of context of use [Figure CS6.2].
Figure CS6.2 Sketch and video prototype for a network security app. A video of the prototype and "how-to" information can be found at
Any other advice on iPhone prototyping?
In our experience, it's best to try and start prototyping app concepts as soon as possible. We have found that prototypes are most effective when used to probe the underlying ideas and assumptions around the concept and elicit user insights that help teams figure out where to apply their effort.
Getting early input from others, especially from intended users and customers of the product, provides you with information to support the early strategic decisions that set the project trajectory and strongly influence the end product.
Often it's better to create several simple prototypes that probe separate aspects of the product. For instance, the essential functionality and overall architecture could be prototyped and tested using paper wireframes or a simple interactive prototype. But the branding, look and feel, and interface behaviors may be better tested using static visual mock-ups or an animated walk-through.
Prototyping at its best is about creating tools that probe the right questions and enlighten the design—as long as it doesn't distract from other project tasks. It's just as important to know what to exclude from the prototype as it is to know what to keep in, always striving toward "as simple as possible, but no simpler."
(Images courtesy of Dan4, Inc.)