Prototype is a term which gets thrown around a lot, often in the context of many different situations and reasons. Because of this, there might actually be a bit of confusion about what exactly a prototype is. In the means of the digital world, I will define what a prototype is. Firstly, I’m going to explain what a prototype isn’t.
Throughout my years of graphic lessons through School, the prototype was used a lot in conjunction with sketching and mock ups. These design are elements, and while important to the whole process, are not prototypes. Each one is an essential part and what we class as static and represents part of the state of the proposed design.
Sketches help you explore and discover your ideas quickly and help you experiment and refine designs. Wire framing is more of a map of the project, a sort of visual guide to its internal structure. Mock ups are usually more refined representations of the finished visual design. Missing from each of these is the ability to show how the application actually works, what it does, or how one is supposed to interact with it.
This is where prototypes come in. Prototypes are simulations, models, if you will, of how the the finished product will work. They let you experience how the applications flow, how the interactions work, and let you test the usability and feasibility of your designs. Because people tend to think of simulations as almost finished products, there is tendency to expect prototypes to have a certain degree of fidelity with the finished design. In reality, prototypes can have any type of fidelity you need, from high to low, from paper sketches to fully realized designs.
Depending upon what you need them to do, they can can simulate an entire application or a single use interaction. All that is needed for something to be a prototype is that it simulates some aspect of how the application is intended to work.