What is the $1 Prototype Mobile Design Methodology? (Book Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from The $1 Prototype: A Modern Approach to Mobile UX Design and Rapid Innovation for Material Design, iOS8, and RWD now available on Amazon.com.


Your work should empower and inspire. That’s how important it is.

Sketching is the life-blood of any design process. I did a lot of visual thinking in my Moleskine notebook and when I started doing mobile design, my approach was much the same. Proudly, I labored behind closed doors, producing many sketches like these, which made me feel very “designery”:

One day, I had to rush out the door to a client meeting and left my Moleskine behind. At the meeting, I needed to quickly “think with my pen” to design a mobile screen, so I grabbed the first available piece of paper lying on the table: a pack of sticky notes. I was trying to be as quick as I can, so I drew the bare minimum—just the page layout and controls. Imagine my astonishment, when the company’s CEO (normally a reserved and dignified person—consummate professional, whom I greatly respect) suddenly jumped up and, seizing my pack of sticky notes in his hand, started vigorously gesticulating and tapping my hand-drawn buttons with his thumb, saying “See! This is EXACTLY what I mean!”:


I never imagined that an $800 iPhone, the pinnacle of human achievement, the technological miracle of the 21st century . . . could be exceedingly well approximated by a $1 pack of sticky notes coupled with an active imagination!

Since that memorable meeting, I had the privilege to speak at length with Steve Krug, the author of Don’t Make Me Think (http://bit.ly/1dpdmmt3), who was very receptive to my ideas and encouraged me to explore the concept further. Mr. Krug’s interest in the early versions of my sticky note prototypes and his encouragement five years ago eventually led to the book you hold in your hands.

For the last five years I’ve had the privilege to present and teach at more than 50 events, workshops, and university courses in 10 countries. Throughout this time, my initial lightweight mobile design technique has been challenged and improved through many enthusiastic experiments and insightful questions from the participants, as well as some intensive client work, which resulted in multiple featured apps in both Apple App Store and Android Play Store. This book is the result of those workshops and design sessions, so I want to thank the thousands of people that came to my events—I’ve learned as much, if not more, from those sessions as those that have attended them.

My three previous books were more concerned with the What of design, such as design patterns and pitfalls:

In contrast, the book you hold in your hands is much more about the How. Instead of providing design patterns, this book combines the best of modern mobile usability techniques with Agile development lifecycle and Lean business practices. This combined methodology creates a practical, no-nonsense lightweight UX design methodology I call “The $1 Prototype.”

This methodology can be used to quickly envision and design any mobile or tablet product or service: from native and hybrid mobile and tablet apps to responsive and mobile-optimized websites. CEOs, mCommerce Directors and Product Managers as well as UX Professionals of all kinds should find the book both useful and practical.

Another essential difference from my previous work, is how this book is organized. I decided to use the Question and Answer format throughout the book to create the feel of doing the design process as a workshop as well as to keep the book concise and practical. My goal is to enable you to finish this book on the flight from SFO to JFK and get off the plane full of new strategic ideas and techniques you can put to work even before jet lag wears off. The Q&A format should also help you easily revisit any topics you need at a later time.

Rather than try to convince you that UX design is valuable, I simply assume you already know this. And if at times I speak forcefully, it is to cut through layers of accumulated misunderstandings around UX and to help you get back to the core of what’s really important: empowering and inspiring your customers, while making a good living for you (and profit for your company’s shareholders.)

If you’re currently a UX practitioner, this book will give you modern techniques to apply UX principles with renewed vigor, efficiency and confidence. If you’re new to UX design, this book will give you complete, practical, mobile design processes that will immediately benefit you and your team. This book does not aim to present anything particularly Earth-shattering. Instead it’s a restating of the original UX principles for our modern, mobile age—a rapid, lightweight, and resilient application of simple but profound techniques that really work in the real world.

One last thing: beyond techniques and methodology, design is a highly spiritual discipline. In my own practice, I’ve found Zen Buddhist awareness techniques to be very helpful in everything from product visioning to usability testing. These techniques have helped me recognize the spark of divinity in everyone, keep my focus on awareness of other people’s needs, and off my own ego gratification. So in some tiny measure, this book is also a spiritual guide to experience design. I hope it will help you adopt the right attitude from the start: do your best, and then let go. Otherwise, mobile design will just make you crazy. Take it from one who has learned the hard way.

What is the $1 Prototype Mobile Design Methodology?

The $1 (“One Dollar”) Prototype methodology is a lean, lightweight mobile design methodology that can be successfully plugged into any existing software development and design process, from Waterfall to Agile. The $1 Prototype methodology consists of four activities: Envision, Prototype, Test, and Collaborate working together as a continuous iterative loop. The name “One Dollar” comes from the low cost of materials required—the basic process uses just two packs of sticky notes, at the cost of … you guessed it—about $1.

The name “One Dollar” also refers to brutally efficient use of time. I once had a four-hour workshop at a large enterprise client, where we used the $1 Prototype methodology to kick-off the digital strategy for Responsive Web Design (RWD) of their marketing site of over 50,000 pages. At the workshop, the client team ran through one full cycle of the $1 Prototype methodology with several user stories, creating a solid foundation for success of the project. This workshop proved that using the $1 Prototype approach could leverage even a few hours of your team’s dedicated time to improve the design and digital strategy and provide incredibly high ROI.

If the $1 Prototype methodology were simply about cutting costs, I would consider it a failure. Instead, cost cutting is but a fringe benefit of this methodology. The primary benefit is its laser-focus on the customer, with rapid investigation and modeling of the goals, activities, and tasks. Instead of being focused on deliverables (that is on producing expensive, time-consuming and flashy wireframes and prototypes) the product team is focused on most efficient ways of finding the opportunity to help potential customers, producing a working prototype solution and validating this solution with real people.

The central philosophy of the $1 Prototype methodology is that the state of completion of the system must be reflected in the state of the prototype. An expensive high-definition prototype isn’t built for most mobile projects, because the level of uncertainty is too high to make such a major commitment. The benefits of building such a prototype are low compared to the costs in time and money required to build it. Instead, lean, low-fidelity sticky note prototypes are used to explore several design solutions quickly, so the Agile team can move forward rapidly and innovate with confidence. By sticking to this methodology, we do the exact thing we need to move the project forward and avoid doing and maintaining unnecessary expensive work. To quote Milton Glaser’s seminal essay, Ten Things I Have Learned, “Just enough is more.” (http://bit.ly/1dpmilton).

State of your prototype must reflect the state of completion of your system. This simple guideline is also very profound. The degree of certainty in your design should be reflected in the level of completion of your prototype. The project starts with a rough storyboard which is highly uncertain and full of assumptions: no one knows if the audience will find the product useful, if they will pay for it, or even if the product can (or should) be built. As the design and development progress, the prototype becomes the pack of sticky notes with specific workflows, layouts and on-screen controls. As the confidence in the design grows still further and more questions are answered, the product coding begins. Both Alpha and Beta releases become the prototype until finally the confidence level reaches a local maximum and the product is released. At this point the cycle of improvement starts again.

In essence, the $1 Prototype is about institutionalizing failure—in its cheapest and most expedient form. The faster the product team fails, the faster it gets back on track and addresses solving the customer’s challenge with realistic, functional solutions. The sooner we get to the experimental stage, the more innovative and functional the solution will be, and the less any team or management egos will be able to influence the product direction. The $1 Prototype approach will help you escape endless arguments and three-hour meetings in favor of rapid, inexpensive, open-air experimentation focused on solving real problems—the perfect marriage of mobile UX design and Lean Startup methodology (http://bit.ly/1dpleans). The following case study of “Be a Hero!” app demonstrates the $1 Prototype process in action.

So that’s it for this excerpt! The $1 Prototype: A Modern Approach to Mobile UX Design and Rapid Innovation for Material Design, iOS8, and RWD book has 30 more practical mobile UX design topics written in a unique Q&A format. The book is now available on Amazon.com.

Greg Nudelman

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