Tools and Resources for Prototyping
June 13, 2020
In our last post, we shared tips for how to do prototyping with a remote team, including setting objectives, determining team roles, and aligning those roles to the parallel processes of prototyping and testing that can take place. Now, we’ll share some tools and resources that align with each of these roles and processes to support both in prototyping and in team collaboration.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to get a solid foundational understanding of the problem you plan to solve before jumping to the solution and the tools that you will use, but this will be a helpful resource of some potential tools once you are ready for this stage of the process.
It’s important to stay organized through the process of design, prototyping, testing, and iterating. While there are different methods that will work best for different startups, mapping the process is often helpful. Some teams choose to map their product design process on a whiteboard or using sticky notes, but that can be challenging when members are collaborating online instead of in person.
Luckily there are online tools that mimic physical whiteboards and sticky notes such as Miro and LucidChart, which can also be used for project management and organizing workflows. These tools will continue to be useful later on as the startup focus shifts from product design to marketing and sales. Both have a free version with premium upgrades available.
Design tools are applicable for both brander and builder entrepreneurial types. Branders are often the product designers, while builders will make the physical device. Both of these types start out with product sketches, then move on to mockups, and while the product designer’s mockup might stay on the computer and the builder becomes physical, both need to understand the basic building blocks of a complex representing starting in a simple sketch.
You don’t need to be a great artist to create a good product sketch. For those looking to learn to sketch, here are a couple of videos outlining the basics from the perspective of an industrial designer.
CAD software enables designers to create 3D models from their sketches, which is particularly useful for physically prototyping. If you’ve developed a particularly awesome sketch that is a 2D representation of part of your design (as in, if you extruded it straight out from the sheet, it would be your part), then you might be able to import the sketch using a tool like Scan2CAD. Lots of modeling is much more complex, though, so we will suggest going through some of the tutorials associated with the specific softwares, if you are not already familiar with CAD modeling.
While SolidWorks and ProEngineer have been the popular CAD softwares for many years, there are a few that we suggest for a combination of their price point, ease of software use and learning curve, and extent of what it covers.
- OnShape offers a public plan for free for those willing to share their designs in an open-source environment, though this makes it easy for collaboration and development, and was created by the same people as SolidWorks.
- TinkerCAD is a free tool that provides options for both 3D Design and electronics simulations, which allow builders to breadboard virtually and share their designs with collaborators.
- AutoDesk Fusion 360 offers a professional level cloud based CAD software that is at a high price point, though they offer a very integrated suite of software, have a free trial for 30 days, may be able to offer their software for free or reduced price to students.
Rendering bridges design and marketing, and helps convey the product vision. AutoDesk Fusion 360, mentioned above as a design tool, can also be used for rendering. GIFs or images of product renders can be useful for marketers to convey the product experience to potential customers.
When it comes time to build a prototype, the tools will depend on the type of product being developed. Apps and websites start with mapping out the user process from the first touch point to the last one, using a decision tree map. This can be using one of the tools mentioned above like LucidChart or Miro. This will help simplify the next step, which will be building out the wireframes. In creating the wireframes, you will use the decision tree to understand the most important things to capture and include at each step. Here are some tools that you might use for building the wireframes to then test with users:
- Figma has a free starter plan and tools for design and collaboration as well as wireframing. The professional plan can be purchased for $15 on a month-to-month basis.
- Adobe XD, also has a free starter plan. Their unlimited plan which can be purchased individually or as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, though be sure to look into their student discounts.
Startups that offer services usually need a website, and potentially an ecommerce solution. Building websites is now fairly easy, and website builders usually offer free starter versions. Companies can start their website without buying a domain name and without a paid version of the website builder to keep costs low until they are ready to fully launch their company. Here are some popular website builders:
- In addition to their free version, Wix offers a premium version for entrepreneurs at $17 per month, though ecommerce will only be available at the next pricing tier at $23 per month. Wix offers some great templates and a very intuitive website builder.
- SquareSpace personal plan allows for two contributors and costs $16/month. They do not have a free version, and tend to be a bit more optimized for creative professionals and bloggers.
- Weebly has a free version, or a professional plan at $16/month that includes ecommerce features. They also have some great templates included in this plan, or additional templates that can be paid for.
Note that while we’ve put websites in the ‘building’ section, most websites have a primary purpose of a marketing or sales channel. Keep that in mind as you set up your website, and ensure that you are allocating the right amount of time and resources to it as are appropriate. Many people are tempted to put a lot of time into a website, though like many things early in a company, simple with iterative testing is what you can start with, which is why a template builder can often be a good starting point before investing in a more customized system.
For offerings which require coding, such as business services softwares, wearables softwares, or other such softwares or applications, here are some tools that have been designed for collaboration and easy code deployment.
- Github is a development platform allowing you to host and review code plus manage your projects, with a free version or a version for teams at $4 a member
- BitBucket is a competitor to GitHub and offers a team version at $10 per member in addition to their free version
- Visual Studio is an integrated development environment from Microsoft. It is used to develop computer programs, as well as websites, web apps, web services and mobile apps. They have a free community version or a professional subscription at $45/month (requires download).
The CAD programs mentioned above can also be used to create models for 3D printing. If you don’t have a 3D printer at home, you may be able to access a public 3D printer in your community (some libraries have them) or a makerspace nearby.
You can also choose to outsource 3D printing and have the printed prototype delivered to you. Shapeways is just one example of a company that allows you to upload a design to get an instant quote on printing your prototype.
Just don’t jump into 3D printing right away – make sure it fits the needs of your product first. 3D printing can help evaluate the form factor of a part (what it looks like / fits like in an assembly), though the resulting part isn’t very strong or durable since it’s plastic, and there are often more important things to be testing when you’re prototyping. Consider a wearable device, where often you would want to test how the product would feel on your wrist, so buying different band materials would be more important than 3D printing the band shape.
In today’s world there are so many tools available to make collaboration possible between team members in different countries and time zones. Even something as seemingly daunting as prototyping can be done successfully with the right tools and workflow. Before jumping into prototyping, though, make sure that you have assessed a real customer problem, know your startup goals, then get ready to do a lot of iterative testing!