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Build a prototype

Prototypes are useful to inform a new concept, identify how to refactor an existing product feature, service, or process, and help uncover current development unknowns.

Use prototypes to:

  • Align the team (“What problem are we solving?”)
  • Further specify elements of the design (“Should it look like this, or that?”)
  • Demonstrate that your ideas are technically possible
  • Explore/set up the deployment process
  • Demonstrate a collaborative design process
  • Reduce risk (“What are the riskiest assumptions and how can we test them?”)
  • Validate a design hypothesis [18F design methods]

Prototypes can range in fidelity from basic paper prototypes to fully functional software. Prototypes can be digital products as well as services. The idea is to build something that will help you answer your questions with the least investment. Prototyping can take many different forms depending on what you are trying to do. For example:

  • Paper sketches are fast to make and to change, and easy for the whole team to participate in designing
  • Wireframes [18F design methods] are preliminary blueprints that can help teams align on structure, placement, and hierarchy for a product or service
  • Static visual mock-ups can help communicate and test things like brand identity and tone
  • Clickable prototypes can help test usability by finding out if users can complete the needed tasks
  • A service prototype or simulation that mimics, as much as possible, what users might experience which can include space, online and offline touchpoints, people, and time
  • Service storyboards that visualize scenarios of a future service and can illustrate parts of a service

Communicating with prototypes

Prototypes [18F design methods] provide realistic depictions of a user experience, so it’s important to carefully consider the elements that go into yours. Prototypes can help you convey several things:

1. Elements of the design system

Visually the prototype can include design patterns, color palettes, and font styles to communicate the general look of the final design system. This provides an opportunity for discussion if anything in the aesthetic style needs to be refined or is missing.

2. Information architecture

The information hierarchy gets communicated in the prototype. Global navigation menu, contextual navigation, and content hierarchy and structure are laid out in the prototype. Using real content is important, rather than grabbing placeholders like lorem ipsum, so the product team can determine if the proposed content works in the proposed design layout. Testing assumptions or hypotheses [18F design methods] with real content will validate and identify if the content is appropriate and if changes are needed.

3. System behavior

A prototype is a great way to communicate system behavior through interaction design. Adding drop-down menus, transitions, and/or gestures doesn’t just make the prototype slick; depicting interaction behaviors helps engineers assess the work to implement the design and identifies potential blockers. Also, usability tests [18F design methods] will uncover if any of the interactions pose problems for your users or could be served better by a different design.

Building prototypes with Cloud.gov Pages

Cloud.gov Pages is a product built by 18F to help manage and deploy static websites. While many organizations may use Cloud.gov Pages to host and deploy their production code, Cloud.gov Pages is also a great tool for automatically creating and deploying preview versions of websites.

If your project is hosted on Cloud.gov Pages, you may configure the platform to build a custom version of the site for every branch on GitHub. This makes it easy for designers to make changes in their content and code and see what they would look like as rendered HTML. Cloud.gov Pages is set up to constantly monitor GitHub for any changes so when you create a new git commit, Cloud.gov Pages will start building a new version of the site.

Cloud.gov Pages also provides a number of static-site templates you can use to kick start your new project or idea. The templates are built with the U.S. Web Design System so you have a library of additional components at your disposal.

Getting started with Cloud.gov Pages

When you’re ready to get started with Cloud.gov Pages, you’ll want to jump into the #cg-pages room on Slack and ask the team to add your account to Cloud.gov Pages.

Once they’ve added your account, you can sign in by authorizing access to your GSA Account and checking out the Using Cloud.gov Pages.

Authorized prototyping tools

Depending where you worked prior to joining 18F, you are probably accustomed to having some flexibility around your design toolset. Working for the government means only using tools that have been granted an Authority to Operate, an approval granted after a thorough review of the security and privacy of a tool. Due to the sensitive nature of much of the data we encounter in government work, we are only allowed to use GSA IT-approved tools.

Don’t fret! 18F has done a great job of getting us licenses to standard prototyping tools as listed on the TTS handbook. To request licenses, review the TTS Handbook. Ensure you review the usage parameters for each tool.

The team is always exploring other tool options for the 18F toolbox. You can investigate whether someone has already submitted an ATO for a new prototyping tool in these 18F only, #design or 18F only, #ux slack channels, or you can look it up at 18F only, GEAR, the IT standards list.

18F User Experience Design Guide

An official website of the GSA’s Technology Transformation Services

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