prototype development

The 4 Levels of Prototype Development

So you have an idea. Maybe you know you’re going to need to show more than just an idea to potential investors, but you’re not entirely sure what prototype development entails. If this describes you, you’re not alone — prototyping questions are among the most common product development inquiries we see on Quora.

Since this is such a popular topic among entrepreneurs and business owners wanting to develop a product, we decided to condense this topic into this easy-to-read guide.

The Prototype Explained

In general, a prototype is used to learn something. This might range from finding out if a mechanism is feasible to discovering if a feature set is meaningful to the market. Different levels of prototyping are appropriate at different stages of development. We classify prototypes into four different levels, with higher level prototypes typically being appropriate for the later phases of the product development process.

Level 1: Feasibility Prototype

This level is when we validate individual features for feasibility. Additionally, it’s when developers decide if a product feature is worth keeping based on technical feasibility.

A feasibility prototype:

  • Is extremely important
  • Helps validate individual features
  • Can be iterated until it is completely debugged — even as a subsystem

Level 2: Preliminary Product Prototype

This level is where your prototype can provide a lot of insight into how components will work together as well as identify any possible limitations or shortcomings in the design.

A preliminary product prototype:

  • Has components that begin to come together and the product starts to take shape
  • Is still in an experimental phase
  • Might only have some features built into it
  • May only be a shell to use as reference for the final product

Level 3: Demonstration Prototype

At this level, prototypes may not look exactly like the final product and can be used to show off to potential investors. This is the stage where we test different materials and different aesthetics.

A demonstration prototype:

  • Includes many features and functions of the final prototype
  • Starts demonstrating aesthetic components and appearance of the product
  • Can begin undergoing user testing in many cases

Level 4: Pre-Production Prototype (and Final Prototype)

Level four is where learning is more focused on industry requirements and the focus shifts from user feedback to manufacturer feedback. (However, manufacturing should be top of mind for designers at every level of the product’s development.)

There are slight differences between the pre-production and final prototypes that are worth noting.

A pre-production prototype:

  • Isn’t fully optimized
  • May need final adjustments
  • May stay in this level for many iterations before it becomes a final prototype

A final prototype:

  • Has a complete feature set and internal components
  • Is fully optimized
  • Is ready for mass production

We hope this guide has been helpful. If you’d like to read more in-depth about our prototyping process, you can do so here. And, when you’re ready to accelerate your prototype development, get in touch. We’d love to hear about your project.