Proof of Concept vs Prototype: Which One Do You Need?

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Piotr Szczechowiak

Dec 24, 2021 • 15 min read
proof_of_concept_vs_prototype

You have a product idea and you’ve done your research. You’ve uncovered sufficient evidence that your target customers will respond positively to your app or digital service. Then one of the next few steps you’ll have to take is to validate your assumptions and test the viability of your product idea.

To do this, there’s a wide array of tools to pick from, which can paralyze businesses in deciding which course of action to take. At the top of the list are these two product validation methodologies: a proof of concept (POC) vs a prototype.

In this guide, we take a close look at what they are, their benefits and risks, how they differ, and how to decide which one you need for your next project.

What is a proof of concept?

In software or product development, a proof of concept is an early version of a product to principally test or verify the validity of a product idea. It’s typically and ideally done at the initial stages of the product development lifecycle to test if the product can work in real life by solving real problems.

Another key purpose of a proof of concept is to check whether the product idea is technically feasible. A POC exercise should involve not only product managers and designers but also the development team. They’re the ones able to assess the product idea’s technical feasibility and determine the right technical direction for product development.

A proof of concept usually comes in the form of a documentation, presentation, wireframe, or preferably a combination of these. Take note that none of these require any development or coding yet. Nevertheless, the documentation should ideally contain some degree of depth with regard to requirements and technical specifications.

In certain cases, product teams engage in software development during the POC phase, particularly in innovative or cutting-edge products. For instance, if a product relies on machine learning techniques, a proof of concept software may be the only way to assess the viability of such techniques in solving the problem at hand.

A negative result of the POC will save businesses a lot of time and development costs. A positive result will assure product teams that they have the right technology and that it’s feasible to build the product.

Naontek_netguru_proof_of_concept-1

Read how Netguru created a proof of concept for Naontek.

A proof of concept often doesn’t and shouldn’t simulate the entire product. Oftentimes, the POC is focused only on specific areas of the product where technological feasibility is unclear. This is why product teams don’t show or demonstrate a proof of concept to users yet. Testing should be done with sample users within the organization but outside the product team.

Benefits of a proof of concept

Businesses can be drawn into rushing the creation of their digital platforms. Here are advantages or benefits of creating a proof of concept before pushing them out to development or engineering:

  • A proof of concept is a helpful practice to test for product-market fit. Creating a POC entails identifying specific problems and pain points you intend to solve with a product. A POC helps verify that your product idea has real-world application and brings actual value to end users.
  • A POC is an opportunity to fail fast but also to learn faster. Whether or not the exercise validates the product idea as a whole or specific elements of the product, POCs are typically one of the earliest opportunities to test a product with people outside of the team.
  • A POC can be a showcase to attract initial investment. Investors are likely to be more willing to fund product ideas that have gone through some methodical evaluation or testing.
  • Conducting POCs can help organizations teams better understand the pros and cons of their product idea, especially those they might not have thought of during product discovery and ideation. They can then act on these new insights, surface options, and take the optimal direction.
  • Going through a POC exercise, while an additional step to the product development process, can actually accelerate release or time-to-market. In being able to surface limitations as early as possible, you’re able to identify risks and prepare mitigation measures.
  • The POC process can help businesses make better budget decisions for the project. Financing for new products, whether by enterprises or startups, is always a critical action point. Project teams can then better allocate funding in the subsequent phases after picking up lessons from the POC process.
  • As much as a POC is intended to validate a product idea, it also helps teams better understand why and how a product idea works. If the testing process generates positive feedback, product teams can make better decisions moving forward by understanding what made the product POC work well.
  • Most importantly, POCs test the technical feasibility of a product idea. With the involvement of the development or engineering team, they can provide inputs of what’s technically possible and what’s not, which leads to the technical direction for the product. This also mitigates the risk of choosing the wrong technologies for your application.

Risks of a proof of concept

At the end of the day, we at Netguru believe in the value of POCs and advocate for conducting it with our clients. Nevertheless, here are some disadvantages or risks of proofs of concept.

After determining that the results of a POC exercise are relatively positive and there’s sufficient evidence to move forward in developing the product, managing expectations can be difficult, especially those of executives or managers in bigger organizations. There’s still a long road ahead in the product’s lifecycle. Those overseeing a product team can get stuck on what they saw on the proof of concept neglecting that the product will likely evolve.

Relatedly, issues during software development will likely impact the product idea when it was originally conceived and presented during the POC phase. The product will have to evolve if issues such as scalability or security present themselves during product engineering.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an early version of a product to test its design concept and functionality by demonstrating its visual form, simulating user experience (UX), or implementing select features.

In doing so, a prototype’s user interface (UI), such as a mockup, is typically not yet linked with backend mechanisms. However, product teams can deploy low or no-code prototypes when testing with users. Product teams also use prototyping as an opportunity to see whether users have a positive experience navigating through a product or a particular feature.

wireframe_mockup_prototype-1

A proof of concept or a prototype should not be confused with a minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP is an early product version that has just enough features for early customers to be able to use it. Creating an MVP is when developers and engineers take on a greater role.

Product teams typically demonstrate prototypes to colleagues within their organization and also to external representative users.

There are a few types of prototyping that businesses can deploy, as follows:

Rapid prototyping

Also known as Throwaway Prototyping, is where the prototype artifact is only used in the short term, such as one sprint. The prototype may go through several cycles of feedback and iteration when it’s being used. When the product team is satisfied, it becomes a reference but is discarded giving way to the next prototype version in the next sprint or phase.

Evolutionary prototyping

Unlike other prototyping methods, uses a functional product, not just a simulation. This is the preferred approach when the product requirements are not yet clear or the technology is not well-understood. It’s an evolutionary method because the initial version is only a starting point where the product team adds new features and functionalities as they become clearer over time.

Incremental prototyping

It is the ideal approach for complex products composed of a number of modules or components. Product teams separate the prototyping for each of these components, building them in parallel. The team evaluates and refines these modules individually and then integrates them for consistency in UI, UX, and other factors.

Extreme prototyping

It is more applicable to web applications wherein the process consists of three sequential phases. First, designers create wireframes that simulate the presentation layer. Second, developers transform the wireframes to functional HTML pages simulating the services layer. Third, the developers then code and implement certain features and functionalities.

Benefits of a prototype

We at Netguru believe that creating a prototype first before jumping into a minimum viable product (MVP) is the ideal path in a product’s journey. Here are advantages or benefits of prototyping:

  • Prototypes enable product teams to validate design concepts. They can run numerous tests and make iterations until they can generate the desired interaction with users.
  • Prototyping will generate immediate feedback from target users, which enables teams to identify flaws and address them before proceeding to development.
  • By putting in effort to test your prototypes, enterprises and startups can save on time and resources in the long run as the prototyping process can help you identify design issues before fully developing the product. This mitigates the risk of rework, change orders, and unnecessary expenses.
  • Prototypes attract early investment even more than proofs of concept. Once tested with users and designed well enough, startups can show prototypes to investors. Teams within enterprises can also use them to make their case for additional budget allocation for development.

swap optimized

Read how Netguru helped creating Swap app.

Risks of a prototype

It’s almost always a better decision to develop a prototype rather than skip this process. Nevertheless, here are the key disadvantages or risks in prototyping so that you can manage or guard against them.

Prototypes are almost always limited in scope despite looking visually complete. The insights or analysis that can be drawn from them are therefore limited to the features that were tested. This can distract developers from properly preparing for and assessing the complete project.

Because prototypes should ideally approximate the look and feel of the product that will be publicly released, customers might mistake it for a final product. It’s important to mention to customers that what they’re seeing or using is still a prototype, and the final product may offer a completely different look and feel.

Prototypes usually require more time and resources to build compared to proofs of concept.

When do you need a proof of concept vs a prototype?

Determining which validation method is appropriate for you to deploy depends on where you are in the product development lifecycle. Developing a POC generally comes before and feeds into prototyping.

Before diving into the scenarios when you should do one instead of the other, here’s a brief comparison on the differences between a proof of concept versus a prototype.

Main differences Proof of Concept Prototype
What is it principally for? To test or verify the validity of a product idea
To verify if the product idea is technically feasible.
To test a product’s design concept and functionality by demonstrating its visual form, simulating user experience, or implementing select features.
What form does it usually take? A documentation, presentation, wireframe, or preferably a combination of these. In some cases, it can also be a working software. A user interface, such as a mockup, not yet linked with backend mechanisms. The UI can also be low or no-code prototypes.
Who to test it with? Colleagues within the organization but outside of the product team Colleagues within the organization plus external representative users

When do you need a proof of concept?

A proof of concept is typically a step after you’ve developed your wireframes and before creating a prototype. Be especially mindful of capitalizing on a POC process in any of the following situations:

  • When you’re at the stage when you need to validate the very product idea or test for product-market fit.
  • When you’re at the stage when you need to validate or test your product’s technical feasibility before receiving initial funding or before going into product engineering. Remember that POCs are especially important when applying innovative or cutting-edge technologies in a product.
  • When key propositions of your product, such as the design concept or selected technologies, haven't been applied in your industry.

When do you need a prototype?

After conducting a POC with promising results — and only with promising results — you can then conduct prototyping. Here are the situations when a prototype will be particularly useful, if not at all necessary:

  • When you’re at the stage when you need to get feedback on a product’s look and feel.
  • When you’re at the stage when you need to observe user journey or flow to iterate on your product’s user experience.
  • When you have limited time and resources and need to showcase your product’s visual form or certain key features to attract investors.
  • When you need to test the basic functionalities of your product.

Do both: develop a POC, then a prototype

It goes without saying that creating new products is hard. Product teams and the executives that oversee them must recognize that the product development process is dynamic and non-linear. If the feedback on the proof of concept tells you to make modifications or even overhaul the product idea, then there’s good reason to follow the evidence.

If during prototyping, certain insights come to light that challenge results from the POC exercise, then it’s ideal to adapt and shift course before engineering the product towards an MVP.

Both the proof of concept and prototyping methods are effective methods in validating product ideas, with the former oftentimes feeding into the latter. Successful apps often employ both methods and even continue to do so when introducing new features.

If you’re developing a product or service that requires an experienced partner in creating proofs of concepts and prototypes, we at Netguru have successfully built digital platforms for enterprises and startups around the world. Reach out to us, and let’s start a conversation.

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Piotr Szczechowiak

Piotr Szczechowiak works as a Product Manager at Netguru.
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