Mock-ups: Speeding up Development with Crude Prototypes

All too often, I see companies wait to vet a new concept or product idea with end users until they have a production-looking prototype. If you’re doing this, I have a question: why?

Maybe it is because you are trying to impress your boss.

Or maybe you’ve trained your customers to only evaluate production-looking prototypes.

Whatever the reason, stop.

You’re risking valuable time and money. Plus, you’re hindering your ability to get brutally honest feedback on your concept or product idea when you need it most.

Meet the Mock-Up

I’d like to introduce the idea of a mock-up. It’s likely the cheapest prototype you’ve ever made, but it may be the most valuable one on a project.

Mock-ups should be used early in projects, during user-needs research activities. They allow teams to test concept ideas with end-users quickly and potential bias in the feedback received.

Mock-ups help internal teams during concept-development activities and will help speed up your development efforts in creative ways. They allow teams to evaluate multiple solutions quickly so they can determine which path to focus on.

The mock-up is also a prototype that will likely generate the most honest and unbiased feedback from your users.

When you show users a polished, beautiful prototype, what they see is all the time, money, and energy spent in designing and making it. So if that prototype doesn’t address a problem they have, they are less likely to tell you. With a mock-up, they will be more willing to criticize the idea.

Furthermore, when your development team has spent countless hours making that polished, beautiful prototype, those team members get emotionally attached. Some will mainly hear the positive feedback from users, ignore the bad, and may go as far as to defend the idea versus listening to their customer.

No one likes calling their baby ugly.

With a mock-up, it’s easier to remove bias and emotions. It’s obviously a throw-away prototype.

However, I’ve also witnessed how mock-ups can backfire on development teams when they present them to other individuals without proper context.

So let’s dig into the idea of a mock-up further:

  • What mock-ups are
  • When to use them
  • How to best present them to your customers to gather the feedback you need

What’s the Difference between a Mock-Up and a Prototype?

Actually, nothing. A mock-up is a prototype—a crude prototype.

However, the word prototype can signify anything from a non-functional aesthetic model to a fully functional pre-production unit. Hence, we prefer the term mock-up.

A mock-up can be constructed from anything, as long as it represents an idea or concept as simply as possible.

It may represent the overall product idea or a single mechanism within a complex system.

As a general rule of thumb, a mock-up will probably take you a matter of hours to design and a day or 2 to build. It will represent the bare minimum needed to visualize an idea.

A mock-up can be used to evaluate a product’s size, layout, and/or relative function. Or it can be used to get your customer thinking outside their comfort zone, to inform your next product idea.

In short, the mock-up is a throw-away, but it’s highly valuable in what it will uncover.

Some Examples

To represent a surgical tool handle, a mock-up could be constructed with foam core, tape, and dowel pins

Left: Mock-ups of Laparoscopic instrument handle using tape, wooden dowels, and foam core.
Right: Laparoscopic instrument handle mock-up to test human factors data.

Or maybe, to represent physical buttons, connectors, and different screen sizes for a medical console, you could use a sheet-metal layer to hold magnets with printed-on graphics. We’ve used this internally and with end-users to quickly build and evaluate different options.

For a complex physical mechanism, we created a digital version of the end-effector on the screen of a tablet into which we plugged in different user-interface control joysticks.  This allowed users to evaluate different control methods to move the end effector and evaluate accuracy control vs. hand fatigue.   This was a lot cheaper to build and mock-up versus multiple fully functional prototypes.

For a larger example, imagine a virtual room with a bar and gaming cabinets that allows users to evaluate layouts using a VR or AR headset.

Mock-ups can come in many forms, but they represent an idea or concept as simply and quickly as possible.

Left: Volume study mock-up of the Luminex Verigene II unit.
Right: Hand-held unit mock-ups.

So When Do You Use a Mock-Up?

The best time to use a mock-up is early in a project.

Research Phase

During the research phase, mock-ups are useful to gather user input on the desirability of a product idea. In these instances, you may be discussing a new product idea that requires your customer to suspend reality and envision something completely new and different.

The trouble? Many individuals are visual learners. They will need a visual frame of reference to understand the product idea.

Product developers often realize this too late. As a result, they spend their time backtracking and trying to sketch out ideas on paper, which often complicates the discussion further.

With a mock-up to view, users can quickly understand and immerse themselves into the future, then provide useful input.

In other words, a mock-up makes it easy to suspend reality.

Concept-Development Phase

Mock-ups are also useful during concept-development phases. We use them to weed out which of the 5+ possible directions make the most sense to develop into functional prototypes for further evaluation.

Using office chairs and foam core panels, we’ve created full-scale mock-ups of interior airline seat layouts.

This allowed the team to evaluate and reconfigure different seating arrangements in real-time. It also allowed the team to evaluate storage compartment accessibility and flight-attendant access to divider wall lock-outs for take-off and landing. This learning was then applied to the design before a single sketch or CAD model was created.

Above: Mock-up of interior airline seating using office chairs and foam core panels, to evaluate divider concepts.

We then took this further and mocked-up the various sliding elements by repurposing window roller-shades, scissor lift mechanisms, and drawer slides.  These mockups helped the team evaluate the pros and cons of various sliding mechanical architectures.

So now you have a mock-up. How do you share it with your customer or internal higher-ups without it blowing up in your face?

How to Best Present Mock-Ups to Your Customers

First off, resist the urge to hand over a mock-up to you customer without first explaining what they are about to see. This goes for any prototype.

If you skip this, you’ll likely spend 10 – 15 minutes of valuable time explaining what the prototype can or can’t do, and how the final product won’t be made from paper materials. If you don’t set the stage properly, users will struggle to see past the crudeness of the mock-up or shortcoming of your prototype.

To make sure they know it’s not the final product, take 3 – 5 minutes to explain

  1. That you’ve created a crude mock-up
  2. What it’s intended to show.

The purpose can be to evaluate the size and weight of a product, or to test usability / access, or to study placement of UI buttons and screens.

Above: Evaluating a VR treadmill mock-up to evaluate handlebar shape, screen location / tilt, and treadmill decks and side panels (foam core). Client standing on stool to represent treadmill deck vertical location.

Make it clear that you’re looking for early and honest feedback, and that there are no right or wrong answers.

In some cases, you may want to include a visual in the form of a sketch, rendering, or outlined workflow steps, to help guide the users. That way, they have an idea of what the product may potentially look or work like, before you unveil the mock-up. This visual gives customers a frame of reference and helps them see past the crudeness of the mock-up.

Once users have a chance to evaluate the mock-up and give feedback, encourage them to modify it or interact with it. This helps them to best describe other ways to address their unmet needs and uncover new product opportunities.

Above: Mock-up of a tablet with magnetic tiles to represent physical buttons. Users identify buttons needed to quickly accomplish a task and then place magnetic buttons onto mock-up in the desired location.

The Take-Away:

Mock-ups are a valuable tool but are not a replacement for the costly and elaborate prototypes you will create developing your next-generation product. Rather, they are a means to gather proper design and user feedback early in the project.

Mock-ups provide a quick visual and physical representation of an idea that helps many users provide valuable feedback and allows your team to become faster and more efficient in defining and solving for user needs.

Furthermore, by forcing your designers and engineers to mock-up solutions, you will get them to step away from their computers and into the creative, building mindsets that drove them to be designers or engineers in the first place.

Mock-ups should be shared internally within your development team. Over time, you will find your team using creative ways to mock-up solutions or concepts quickly and efficiently.

So next time you are asked to develop a fully functional prototype to vet an early product idea, make sure someone tested the idea with a mock-up in the first place.


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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