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What is a Prototype?

Smartpedia: A prototype is a functional, but simplified test model of a planned product, with which a solution approach is tested for its suitability.

Prototyping for fast results and early feedback

A prototype is a functional but simplified experimental model of a planned product, component or software. The process of creating prototypes is called prototype development or prototyping. The aim of prototype development is to obtain early feedback on the suitability of a solution approach. That a prototype only corresponds to a possible end product externally – in form and size – or content-wise – in the sense of the technology used – is usually intended.

Prototyping can be used in manufacturing processes as

  • preparation for series production (so-called technology prototyping),
  • a method of service engineering (also referred to as service prototyping) or
  • a method of software development.

In software development, a prototype can often be used to identify change requests at an early stage and to solve problems more cost-effectively than in full-scale development. Working with Minimum Viable Products (MVP) also follows a similar idea.

Prototype species in software development

Basically, different types of prototypes or prototyping can be described in the development of software:

  • In explorative prototyping, it is important to prove whether an idea or specification is resilient. This allows requirements to be determined and solution options to be identified that can later be recorded in a customer specification or in a requirement specification.
  • The evolutionary prototype addresses user acceptance and aims to identify missing functions. A click dummy, for example, is such an evolutionary prototype.
  • The experimental prototype is used for research purposes in search of possibilities for realisation.


Prototype - a functional, but simplified test model of a planned product

There are also

  • vertical and
  • horizontal prototypes.

While a vertical approach – also known as a walking skeleton – implements selected parts of a planned system across all layers, a horizontal approach completes a selected layer as a whole.

Well-known prototype examples

Many companies use different experimental models to test their solution approaches for practicality. Below are some publicly known examples:

  • Before the first iPhone was launched in 2007, Apple worked on various experimental models. One embodiment had a larger screen and a different shape than the actual final product.
  • In 2012, Google presented a model of a self-driving car that had neither a steering wheel nor pedals. Since 2016, the company Waymo has continued work on the Google Driverless project.
  • In 2009, Microsoft presented an early form of the Courier tablet. It had two screens and could be used for note-taking and sketching. However, the project was discontinued before the tablet could be launched.
  • Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, was originally based on a Lotus Elise chassis. The first version of the Roadster was introduced in 2006 and went through several updates before being launched in 2008.
  • In 2013, Amazon unveiled a test model of its Prime Air delivery drone to deliver packages to customers’ homes. The drone has undergone several revisions and is still in development.

Certainly, this list can easily be extended, especially since the development of experimental models is widespread in many industries and sectors.

Prototyping Software

There are a number of tools that provide useful help in prototyping. Here is a small list focusing on software, user interface or user experience prototyping:

Certainly, the list can easily be extended, especially since there are numerous products that support prototyping, but originally have a different marketing focus.

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With the so-called Walking Skeleton there is another method to specify requirements and to avoid wrong developments. Here you can find a comparison of prototyping versus walking skeleton.

Here you will find additional information from our Smartpedia section:

Smartpedia: What is a Minimum Viable Product?

What is a Minimum Viable Product?

Smartpedia: What is Pretotyping?

What is Pretotyping?