Choosing a User Research Method — Definition & Prototyping Phase

Thought Leadership

By Stephen Katz | August 21, 2020
UX layout

User research is critical at every stage of the product development process. Earlier this month Rabiya Samji wrote about the user research methodology used by Apply Digital during the Discovery phase. User research is critical at every stage of the product development process.

At Apply Digital, we turn preliminary user research into actionable steps in the product development journey and compare common research approaches including co-design workshops, concept testing, and behavioral demand experiences. Finally, we dive into the questions that need to be addressed during the Definition and Prototyping phase of product development.

User research in definition and prototyping phase

The goals of this phase are to conceptualize and test out solutions to the problems we uncovered during the previous Discovery phase and to identify overall opportunities for improvements in the functioning and focus of our digital product.

At this point, we conduct more research into which solutions best address the needs of customers. We learn what features deliver essential value and are required for a Minimum Viable Experience (MVE). Additional features that are not essential but do add value can be placed on a product roadmap for the future.

Once the Definition & Prototyping phase is over, we should have a design solution that is tested and ready to move forward into the development phase. Common research approaches to this phase include:

  • Co-design workshops: These collaborative workshops bring together our team, clients, stakeholders, and -of course- the end customers. This gives us a chance to draw on everyone’s unique expertise, in order to make the product as responsive as possible from all perspectives.

  • Concept testing of prototypes: We test prototypes to see if they meet our original product value proposition- the benefit a customer gets from purchasing a product or using a service. Concept testing also helps us explore areas for further improvement.

  • Behavioral demand experiments: We then put the prototype into a market scenario to explore how potential solutions will perform if launched, what their demand could be, and if people will show interest and buy.

#1: Co-design workshops

The Co-design Workshop approach is rooted in the belief that more rounded and innovative solutions come from participants bringing their own expertise and experience to the design process. This method relies on the creativity each participant brings to the exercise over any particular experience or qualification.

People in a meeting looking at screen

The quick, immediate feedback taken from the co-design workshop gives us a deep and immediate understanding of a product’s interaction with users from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. That gives us confidence that we’re focusing on the right priorities and working to solve the right problems. These workshops offer a synergism of creative exploration and research all in one. (For more, please watch Liz Sanders’ presentation about co-creation and participatory design.)

During these Co-design Workshops, participants are asked to:

  • Develop creative stimuli like collages, mood boards, and storyboards that will inform the design process

  • Build paper prototypes or work with designers to develop digital interactive prototypes

  • Roleplay new solutions

#2: Concept testing of prototypes

Once we have a few viable sketches and interactive prototypes from our Co-design Workshop, we can begin the exciting work of testing these proposed product designs to find out whether or not our ideas for solutions have merit. Testing at this stage will begin to solidify the design as well as provide more feedback on the product’s value proposition. Is that proposition clear and relevant?

A fully-fledged design idea doesn’t necessarily need to be in place before testing can begin. In fact, at Apply Digital we like to begin our testing as soon as possible using the lowest fidelity product possible to test. Testing in these early stages, just at the cusp of when the product is capable enough to get the core idea across allows us to get early feedback, without a lot of wasted time, effort, or resources.

Person Drawing Designs

Prototype and concept testing can be applied throughout the design phase, as greater levels of fidelity are added. In the early stages of design, it is best to test multiple concepts and then whittle them down to arrive at the best possible solution.

Some common questions best answered by testing at this stage include:

  • Product function: How would people use the product? Is it clear how to perform the task? How would this impact their ability to accomplish their task?

  • Customer needs: Are we prioritizing/ordering the information/functionality that people need correctly? Are we addressing their needs? Have we created any new barriers? Have we addressed existing barriers or made things easier?

  • Good, better, best solution: What are the best parts of each concept and how do they compare? Why do particular parts of concepts work well?

To answer these questions, a combination of methods may be required:

  • Usability testing of single or multiple prototypes

  • Comparative prototype interviews

  • Surveys

#3: Behavioral demand experiments

Once we’ve defined user problems and refined and tested possible solutions, we’ll find ourselves in possession of a solid product prototype we can use to launch a behavioral demand experiment. This type of experimental research methodology gives us insight into whether people will take action and incorporate the product we’re creating into their daily lives.

Behavioral demand research can be performed at the Definition & Prototyping stage — or even earlier. Even if a product isn’t yet operational, customer interest can be gauged using ad campaign tests, pre-order page tests, or fake door campaigns. If the product is partly operational, functionality can be faked using Wizard of Oz testing or concierge testing. This involves letting users believe they’re experiencing a digital product in action while having your team perform all the product’s functions manually behind the scenes.

People In A Meeting

When running these types of experiments, it’s important to consider both organizational context and ethical impact. Some organizations will not be open to hinting at what they are working on and won’t want anything to become public. Methods like fake door testing, if not done considerately, can have a negative emotional or behavioral impact on participants. They also have the potential to sour an organization’s reputation. Care must be taken to set up the experiment to ensure that the participants actually get something out of experiments instead of leaving them feeling duped or like they have wasted their time.

When questions such as these are being asked, behavioral demand experiments should be considered:

  • Will people actually pay for this? Do they show interest?

  • Do they want the product? What sort of demand can we anticipate? What ratio of people sign-up or buy?

  • If we adjust our offering, does that increase interest or demand?

Types of behavioral experiments include:


The Definition & Prototyping phase provides an opportunity to define the scope of the product, co-design concepts and prototypes with a diverse mix of people, and experiment with and explore the interaction between prototypes and the potential end-user. This work prepares the product for the next stage, Development and Pre-Launch.

To find out more about how smart user research during product development means your app or website will do better once it’s in the market, please keep an eye out for other articles in this four-part series.

If you would like to know more about how your products could benefit from user research reach out to us at