Mobile app prototype

The art, science and benefits of designing app prototypes before developing your app

Building an app is about more than just coding. The design stage is a vital part of the process that helps reduce costly mistakes and validate your idea to investors. Mobile app prototypes can streamline the design process and ensure you know your product is on the right track.


What are mobile app prototypes?

An app prototype is a close replica of your product. Typically, prototypes are built without code and provide investors, team members, and stakeholders with an idea of how your app will look and feel.

Though prototypes aren’t generally coded, the user can still experience a simulated version of the app on paper or via a device. Most of your UI design and functionalities will be there, allowing interested parties to understand how your app works.

Prototypes are an excellent option for UX designers. We all have theories about what users want and how they will experience an app. But until it gets into the hands of others, we can’t really know for sure.

App prototypes form a solid part of any good digital product design process. They help developers get feedback and test their idea without committing a significant portion of their budget to apps or features that don’t work.

Countless products have been consigned to the Big App Graveyard that would have been helped by having a prototype. Developers could have realised that their product didn’t work in the way they thought it would or discovered features or functions that would have improved their offering.

Budget Considerations

Coding is one of the most expensive aspects of building an app. Making something only to find out there are problems you could have caught in the design stage is a sure way to go over time or budget. Prototypes help reduce these sorts of mistakes.

Additionally, prototypes are an excellent way to communicate UI/UX design and functionality to the people building the app. By allowing team members to see and feel your vision, they can better understand where they are going and contextualise their role in the development process.

In short, prototypes are a way to test an app without spending significant amounts of time and money on engineering. They create an opportunity for developers to get feedback about what does and doesn’t work about an app that they can action before it’s too late.



Above – Snackr high-fidelity prototype

Why make a mobile app prototype?

There are lots of benefits to making an app prototype. Here are some of the reasons this inexpensive and quick process can help you create the best version of your app without wasting time and money.


1. Validate ideas

Good app development isn’t cheap. It also takes a lot of time to engineer. So before you make a considerable investment of time and money into an app, it’s good practice to validate your idea.

Market and competitor research are powerful ways to get an idea of whether your app will provide value to users. However, you can’t always know something will work until you get it into your hands.

Prototypes help you understand if your idea is compelling. Additionally, they provide an unmissable chance to get feedback from your ideal users that you can use to drive improvements and changes.


2. To help secure investment

Many apps couldn’t be built without outside or company investment. Getting people to sign checks based on a concept is possible, but communicating your idea and the look and feel of your product is so much easier with something tangible.

So, if you are trying to get funding, consider using an app prototype to get your message across.


3. Focus your team

The best projects happen when your entire team understands the product and your goals. Suppose you’ve gotten investment on your idea. In that case, you can use a prototype as the focal point for helping people fully understand the scope of your app.

When all teams understand the project, they can pull together in the same direction.


4. It Helps teams ask questions at the right time

Once your development team sees the prototype, they can begin thinking about implementing your vision. For example, there could be specific features or functions that will take a lot of time to complete or aren’t quite possible.

If you are on a tight budget or timeframe, understanding where possible problems or difficulties might occur can help you speak to investors or consider streamlining your app down to its core tasks.

Whichever way, the time to explore these questions is during the design process. Developers can help you see gaps, oversights, or problems that you can address before any coding begins.


5. Save time and money

There are almost no projects with boundless time and money. We all operate under some sort of constraint. Prototypes eliminate many of the more common app development problems before you start coding.

This process reduces the likelihood of making costly changes during development. Additionally, it dramatically lowers the chances of investors or stakeholders having problems with your product that require expensive re-coding that puts your project over budget and time.


6. It makes comprehensive planning important

Designing a prototype forces you to confront the little details of app design. While you might have an overall view of what you want your app to do, building a prototype forces you to decide on the product’s look, feel, UI, and UX.

Again, the design stage is the best time to think about these projects. You can quickly action changes and feedback and fix elements that aren’t working.


7. Reduce extra work

Some amount of code revisions is inevitable. However, to save time and money, it’s best to keep them to a minimum. Prototypes are part of a comprehensive style of planning that looks to find and root out problems before they occur.

Applications have lots of layers, like front-end, services, and databases. If you realise that you need to rewrite the code, the knock-on effect could involve reworking these various sections, which involves a massive investment of time.

Now that you know what prototypes are and why developers choose to build them, let’s focus on the four main kinds of app prototypes:

1. Wireframes
2. Low-fidelity prototypes
3. High-fidelity prototypes (sometimes called mockups)
4. Functional prototypes (proof-of-concept)



Above – Low-fidelity Wireframe example


A wireframe is a two-dimensional outline of your app. It’s something like a blueprint for a building. Put simply, it’s a visual guide that is used to illustrate what your product will look like and how it will function.

Wireframes can provide an outline of the:

  • Page structure
  • Layout
  • User flow
  • Information architecture
  • Functionality
  • Behaviours

Wireframes are used to communicate an app concept. As such, they usually don’t have an excessive amount of colour or styling and instead are presented in simple black and white. Wireframes are frequently hand-drawn or created digitally, depending on the level of detail that is needed.

Wireframes are a big part of the initial design process. They allow UX designers to conceptualise the product so that investors and stakeholders can agree on the overall functions of the app.

Developers use wireframes as a way to highlight problems that need to be solved before coding begins. They facilitate user testing and can be a source of valuable feedback on the app. Frequently, wireframes are used to get users’ thoughts on a product, so developers can improve the subsequent iterations of the app or build a low- or high-fidelity prototype.


Benefits of app wireframes

Wireframes are important aspects of the development process because:

1. They’re user-focused

Wireframes are a great way to keep app development focused on the user. Users, stakeholders, and designers can all engage with these prototypes to get a sense of what the product has and what it lacks.

Conducting early user testing is a great way to get feedback that will improve the app. Additionally, it keeps the development team focused on the core problem the app is meant to solve.

Often, wireframes are designed without text. This process allows designers to understand how intuitive their app is by seeing how easy it is for users to navigate.

2. They’re an effective communication tool

Wireframes are a great way to communicate your product to clients. Often, they won’t be up to date on the terminology used in the app development world. Certain features can pass them by, or there can be some confusion about where elements are placed.

Developers can use wireframes to solve these issues before it’s too late. Additionally, they can help stakeholders visualise how much space is needed for each feature and understand how everything will work together.

Because wireframes seek feedback at the early stage, they tend to get more honest responses. People can feel bad criticising work that is almost finished. However, they’re usually fine with being forthright during the early stages. Developers should embrace this opportunity to get stakeholders to commit to what they want ASAP.

3. They’re cheap and simple to make

Wireframes don’t cost much time or money. You can draw one or use one of the many available design tools to build one. Client’s and developer’s assumptions can be identified and addressed immediately, meaning you have gotten a little closer to the final product while eliminating issues that would have wasted resources in later development stages.

What types of wireframes can you use?

There are three common types of wireframes that developers use, based on their detail and complexity.

They are:

Low-fidelity wireframes

This type of wireframe is the most basic visual representation of your app. They’re rough drawings that provide high-level oversight of the app, with little regard for scale or other visual design elements.

Block shapes, simple images, and Lorem Ipsum content are typical. These wireframes are just used to get feedback and map user flow and navigation. They’re perfect for pitching quick ideas or presenting a variety of different avenues for the app.

Mid-fidelity wireframes

Mid-fidelity wireframes are the most frequently used type of wireframes. They are more detailed but still fairly sparse. These prototypes are often created using digital wireframing tools and often use some sense of scale and even shading to highlight certain elements.

High-fidelity wireframes

These types of wireframes are often used during the latter stages of the design process. They feature more detail, often incorporate images, and use pixel-specific layouts.

High-fidelity wireframes are a great way to explore more complex concepts, like interactive maps or menu systems. Additionally, they might include typography.

To recap, wireframes are a starting point to show an app’s basic layout and navigation. Even in their most stripped-back form, they can give clients, users, and stakeholders an idea of what it would be like to use your app. These interactions provide a great opportunity to get valuable feedback that you can use to improve your product before investing a lot of time or money.
Low-fidelity prototypes

Above – Low-fidelity prototype for Allegro Live

Low-Fidelity Mobile App Prototypes

The next stop on the product design journey is a low-fidelity prototype. Again, these are bare-bones versions of your app that can contain:

The screen layout

Stripped back outlines of the app’s elements
Accurate sizing, positioning, and spacing of the elements
Rudimentary clickability and navigation between the screens

Lo-fi prototypes keep things simple so that the focus doesn’t shift away from screen layout, navigation, and information architecture. Too much detail, colours, and polish can distract from the app’s primary function. Developers use lo-fi prototypes to work out any UX problems in the design stage.

Again, these prototypes are an excellent way to perform early-stage user testing and demonstrate the direction of the app to stakeholders. They can help highlight any deficiencies in the product before more advanced UI design and interactions are added.

Low-fidelity prototypes are a quick and easy way to represent concepts, user flows, and information. They facilitate quick feedback that can be channelled into improving your app. Again, these prototypes are characterised by their basic, non-complex build.

Benefits of Lo-Fi App Prototypes

1. Static prototypes allow you to spend more time on design

While high-fidelity prototypes give a much clearer impression of the final product, building one takes time because they need to be clickable and allow users to navigate around the app. On the other hand, lo-fi prototypes are generally static. Because you don’t need to invest time in those functions, you can concentrate more on designing pages, elements, buttons, and other design features.

2. Clarity

Clarity is perhaps the essential aspect of the app development process. Countless projects run over budget or time because of a fundamental disconnect between what stakeholders want and what developers mistakenly think they do.

Uncertainty around any part of the app development process can lead to a nasty surprise for stakeholders.

A well-run project will establish a shared understanding of what the app needs to do. Understanding user flow, functionality, and the look and feel of an app are challenging to do without some visualisation of the final product.

By building an interface with demonstrable interactivity, your stakeholders can view and use the app before investing money. Additionally, you won’t start coding until you are sure that your current vision for the app is something they actually want.

3. Prototypes are easy to change

One of the main purposes of prototypes is to get feedback. Seeing a basic version of an app can highlight flaws, mistaken assumptions or even bring to light new, great ideas. Often, designers get wedded to specific ideas because of the amount of time they invest in them.

Prototypes aren’t something that most people will get too attached to. By nature, they are something that you can put together quite quickly. Also, users feel freer to criticise these early versions, which can improve the quality of feedback.

4. Everyone knows that the product is far from being complete

Lo-fi prototypes will rarely be confused for the finished product. Their purpose is all about demonstrating the core fundamentals of the app, and no one will expect that it’s ready to ship.

This situation creates an environment where everyone understands the app needs more work and some changes to be completed. That is far more preferable to the case where a design looks so polished that investors and executives assume that you will complete it ahead of time or budget.

mobile app UI designers

Above – Impactr high-fidelity prototype

High-fidelity prototypes

High-fidelity prototypes are a good choice in the late design stage. Often referred to as mockups, they are a good option to use when all you have left to do is design the finished product.

High-fidelity prototypes have all of the layouts, outlined elements, spacing, and clickability of a lo-fi prototype. However, each of the pieces is presented in much greater detail.

Some of the things you should expect to see in a hi-fi prototype are:

  • Interaction and clickability
  • More polished UI design
  • Real headlines, content, labels, etc.
  • Data visualisation


Another big difference between lo-fi and hi-fi prototypes are interactions. Iterations become more complex as the app reaches its final stage, so hi-fi prototypes are usually very close to the final app in terms of the user experience.

Some of the things that you can expect to see on a hi-fi prototype are micro-interactions like an icon changing colour when it’s clicked or stuff like the ability to scroll the page. Other interactions that you can add to these prototypes are onscreen navigation between tabs and accordion menus.

Aside from user flow elements, hi-fi prototypes will have a much slicker design. Many of them will have sharply rendered icons and elements, unique fonts, colours, real content, and high definition images.

While no coding has happened yet, developers can add these little elements to showcase how navigating or using the app will feel.

Development-ready designs

During this development stage, designs should have actioned the feedback they received during the wireframing and low-fi prototyping phases.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that developers don’t need or welcome feedback during this stage, but just that you should answer most of the big questions by now.

The purpose of prototypes is to gather as much information on how stakeholders and users feel about the app. If you are still getting extensive notes at this stage, it’s likely because you didn’t address or receive concerns in the earlier stages.

Hi-fi prototypes closely simulate the finished product. They offer a comparative version of the app to stakeholders. They can often highlight issues that weren’t clear in earlier stages, like colour clashes or problems with the typography.

In essence, hi-fi prototypes are a good way to demonstrate your app’s final visual aspects before you engineer them.

Benefits of hi-fi App Prototypes


While wireframes and lo-fi prototypes can get across the core aspects of your app, they lack the realism of a hi-fi prototype. Hi-fi prototypes use real copy, elements, and images. As a result, they’re the perfect time to see if all your design decisions are working together.

Sometimes colour schemes, shapes, and typography just don’t synergise in the way you felt they would. Mockups are a great way to eliminate these issues before the engineering process.

Easy to change

Hi-fi prototypes are still easy to change or revise. Because you’ll be getting a lot of feedback from users and stakeholders, you need to present a version that is basically the final product, but that won’t be a pain to change. Hi-fi prototypes are the perfect compromise between these positions: Stakeholders can give detailed feedback, but it won’t involve tearing up code to implement it.

Winning over doubters

Hi-fi prototypes are a great tool to convince stakeholders. We can’t always get buy-in across the board, and some people need a bit more convincing than a series of sketches drawn on a piece of paper. Hi-fi prototypes are easy to understand and bear a very close resemblance to the final product. They can be a great tool for getting approval from more sceptical decision-makers.


app ui design trends 2022

Above – Functional prototype (proof-of-concept)

Functional Prototypes (Proof-of-concept)

Developers use several different types of prototypes. We’ve covered the wireframe and low and hi-fi prototype already. These prototypes are generally considered to be non-functional prototypes. They are given this name because they are concerned with the non-functional aspects of app design, such as the look and feel of the product.

However, there are other types of prototypes that are concerned with the function of the app. These are called functional prototypes. They are also commonly referred to as proof-of-concept apps.

A functional prototype is a more dynamic version of the prototype. While some hi-fi prototypes have limited navigation and clickability, the functional prototype goes beyond design and mimics how it would feel to use the app.

They are clickable and interactive and provide stakeholders a far more app-like experience. If wireframes and low- and hi-fi products are great for giving users a feel for using an app, a functional prototype goes a few steps further by letting them actually navigate the prototype as if it were the final product.

Choosing the right prototype

Choosing the right prototype depends on a variety of factors. Firstly, let’s look at choosing between functional and non-functional prototypes. Here are some of the questions you’ll need to ask.

When Do You Need a Functional Prototype?

What are the requirements?

Sometimes the choice between functional and non-functional prototypes won’t be yours. Internal stakeholders will typically be far more concerned with how the app works and solves their particular pain points. On the other hand, external stakeholders or investors might be more concerned with how the app looks and feels.

For example, if you are developing a business-oriented app, the functional requirements will be essential. Many of these prerequisites could call for a proof-of-concept before any coding begins. That’s not to say that the design, look, and feel of these apps won’t be important, but they’ll definitely be secondary to actual functionality.

Essentially, this boils down to what type of app it is and who is funding it. Think about which prototype is going to make an impact. Some investors or clients will want to see an app in action, while others will be happy to see a visually pleasing prototype.

So think about the requirements that you were given during meetings with investors and stakeholders. Some people will be happy enough with a raw app that demonstrates how it solves a specific problem.

How much testing is involved?

Some process designs require a lot of testing. For example, complex apps with lots of features and elements need to work together. If your requirements suggest that lots of testing is necessary, a functional prototype can be the answer.

The main reason for this is that the functional prototype closely mimics the experience of using the final app. While it’s still not coded, these prototypes are usually designed with applications that can allow the users to click and navigate around the app.

What’s the best way to present your app?

If you are looking for investors for your project, you need to consider what is the best way to present your app’s capabilities. Sometimes you’ll need to prove that your app is feasible from a technical standpoint.

Some apps have ambitious selling points that don’t have an equivalent on the market. While these ideas are exciting and can offer a potential competitive advantage, you need to make sure that the reason the solution doesn’t exist is that it can’t be done.

In these cases, the functionality of the app will be vital to convincing investors or stakeholders that you have a product worth investing in. The best design, colours, and typography in the world won’t matter if your product doesn’t solve the issues it says it can.

What’s your development budget?

Very few apps are built on a bottomless budget. While many organisations do have significant budgets, most of us operate within some constraints. Frequently, you might find yourself in a situation where you don’t have a budget for the actual app and a prototype.

Functional prototyping can offer a better base to transition into incremental development. This method can save a lot of time and energy. Another interesting point to consider is that the documentation for the app can be written at this stage, which means a quicker time to the market or the final development stages.

When to Choose a Non-Functional Prototype Like a Wireframe, or Lo-fi or Hi-fi Prototype?

What Stage is Your Idea At?

If your app is in the very early stage of development — and you don’t have buy-in or investment — a wireframe can be an excellent choice. Largely, that’s because they are straightforward to design. Specification documents and even a passionate verbal presentation can only do so much. Sometimes you just need to give investors something to look at.

However, without funding or any guaranteed interest, you’ll want to make your demonstration as easy as possible. The beauty of wireframes is that they are a quick and dirty way to visualise your product.

Even hastily drawn wireframes can communicate a vision and clear up any confusion during a pitch. They’re a simple, low-risk stand-in for the real thing that can get people talking and interested. Additionally, they’re a great way to get user feedback and can even help you validate your idea.

How much time do you have?

Wireframes are an excellent way to give users and stakeholders a basic picture of the final product. There are many professional wireframing tools that can help you produce a decent visualisation without too much stress.

Wireframes are easy to share across your teams, and their simplicity makes them great for collaboration and live changes. So if you’re pressed for time, and you need a basic stand-in for your app, a wireframe can be the best option.

How important are the visual design elements?

Wireframes aren’t designed to communicate design elements. They’re best as a quick, low cost, low-risk way of conveying an idea. As such, they have some limitations when it comes to design-focused apps.

For example, grey boxes and generic text don’t communicate how colours, gradients, contrasts and more can influence a page. Additionally, they aren’t always capable of showing how graphical elements can guide users around an app. What’s more, for brands with a very defined visual identity, a wireframe can be too limited.

If the visual design part of your app is its major selling point, a hi-fidelity prototype might be the best choice.


About the Author

Joseph Russell is an award-winning app designer, app strategist and founder of DreamWalk. Over his 11 year career, Joseph has helped hundreds of businesses and startup founders plan, design, develop and launch successful apps.

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