Prototype vs Proof of Concept - 6 Key Differences to Know

17 min read
Prototype vs Proof of Concept - 6 Key Differences to Know

If you’re developing a new product, you know that you are up against some significant risks - most notably:

  • Value risk - misreading market demand is the #1 reason tech startups fail — this is found in 42% of cases
  • Usability risk - 25% of project failures are attributed to UX design issues
  • Feasibility risk - 45% of software projects are over budget, and at the same time delivering 56% less value

Building a proof of concept (PoC) or prototype can be a great way to reduce these risks and help you deliver a well tested, valuable product to market for your users, even in the tightest market windows.

But should you choose to spend time on a PoC or prototype?

In this article we are going to break down the 6 key differences between the two, so you select the one that will help your product team reduce risk and bring maximum value long term.

What is a prototype?

A software prototype is a preliminary version of a software system that is generally used to test usability or visual functionality before proceeding with further development. A prototype can take many different forms, from low-fidelity paper prototypes to a full-stack prototype that acts as a fully functional product from the user’s perspective.

Creating a prototype early in the development process can help teams narrow in on the most optimal UI/UX experience for users as well as resolve any potential usability issues before they become too costly to fix.

While a prototype could, in theory, be a one-off project, more often a prototype would be part of a larger iterative process known as rapid prototyping, where teams are creating a prototype, integrating feedback from users and stakeholders, fixing bugs, and then building the next prototype.

What’s important to understand about prototyping is that it’s all about how real users react to your product - what they like, what they don’t like, what issues they have, etc. This can help you to identify users' pain points and understand them deeply before building a complete product, thus helping you see a reduction in development costs long term.

Risks reduced by a prototype

While every prototype project will look different, in general, teams should expect that prototyping can help reduce these three types of risk:

  • Value risk - whether people in your target market will see the value in your product and decide to buy it
  • Usability risk - whether your target audience will find it intuitive to use

Types of prototypes

Prototypes can come in many forms: from a very simple low-fidelity paper mockup of a user interface to a nearly fully functional mobile app prototype that is being used to test final design features. In general, prototypes fall into one of four categories:

  • Visual Prototype: A visual prototype is a very basic mock-up of the user interface. It could be drawn using a visual drawing tool or by hand using pen and paper. It’s the lowest cost way to test your product idea with users.
  • Clickable Prototype: A step up from a purely visual prototype, a clickable prototype allows you to gather initial feedback from users by way of a clickable mockup. Users can interact with the product on a very basic level by clicking through screens.
  • Front-end Prototype: More robust than a clickable prototype, a front-end prototype is built with code (not just a design tool) and allows users to interact with (usually) minimal features. Typically users will see placeholder data rather than real data, as none of the back-end of the system is built out at this stage.
  • Full-stack Prototype: From your users’ perspective, this will feel very much like a fully fledged product, but it will have some technical limitations. Usually this level of a prototype will be built after early, cheaper prototypes have been built but of course before a product launch.

When to choose a prototype

While most teams will find a prototype helpful at a certain time in the product life cycle, it’s not always the right fit. So when should you choose to build a prototype?

A prototype is a great option if you want to:

  • Optimize the user flows and UI design before making final design decisions.
  • Gather in depth feedback from users on core features or design elements.
  • Keep development costs low by testing ideas before starting web or mobile app development.
  • Embrace an iterative process of product development that tests product and development team assumptions throughout the process.
  • Attract investors or raise seed stage funding by showcasing the product’s core functionality.

Have you already proven your product’s usability and are gearing up to launch your product into the market? We suggest you look into How to Build a Minimum Viable Product.

Is a minimum viable product the same as a prototype?

The short answer is no. A minimum viable product is not the same as a prototype. A minimum viable product (MVP) is a product with just enough features to be shippable and used by early adopters. In other words, a minimum viable product can be sold to real users, while a prototype is built for user testing and is not a shippable product.

While a minimum viable product is the most basic product or functional app a development team can build to test whether target users in the market actually want to use your product, a prototype is an early sample of your product that you create to test a concept before releasing it into the market.

What is a proof of concept?

A proof of concept is a demonstration of the feasibility of a particular software project, product, or technical approach. While not a required part of every new product development process, this assessment of feasibility can help to reduce project risk and prevent investment in a project or approach that lacks practicality or market demand from target users.

A PoC can be used to validate if a particular technology is feasible to use (especially if it is critical to a product’s success). In this way it can help prevent further work on a project that lacks fundamental technical merit.

A PoC can also be used to more generally validate if a new product or service idea would be desirable for target users. While a prototype would allow you to get specific feedback on design elements or usability, a PoC would get user feedback on the general business idea.

Because a PoC can be used for many purposes, it can come in many forms, from a landing page or a marketing video to a crowdfunding campaign or technical feasibility test project. The unifying idea is that a PoC is not a working model of the final product; instead it is an internal project to test assumptions and demonstrate feasibility. While not always the case, generally PoCs are low cost, quick to build, and require minimal actual development work.

Read More: 6 Steps to Successful Proof of Concept Software Development

Risks reduced by a PoC

A PoC can be a great, low cost way to minimize early project risk. Specifically, you can expect a PoC to address these two risks:

  • Value risk- whether people in your target market will see the value in your product and decide to buy it
  • Feasibility risk - whether developers have the skills and technologies available to build what is required

Types of Proof of Concepts

A PoC can come in many forms. What type of PoC your team chooses should align directly with your goals for the PoC. Let’s look at a few different types of PoCs and when they might work for you:

  • Customer Interviews: A go-to option for many teams, customer interviews can provide valuable information about your users’ needs as well as their perceptions of alternatives already on the market. It can be a great way to build up a more reliable set of internal knowledge you can use to build a great product.
  • Crowdfunding Campaign: Works well if you want to kill two birds with one stone and test a product market fit while also raising capital for further development of your product. Usually teams who choose this option have already proved their product’s basic technical feasibility and are not interested in if their product idea will actually resonate with customers.
  • Marketing Landing Page: A new trend in PoCs is abstracting a business concept or product idea into a marketing landing page where you can clearly explain the value proposition of your product. This can be a great low-cost option that can help teams test market demand.
  • Explainer Video: Similar to a marketing landing page, an explainer video provides a way to show potential users how your product would function - without having to actually build it. In the age of social media, you’ll be able to quickly gather user information and feedback before starting app development.
  • Technology Validation: If your product will have a clear dependency on technical feasibility, you’ll want to do some validation before you continue down the development path.
Read More: 7 Proof of Concept Examples from Real Startups

When to choose a Proof of Concept

While most teams will find a prototype helpful at a certain time in the product life cycle, it’s not always the right fit. So when should you choose to build a PoC?

A PoC is a great option if you want to:

  • Validate technical feasibility of a particular approach before app development.
  • Get buy-in from top level management without having to build a full prototype.
  • Test an idea’s feasibility before committing to a product or app idea.
  • Gather user feedback without having to build a prototype or MVP.
  • Test key hypotheses before you work on an interactive prototype.

Is a prototype the same as a PoC?

While both can be used to de-risk your project, a prototype is not the same thing as a PoC. A prototype is a preliminary model of your product, while a PoC is a demonstration of the feasibility of an idea or technology.

A prototype will look, in many ways, like your future product, while a PoC will not. You can think of a PoC as a side project to validate that you should pursue an idea, while a prototype is used to test specific features or design elements of a product you’ve already committed to building.

Let’s break it down!

PoC Prototype
Basic description Proof of viability of a product, idea, or technical approach A working model of a software system with limited functionality and design elements
Investment required Minimal to moderate Moderate
Time required A few days - a few weeks 1 - 3 months
Product development stage Usually early - even before kicking off formal product development but could be done throughout development Early to middle of product development, depending on the complexity of the prototype
Form Comes in many forms from a basic landing page to a marketing video From low-fidelity to a high-fidelity working model
Main purpose To determine basic feasibility of the product, idea or technical approach before further development To test a design, function, or form of a product - usually with real users or stakeholders
User group Internal testers or hand-selected focus groups Internal testers and formal user testing groups in your target audience

What comes first: a PoC or prototype?

While traditionally a PoC comes before a prototype, it doesn’t have to be that way. Your team could use a PoC to validate technical feasibility of an approach at the same time as an early prototype is being built - or even after you have a working front-end prototype.

Prototype vs proof of concept: 6 key differences

Key difference #1: Purpose

Single Market MVP

The purpose of a proof of concept is to demonstrate basic feasibility of a product, solution, or technical approach. It aims to answer the questions such as: “should I keep working on this?” and “is this approach feasible?” \

The purpose of a prototype is to show how the solution (or a model or abstraction of the solution) will work in practice and get stakeholder and user feedback to prevent costly rework from being required down the road.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You want to validate if you should continue (or begin) work on a product or business idea.
  • You want to test the feasibility of a particular technical approach before starting mobile app development.
  • You want to test basic market reception to your idea before you begin developing it.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You want to visualize how your product will look and function.
  • You want to get feedback on usability from real users while minimizing development costs.
  • You want to get the product team and other stakeholders on the same page by using an interactive or physical model of your product.

Key difference #2: Software development stage

A PoC is typically developed during the early stages of software development when the goal is to test a certain functionality or idea before further work begins. However, it doesn’t have to be at the beginning of development. A team may choose to use a PoC to test out an approach or validate that a particular feature would be feasible or well received even after you already have a web or mobile app prototype.

A prototype, on the other hand, is generally developed later on in the process when the goal is to create a working model of the final product. However, it’s important to know that while we recommend that key business concepts have at least been validated before you build a prototype, you do not have to understand everything about your product and users to build a prototype. You can employ an iterative process and develop a series of prototypes, each one closer to the final result you are after.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You are very early in the product life cycle and haven’t yet committed to a specific product idea yet.
  • You are in the middle of development and need to validate a new feature idea or technical approach to a solution before you commit to further work.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You are very early in the product life cycle and have committed to a general approach, but you need more feedback from users or other stakeholders.
  • You are in the middle of development and want to get detailed feedback from users on usability or design elements.

Key difference #3: Initial investment

The investment required for a PoC is typically lower than that required for a prototype as the purpose is to test the feasibility of the concept rather than to create a working product with a UI/UX or engineering team.

While a proof of concept could, theoretically, become very costly, it generally is something that is handled by a small team or even just one person for no cost or low cost. The investment required for a product prototype is typically higher as it requires at least some UI/UX and/or development work.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You have zero or very minimal resources and want to be able to attract business partners or investors.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You have a little more money to work with and want to have an interactive model of your product fast.

Key difference #4: Risk level

A proof of concept is typically less expensive and time consuming to develop, but it may not be able to provide as much insight into how the fully functional product will perform. Because you are working with a totally unproven idea at this stage, the risk of “failure” is high but the stakes are low because you will likely have minimal time and investment sunk into it.

A prototype, on the other hand, is usually more expensive and time consuming to develop, but it can provide a better understanding of how the final product will work. Depending on how much work has been done prior to a prototype, it could be very risky (i.e. if there was no proof of concept or previous prototype) or it could be only a little risky (i.e. if this is a later stage prototype that is simply testing out a particular feature or design element.)

In general, the benefit of both a proof of concept and prototype is that they reduce overall project risk.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You want to lower the risk of your target audience not wanting or needing your product at all (i.e. value risk).
  • You want to lower the risk of project failure because a required technical aspect is later discovered to be impossible or very complex.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You want to lower the risk of users not finding your product intuitive to use (i.e. usability risk).
  • You want to lower the risk of late stage feedback from internal stakeholders.

Key difference #5: Development timeline

Development timelines for a proof of concept and prototype can vary depending on the complexity of the concept and the resources available to the product teams involved. However, in general, a proof of concept can be developed relatively quickly, often within a few days or weeks.

A prototype (like a mobile app prototype) may take longer to develop, often several weeks or even a year or more, as it is typically a more complex and refined version of the original concept.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You have time available to test feasibility before jumping into a prototype.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You have very little time to show the core functionality of your product to stakeholders or potential investors.

Key difference #6: Included features

Proof of concepts typically don’t contain actual end features that will be in the product. Prototypes, on the other hand, typically include many or all the features that will be included in the final product.

You may have a late stage working prototype that contains all of the product’s features. Or you could have an early stage low-fidelity prototype that is an abstraction of the product’s features or contains only minimal features. Regardless, a prototype will definitely have more features than a proof of concept.

Choose a proof of concept if:

  • You’re more concerned with validating feasibility than you are with testing the functionality of features.

Choose a prototype if:

  • You want to see how most or some of your product’s features will work.

Conclusion

A proof of concept is a demonstration of the feasibility of a particular software project, product, or technical approach. A prototype is a preliminary model of your product. Both are used to de-risk your project, but they are definitely not interchangeable.

We’ve looked at the 6 key differences between the two, so you can choose the one that will help you reduce project risks and maximize your product’s success in the market.