Yours visually

Wireframing a product or enhancements is a great way of validating customer propositions. Given the choice, customers and prospects will any day choose an html prototype over powerpoint hyperbole. Thus it is sad that html prototyping remains suboptimally utilized in the product development cycle – overused at the begining and consigned to the trash bin before it has yielded all it could.

I am no genius figuring out why a touch-and-feel prototype is more effective than paperware. The commercial/sales guys figured it out much earlier. The zeal to sell (or to just awe the audience) leads down the slippery slope of over-jazzed visual prototypes getting in front of customers. Overpromise. When the rubber hits the asphalt things start falling away. Engineering cannot deliver to the wireframe in the committed time or without overhauling the architecture. Underdeliver. A tool to elicit, refine and enhance requirements has been relegated to a cheap selling trick.

Html wireframes are much derided within the engineering fraternity as mickey-mouse. The prototype quickly dies off and after a while no one even as much remembers where the code is. What a waste. With some thought, practice and process, it is possible to extend the wireframe into the development stage as a bona fide artifact. Preserving the spirit, content and visual signature of a wireframe right throughout the development cycle is more guaranteed with this extension. Product Managers and Usability folks should retain some oversight into the engineering process to ensure minimum deviation from original state.

On the side try this. Ask Usability or engineering to give you a flash version of the wireframe. Put that on the thumbdrives of every salesperson in your organization. Trust me, leaving a “live” version of the product with a prospect is times better than leaving dead-tree version collaterals. The sales folks will love you. The flash and html versions will come in very handy when you are running subsequent marketing campaigns and want your prospects to see and play with the product over the web before they sign up for a trial.

Wireframes are not use and throw. Rather used as flow and grow they can return a staggering return on investment for the product in question.

Update: Seth Godin has a brilliant post on measuring ROI on design. No, he doesn’t give you the spreadsheet you are looking for. On the other hand, he leaves you with enough food for your gray cells. Quintessentially Seth.