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Proof of Concept vs Prototype: What's the Difference?

13 min read

Deciding how to kickstart your project is like choosing the right tool for the job. If this tool is wrong, you’re bound to have a lot of trouble down the road. In our case, no matter how promising your startup idea is, if you skip validating it – you can tap into a lack of market need (42% out of 101 respondents), cost issues (29%), getting outcompeted (19%), and more failures, leading to a domino effect, as highlighted in the latest CB Insights report.

In software development, testing your idea's assumptions comes down to three main tools: creating a proof of concept (PoC), a prototype, or a minimum viable product (MVP). While companies may use any of them to validate a business idea or product concept, they differ in their focus and purpose.

In this article, we break down each approach in detail to help you grasp proof of concept vs prototype, their difference with an MVP, who benefits from them, and which one suits your project best.

How an Idea Becomes a Great Product Starting from PoC through Prototype to MVP

In the early stages of product development, understanding the distinction between proof of concept vs prototype is crucial to determining the viability and the function of your innovative ideas. Turning an idea into a great product always follows a certain product development path: Proof of Concept (PoC), Prototype, and Minimum Viable Product (MVP). It’s important to differentiate each stage: a PoC is about feasibility, a prototype is about refining, and an MVP is about real-world validation. Each has its place in the journey from idea to successful product.

Idea →

PoC  →

UI/UX Prototype  →

MVP  →

Fully fledged Product 

These stages have subtle connections. Lessons from one stage help shape the next. It's a dynamic process where each step refines and enhances the product, ultimately leading to the creation of a great market-ready solution.

For example, the insights from PoC software development shape its design and functionalities necessary for UI/UX prototyping. The logic here is simple: if your PoC meets your success criteria and you understand that your idea is workable, you can move on to the next stages. If not, you have two options: create a new proof of concept or fix any issues until you're happy with the result.

After you understand the PoC functions as it is supposed to, you can start visualizing them through UI/UX prototyping to see how your “pilot” product version will look and what UI/UX design options suit you best.

Once you've tested your PoC and given the green light to the initial design, you may use your developments to guide the development of the MVP – the functional version with essential features, hitting the market for actual user testing. The feedback gathered here guides further enhancements for full-fledged product development.

Remember one more thing – not every journey requires every stop. Each stage serves a specific purpose based on your project's needs. If your idea is ground-breaking, PoC development is essential to test if it's technically feasible. Moving to the prototype stage refines the concept visually and functionally. Yet, if your project involves proven technologies or established concepts, diving straight into building an MVP might be the smarter move.

The key here is to align your choice with your project's uniqueness and the level of validation needed. This is more about understanding the distinctions between these stages to pick the right tools at the right time to turn your idea into a successful product without redundant steps and budget expenses.

Proof of Concept vs Prototype: When to Use a Proof of Concept?

Proof of concept is a vital step in testing the viability of an idea both for its market appeal and technical execution. A proof of concept could come as a simple marketing video to gauge interest in your idea or even creating a basic, hands-on web version of the software to ensure the core idea is feasible. Proof of concept validation answers the question: "Can we build that?" The only goal is to ensure your idea is possible to implement.

No matter the approach you choose, not every small business must go through a proof of concept. But if you're creating something unique, you definitely should. On the flip side, if your website or app will have standard features that already work well, skipping the proof of concept makes more sense.

In any case, before diving into a proof of concept for your business idea, it's crucial to set clear goals and success criteria for your project. What do you want to achieve with the proof of concept? Some goals might include:

  • Your idea is new on the market. As mentioned earlier, PoC is a valuable tool for businesses whose business idea or product concept is completely innovative and has never been tried before.
  • You want to validate the feasibility of your idea. Product PoC shows whether the solution can solve its technical task in real life, as well as shows you exactly how to make it happen. If your idea fails for some reason, at least you won't have to spend a lot of your budget.
  • You need to decide which technology is more suitable for your product. Through PoC development, your product team can experiment with various technologies to discover the most effective way to turn your idea into reality, ultimately finding the one that hits the mark. The tests might need a few days, depending on how tricky or complicated the task is.
  • You want to attract investors by demonstrating that your idea can become a real product. Investors prefer ideas that prove they can work. A PoC lets you showcase your unique idea, something possibly different from others in the market. Usually, businesses use prototypes to impress investors, but PoCs also grab attention. They assure investors that your idea won't flop technically and can make financial sense.

Your goals for the proof of concept will dictate the type of PoC to go for, your budget, your timeline, and the specialists on your team. Keep in mind that a proof of concept isn't the same as a product prototype vs MVP. To save costs, keep your proof of concept team as small as you can, sometimes just one person. While some teams hire project managers, many can handle the proof of concept internally.

SwipeWell’s PoC experience

Corey Haines in X

The SwipeWell app was created to organize examples of reference marketing. The team tested its appeal by checking if there was a demand first. They made a website that introduced SwipeWell, and surprisingly, even before the app was available, more than 1000 accounts had already been created for it.

This is a clear example that highlights the value of the proof of concept software development process. SwipeWell's team was able to prove that their idea worked before they even built the product. Another evidence that this approach allows you to demonstrate interest in what you offer and then accelerate your growth when you launch the product.

Proof of Concept vs Prototype: What Is a Prototype and Where They Are the Most Beneficial?

The prototype stage is where you give your idea a tangible form, diving deeper into design and functionality and creating a more detailed visual version. At this stage, you’re already sure that your idea works and will work, but you need to visualize the way it works. Although it shares some similarities to a PoC (both seek to validate ideas), it’s crucial to avoid confusion between prototype vs proof of concept. While a PoC validates the "can the idea work?" aspect, the prototype digs into the "how well does it work for users?" question.

Because a prototype isn't the final product, you try it out within your company or with a small group of potential users. When users get their hands on it, you watch how they use it and figure out which parts of the design need some rethinking and rework.

In this process, designers typically create several mockups (screens for a website or app), arranging them in a logical order. Yet, prototypes come in different types, from simple sketches or wireframes to more detailed, interactive copies that resemble the final product. The choice you pick between proof of concept vs prototype depends on your product and the features you want to test and show.

The nature of prototypes makes them suitable in the following scenarios:

  • You want to see and feel how your product will look. A prototype is a first draft that gives you and your team a sneak peek at how the final product might look—helping you catch a glimpse of its potential.
  • You want to showcase your product’s visual representation to attract investors. Prototypes show investors your idea is worth investing in because, at this stage, you've got some feedback from real users, tested assumptions, fixed mistakes, and polished your pilot product. As a result, you can be confident enough to show sample versions to investors.
  • You want to create a user-friendly design and smooth user experience. You’ll never know until you give it a shot, and this is what the prototype is for. A prototype clears up doubts about how easy your product is to use. It shows how the features will work and checks if the user experience and design are convenient.
  • You want to identify flaws in our design before development. Prototyping is a valuable practice when you need to perform a quick test of possible design errors. It helps you see what's possible and what isn’t, and find and fix any design problems before you start investing in making the final version.

Airbnb’s prototype case example

Airbnb, the online platform for short-term stays, found success through early prototyping. In Airbnb's early phases, the founders crafted prototypes to test and enhance the platform's crucial features and user experience. They played around with various design elements, search functions, and booking processes to ensure a user-friendly and seamless interface. This iterative prototyping approach allowed them to gather valuable feedback from potential users and make necessary improvements, ultimately contributing to the platform's widespread adoption and success.

Airbnb’s prototype case example
Airbnb’s prototype case example
Source

What is MVP in Software Development, and When an MVP is the Most Suitable Choice

You can think of MVP development as a real-world debut. MVP is the most evolved form of your idea compared to other alternatives, as the development team creates a functional product that contains basic features tested by real customers.

The end goal of MVP is to refine the product components to the point where they will resonate with target users. In addition to this, a well-developed MVP will help to figure out how much demand it triggers, understand if it’s a profitable idea, and analyze what your users like or dislike about your solution. Depending on what users say, you might focus more on key features, change direction, or even start fresh with a new product.

You may often hear of MVP as a small-scale test that is fast and affordable – and we support this definition. You keep doing new releases over and over to learn about your users and their pain points more until your MVP becomes a complete, full-fledged product.

At this step, you should also keep some things clear. Prototype vs MVP concepts can also sometimes seem confusing. However, the core difference is big. A prototype focuses on design validation targeting a specific group of users, stakeholders, and investors, while MVP has all the essential features needed for launch testing your product in the actual market.

If any of the following scenarios align with your needs, then an MVP is the ideal pain-killing approach for you.

  • You want to know if target users will like your product. An MVP might not be the full product, but you can still launch it and start getting your first customers who pay for it.
  • You want to save time and money by developing only basic features. An MVP helps you learn much about what your customers need and what features your complete solution should have. Instead of adding too many features that will end up being redundant for users, with an MVP, you can focus on those that solve users' biggest problems.
  • You must plan your product development to avoid the risk of failure. 42% of surveyed startups in the CB Insights report show failure due to not meeting market needs. To avoid being part of these statistics, plan your product development carefully. Listen to your audience, and be open to feedback, and that's where MVP helps. Every user comment during MVP development guides the product and lowers the risk of failure.
  • You want to attract investment by showing how successful the product is in the market, even with minimal features. Investors are hesitant about ideas without proven market demand. When your MVP succeeds and gets positive feedback from users, it becomes strong evidence for investors, showing them that your idea has real potential in the market.

Lost on your way to scaling your startup? This guide on MVP development might be quite useful.

Loom's MVP Success Story

Loom is a video messaging tool that helps share messages using quick, shareable videos. Loom's journey demonstrates the significant impact an MVP can have on startups, providing valuable early feedback and the flexibility to make quick changes.

Loom's MVP Success Story

In their initial try, they launched Opentest, a video app for expert feedback on products, but it didn't work out. The second attempt with an NPS feedback form also fell short. It was only with their third attempt, Openvid, where users could record video messages for their teams, that Loom hit the mark. This MVP paved the way for Loom's success, leading to a remarkable $1.5 billion valuation.

Loom's MVP

Key Differences Between Proof of Concept vs Prototype

Now, we have reached the point where you may still have concerns and misconceptions about these approaches since they do share similarities. However, it is important to note that each approach plays a distinct role in the product life cycle. By referring to the comparison table below, you can finally connect all the dots and grasp the key differences between proof of concept vs prototype.

Criteria 

PoC

Prototype 

MVP

Goal 

Test technical feasibility 

Visualize and test the design concepts, user interaction, and experience  

Validate product in the real market 

Answers question 

Can we build that?

How well does it work for users?

Does this product appeal to users?

Form it takes 

From simple marketing videos, demos, and animations to landing pages and simpler websites 

Interactive mockups, wireframes, and high-fidelity prototypes  

Working model of your product 

Audience 

In-house team members (researchers and developers), stakeholders, investors 

Stakeholders, potential users, investors  

A group of potential customers, early adopters, and investors  

Risk minimization

Protects against technical errors during the development process

Prevents user dissatisfaction by letting you visualize and adjust UI/UX design.

Stops you from wasting resources on a product no one wants to buy

Timing 

Few days/weeks

Several weeks to 1 month 

Weeks or months, depending on the approach 

Stage 

Idea validation (product discovery) 

Design & Development 

Pre-launch 

Functionality 

No functionality required 

Basic features to check how easy it is to use the product

Enough functionality to test the “raw” product in a real-world context 

Budget required 

PoCs usually don't need a dedicated budget; the product team's funds usually cover these tasks.

Depending on the tools you choose to create a prototype, e.g., if you use Figma, the subscription cost ranges between $12 – $75 monthly per editor + add compensation for designers’ work

High-quality MVP development takes 10-50% of your overall product development budget

Tools used

Video-editing tools or Figma

Figma, InVision, Adobe XD

Development platforms specific to the chosen tech stack, including programming, languages like Java, Python, PHP, etc., and frameworks like React, Angular, or Vue, etc. 

Revenue 

Not for sale 

Not for sale as its aim is to attract more investments 

For sale to early adopters, attracts investments 

When should you choose one?

When you're unsure if your idea will work or when you have different ways to implement it

When you're sure your idea will work and want to try out a product design concept

When you're confident about a product's technical capabilities and design and you want to release it in the market to attract first interest 

What you can easily observe is that each approach brings its own unique benefits. What they have in common is that each phase provides valuable insights and validates specific assumptions, helping create a product that lives up to its promise. Just remember, they're not interchangeable. Each one serves a specific purpose at a different development stage. You can use them alone or together based on your goals.

For instance, you might start with a Proof of Concept to check if your idea works. Once that's clear, move on to a Prototype for visualizing how the whole system will work and refining the design. When you're ready to launch in the real market, go for an MVP. It's about choosing the right method along your product development journey.

Alternatively, not every small business may need to use all of these approaches due to limited time, budget, or specific business preconditions. In this case, it’s okay to choose the one approach starting from your unique needs. Let us simplify the 3 possible actions for you:

  1. Create a Proof of Concept if you are uncertain about the feasibility of a product idea, feature/functionality, or which technology is a good fit.
  2. Go for Prototyping to validate the demand for the product before investing in the development phase.
  3. Develop MVPs to reconfirm the product's demand in a real-world context and save money on development costs.

Strategic Idea Validation: From PoC to MVP

In summary, validating your idea provides a clear understanding of the real situation, with the only difference – that each approach offers a unique angle of validation. Whether through Proof of Concept, Prototyping, or Minimum Viable Product, the process of validating assumptions and testing feasibility helps businesses increase the likelihood of product success, ensuring wise resource utilization and the ability to withstand real-world challenges.

ElifTech brings valuable expertise and support in each of these stages.

  • For a PoC, our team focuses on idea validation and PoC development that enables reduced risk and optimized cost.
  • With Clickable Prototyping, we help in designing an interactive user interface for your MVP, testing your concept with real users, and iterating based on feedback. This gives a realistic experience even before full development, preventing unnecessary expenses later on.
  • Through MVP development, we support defining core features, agile development, and gathering early feedback, allowing quick product launch that meets market demand.

So, if you're at the crossroads of your development journey, thinking whether a proof of concept vs prototype, or MVP is the right next step? The ElifTech team is well-prepared to help you start off on the right foot. Contact us to get a consultation.

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