Software prototyping is the process of creating an incomplete version of a software solution that displays only the core functionality of the end product without necessarily holding the exact logic of the production-ready deliverable. The key word here is incomplete, and having a functional prototype does not mean you have a Minimum Viable Product ready to market. However, it means you got yourself a great tool to help you assess, fix and improve a thing or two before you get deep into the development stage.
In this article, we want to highlight some key points that could help you turn prototyping into a huge asset to cut the cost of your software development project.
Prototyping is becoming a very popular practice in software development, as it holds a considerable number of benefits companies and startups can use to have a successful shot at delivering a quality, risk-free product that boasts great demand and big wins in the long run.
When you’re working on the development of your software solution, here are some of the main things prototyping can help you with:
- Get stakeholders on side with the project. If you need a potent tool to attract investment to your startup, get your stakeholders support and secure the desired budget, or simply sell your idea to a willing client, prototyping is exactly the way to do it. Visualizing your concept in the form of a tangible prototype enables your stakeholders, investors and potential clients to try it out themselves. It gives them a deeper understanding of the purpose your future product is meant to serve, helping them calculate the demand and estimate the potential gains while increasing your chances of successfully sealing the deal.
- Refine your business requirements and catch potential constraints. Producing a prototype that features only the core functionality of the future product will help your team simulate and analyze what features work perfectly fine and what requirements need to be reconsidered, having regard to constraints or side effects your team may have stumbled upon during the tests. Prototyping will assist you in making your software solution more complete, provide you with better understanding of the value your future product can bring to the market and let you focus on smaller and more complex features first.
- Test your tangible model for user acceptance and improve its quality. Through prototyping you give your target audience a chance to experience your software solution early in development. Thus, you get the opportunity to improve your user experience and find any potential issues and fix them, applying the early feedback from your very users, current or future. Not only this will ensure your product in development meets the fundamental needs of your target audience, but also save you the time and money you can use on refining your product and marketing it instead of implementing the crucial changes late in the development stage, which would cost you a fortune.
- Assess and reduce the cost, time and complexity of your project. Even though building a prototype takes resources itself, it is definitely an investment worth considering. If you take a look at the benefits of prototyping mentioned above, you will see the many potential risks and issues prototyping helps you avoid. You won’t end up losing a significant portion of your user base to faulty design, bad usability, bugs and crashes. You won’t suffer immense losses to unclear business requirements and reading the market wrong. And last but not least, you will not run out of budget, as you have provided explicit cost and time estimates, optimized the complexity of development and ensured full trust and support from your stakeholders.
Prototyping in the right dimension
Prototypes can have horizontal and vertical dimensions. Depending on the complexity of your software solution and the goals you’re trying to achieve through prototyping, the two approaches target different issues and generate feedback on different areas.
A Horizontal prototype provides a broad look at the entire system with little complexity in individual features or internal functions, mostly focusing on the UX/UI side of the project and business requirements. This approach serves best for the development of websites and undemanding software applications, where the goal is to run intensive usability testing or simply get the general feel of the future product from your stakeholders and target audience.
On the other hand, a Vertical prototype digs deeper into a small set of features, elaborating specific functions of various subsystems. This prototyping approach is more technical and mainly targets interconnectivity, data processing, logical and physical database requirements, optimization and various other issues related to complex algorithms and systems. It serves best for reviewing innovative solutions, experimental technology, and rare or new business approaches.
Types of prototyping and when to use them
Throwaway prototyping (also called rapid or close-ended prototyping) is a method used for creating working models of various parts of the system fast, with very little effort and no preceding in-depth research or requirement analysis. Such prototypes are based purely on preliminary requirements and built at an early stage of development. Their main purpose is to show your stakeholders and users what the requirements and features of your future product may look like, make sure they are clearly understood and gather feedback. After you’ve processed all the feedback, the prototype gets discarded, while all the gathered data is incorporated in the next prototype or the actual software in development, depending on how well your prototype served its purpose.
- The most obvious advantage is that it can be done very quickly and relatively cheap compared to other types of prototyping
- It is very cost-effective in the long run, as it helps you define goals, detect and prevent potential pitfalls, as well as come up with a solid risk management plan at the earliest in the development lifecycle
- Focusing on a particular feature helps you gather the most precise feedback, giving you a head start at refining that feature even better at lower costs and effort
- The speed comes at a price of throwaway code and shortcuts like hardcoded functional elements that are not reusable and serve solely a demonstrative purpose
- You cannot adequately test non-functional requirements like reliability and safety using this method
Evolutionary prototyping (also known as breadboard prototyping) is a method companies use to construct a very robust working model of their software solution with quality coding, clear structure and design. And unlike the throwaway method, this working model is not built to be disposable. Quite the opposite, it is built to form the heart of your to-be mature system. Through a series of iterations, continuous feedback and testing, the evolutionary prototype is being constantly refined, improved and supplemented with additional features to eventually become the very release version of your software solution.
- Your stakeholders, clients and users are deeply involved in the development process, playing an important role in driving your prototype towards becoming a market-ready product with each iteration
- Unlike a throwaway prototype, you get a functional system you can use to the point it becomes a part of the final product
- It is essential to have clearly defined requirements early in the development stage, otherwise, you risk losing a lot more resources on rework than you initially planned
- The project is open-ended, which means it is harder to set a time frame on it and calculate clear budget expectations
- Developers can become so attached to a subsystem they’ve put so much effort into prototyping that they may attempt to force it into the next iteration, even if it doesn’t meet the requirements or have the appropriate architecture behind it
Incremental prototyping is very close to what evolutionary prototyping is all about, except for one important difference. While evolutionary prototyping means building a single prototype and completing it through iterations, the incremental prototyping approach means building separate functional prototypes of various subsystems simultaneously. These subsystems are all dealt with separately and are later merged into a single system to form your final product. Thinking about incremental prototyping imagine building blocks.
- You can generate fully working parts of software quickly and quite early in the software development lifecycle
- You can get quality feedback and implement changes easier and faster due to multiple groups of users focusing on different subsystems with particular functions simultaneously; it is easier to test and debug
- This method is more flexible than evolutionary prototyping in terms of changing scope and business requirements
- It can be very challenging to manage a multitude of separate projects at the same time, maintaining good communication and consensus between teams, as well as keeping all the requirements in check
- Regardless of the quality, the feedback you get from multiple user pools on separate subsystems may be different from what your users could’ve said if they tried a complete product
- This method requires extremely good planning and clarity in design decisions, otherwise, there’s always a risk that the process of integrating components into a single system may become your worst nightmare.
Extreme prototyping is a method that is mostly used in the web development domain. It usually breaks web development down into three phases, each preceding another. First, the dev team builds a simple (usually, static) prototype, which consists mainly of HTML pages based on the fundamental wireframes. Then, the pages are being programmed and made fully functional through a simulated services layer, which includes all the business logic and rules. The third phase concludes the prototyping stage with implementation of the actual services, which are later integrated with UI and other front-end systems. This method may not serve best for complex solutions, but it can definitely be of much help for the development of web applications of little or moderate complexity.
- This must be the most code-centric method of prototyping, which allows you to significantly reduce the cost of development through minimizing time spent on meetings and paperwork
- Extreme prototyping promotes simplicity in coding, which, under proper management, contributes to the quality and speed of development and the eventual robustness of the final product
- This method requires in-depth planning from start to finish, which will also directly influence the stability of your project’s cost and scope
- You cannot properly deal with quality assurance and testing using this method as it involves a lot of code refactoring, which is partly due to giving up on meetings and proper documentation
How-to: software prototyping faster and cheaper
- Understand the landscape. In addition to your general vision of the product and the strategy you planned around it, it wouldn’t hurt to dig into the latest technological breakthroughs and efficient business practices. Research your competitors and similar solutions. This will help you identify and refine the core requirements for your future product. And having clearly defined requirements, in turn, will save you from extra rework when prototyping.
- Focus on the essentials. Do not attempt to fit an entire product in your first prototype. Understand your core requirements and prioritize the absolutely critical features and components. Remember, your main goal here is to gather feedback, capture interesting insights and eliminate defects. Extra features can always be added in subsequent iterations as they are not worth your time and money so early on in development.
- Minimize the development time. Use building blocks and reusable components for everything that is not crucial to your core requirements. Act fast! Do not waste time creating something irrelevant at this stage if you can easily find it online – images, UI elements, data models, APIs, etc.
- Optimize feedback, not code. Focus on user experience rather than optimizing code and polishing the technical aspects at the earliest prototyping stage. Using static data or hardcoding irrelevant features is not a crime when prototyping. Quality user feedback is what you’re after at this point.
- Unleash your design thinking. Visual representation, understanding, analysis and criticism are the essentials of design thinking, a framework that puts user needs at the core of software development. Design thinking allows companies to dig deeper into the problem and refine their solution to address it best, and that’s where prototyping plays its crucial role.
A final thought
Prototyping is one of the best ways to gather, analyze and refine requirements through rapid and on-point feedback. A good prototype can help your team optimize software development processes and come up with better product decisions. It can drastically reduce your software development costs and eliminate the risks associated with usability, design, unclear business requirements or failing market strategy. Done right, software prototyping makes things far easier in the long run, eventually leading to a successful release of your top-notch product.
Having trouble deciding on what prototyping approach suits your goals best?
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