What Is Rapid Prototyping in Software Development
by Anna Khrupa on May 17, 2022
“I wish I knew” — a phrase marking the point of a time loss and overspending on something not working as expected. Rapid prototyping in software development turns “I wish I knew” regrets into “I know what they want” confidence.
Even top-league software engineers face limitations caused by human factors and the shortcomings of online communication. Rapid prototyping helps clarify ambiguous instructions, elicit and validate requirements and ensure clarity, cost-efficiency, and time optimization.
What Does Rapid Prototyping Mean?
In layman’s terms, rapid prototyping means failing one version of the app, website, or program fast, adapting to a change, and moving to the next version with minimal losses. Multiple short cycles spring from the client’s or user’s feedback.
If you wonder “what is rapid prototyping definition?” in official terms, here is the one from the SWEBOK Guide V3: “Prototyping is commonly a means for validating the software engineer’s interpretation of the software requirements, as well as for eliciting new requirements.”
Where Is Rapid Prototyping Used?
Prototyping in software development hearkens back to the success of CAD (Computer Assisted Design) in manufacturing. There is no need to produce something perfect, using expensive materials and covering all the bases from the first try. Instead, make a crude 3D model, test it, improve and go for another round.
The prototype of Google Glasses took a bit more than half an hour. Even this first model introduced a critical improvement that made it to market – changing the red font color to blue for readability. Yes, glasses didn’t become a public hit. However, thanks to iterative tests within different audiences, they evolved into an invaluable tool used by surgeons during complex operations.
Now, rapid prototyping is used in manufacturing, software development, web design, etc. In every field, prototyping highlights and solves specific issues:
- In manufacturing — reaching optimal product shape and specifications ahead of mass production, optimizing costs, minimizing returns attributed to design mistakes;
- In software development — eliciting and validating requirements, honing them to increase precision and decrease time to market;
- In design and web development — enhancing user experience, maintaining consistency in user flow throughout their journey.
How Does Rapid Prototyping Work?
Prototyping helps determine the project’s time and scope more precisely, interpreting the end goal in coherence with the client’s aspirations. It is done within various development environments, so don’t get attached to a “rapid prototyping = agile” vision. Agile is an inherently incrementing approach that usually comes further in the development cycle — once all the demands are set via prototyping.
What Is Rapid Prototyping Process?
Steps of rapid prototyping can have different names, but all the available frames have the same meaning:
Zero Step. Defining the goal and the datum mark. Skipping this part may cause irritating issues. Here, the team should decide on the unanimous plan of prototyping and the datum mark that defines its finale (number of iterations, specific feedback, date, etc.).
Step #1. Prototyping — developing a solution model. The team creates single or multiple prototypes, mock-ups, or introduces slight changes in those.
Step#2. Testing — sharing the model. Stakeholders, users, engineers, and focus/in-depth interview groups receive a prototype and give feedback on the proposed solution(s).
Step #3. Improving — revising with pros and cons. After analyzing the feedback and choosing viable recommendations, the team produces a new prototype iteration. Steps 2-3 are repeated till the datum mark is reached.
When Is it Advisable to Use Rapid Prototyping?
Rapid prototyping should be used when there are risks of receiving vague, erroneous requirements and producing software in isolation from the genuine client’s vision and needs. The scale of the project often defines the prototype’s level of fidelity:
- A low-fidelity prototype translates high-level concepts, not digging into details. It is fast to make and easy to change. If the project is small and the budget is scarce, low-fidelity prototyping will cover the essential bases without cost overruns. Later, with additional financing, a team may move to a high-fidelity version.
- A high-fidelity prototype shows how the actual product may look and act. Elements, spaces, and choice of colors are realistic; buttons are clickable; all functions are clear.
Why is rapid prototyping important: Top benefits
Ordinary observers may see software development as a straight line. A shiny “Development team” express departs from the “Clear & Full Requirements” station. A few waypoints later, it arrives at a “Market” destination point. Scene. In reality, teams try to build a floating train, while a flying horse is required for the trip. Here is when prototyping comes in handy.
Benefits of rapid prototyping for software developers
Let’s break down how you can benefit from implementing rapid prototyping. Mind that this list is not exhaustive and strongly depends on the scale of development.
Reveals tacit technical requirements
Many instructions are implied, not articulated. “We thought it was obvious” — a classical trap for development teams. Rapid prototyping helps fill the blanks and replace unspoken expectations with precise instructions.
Keeps focus on client-oriented scenarios
We are all biased and prone to cognitive distortion. When software engineers start “guessing” instead of getting into specifics with clients, the end product deviates from what was supposed to be a successful app or user-friendly interface.
Minimizes budget overruns and project delays
Re-engineering software architecture in later stages comes with massive costs and schedule overruns. Cutting loose ends from the beginning reduces time to market and, probably, overall labor costs.
Maximizes learning with minimum effort
There is no need for long research and strategic sessions. Taking notes on what you are learning through a prototyping process and paying attention to details gives invaluable information even within a tight timeframe.
Makes the project real enough to feel
Software development is a rather abstract process, and prototyping helps ground it. A team moves from assumptions to a minimally viable idea, tangible enough to improve understanding and sparkle motivation.
Reboots traditional problem-solving mindset
Rapid prototyping is opposed to conventional problem-solving. The latter implies debating ideas on how to solve a stated problem in isolation from stakeholders who have that problem. Debates produce a presumed solution. The market defines the presumed solution’s success or failure when all the work is done, money, and time is spent. You can compare it to flipping a costly coin, hoping for a 50/50 chance to get it right.
Reduces defect density
It is a side-effect of a mindset changed by prototyping principles implementation. Based on the real-life development team experience, rapid prototyping at the initial stage results in “defect density dropping on average by almost a factor of two.”
Possible Problems with Rapid Prototyping
Rapid prototyping in software development is a practice with proven efficiency. However, it is not a silver bullet for every issue with software engineers’ instructions. Implementing rapid prototyping, please, remember the following drawbacks:
- Extra costs. Prototyping comes with additional work hours. Such a surplus is nothing compared to the final expenses of erroneous or misinterpreted requirements, but you still need to remember it when drafting a budget.
- Injudicious focus on details. The concept of prototyping, while fully understood by software engineers, may be confusing to other agents. This way, you risk receiving comments on a form over substance. It can be avoided by introducing better guides to the prototyping cycle participants.
- Requirements volatility. Rapid prototyping is named both a cause and a solution for a requirement volatility issue. Putting it into a problem section, we draw attention to a need for explicit prototyping modeling. Short iterations, straightforward questions, and approved methodology for feedback assessment will help reduce uncontrolled branching and volatility.
Rapid prototyping in software development inherits essential traces of manufacturing prototyping. It is performed in a “prototyping — testing — improving” cycle form. In earlier stages, it helps software engineers to elicit and validate requirements. In later stages, it allows for honing the developed unit according to the end-users vision and real-life demands. Based on the task, scale, and budget, the development team can choose low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes. It is also possible to start with low-fidelity and use the high-fidelity option later when a more complex model is needed, or the team receives more funding. Rapid prototyping comes with immediate (revealing tacit requirements, increasing communication and engagement) and delayed (cutting on deadline and budget overruns, minimizing time to market and defect density) benefits. It makes the software development process cheaper and the success of a final product more tangible and predictable.
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