You wish to build a new house for your family. You decide to hire professional help since you are not an architectural expert. An architect promises to build you a beautiful home. However, she says she cannot tell you what it will look like. Would you be okay with that? Wouldn’t you demand to have some models sketched out to ensure that the finished building looks just like your dream home?
The same process follows for creating software. At a typical web or mobile app development company, initial blueprints would be drawn up to determine what the finished product would look like. This is called software prototyping in software engineering or software development.
What Is Software Prototyping?
Software prototyping refers to the process of visualising a software product before it has been created. Creating software from scratch requires a great investment in the form of time, money, and effort. That is why most clients prefer to have a visual prototype developed before work is put into the development of the actual product. The prototype acts as a ‘model’ closely replicating the appearance, and sometimes the functionality, of the product that the client has in mind.
Why Do You Need a Software Prototype?
Whenever there is a need for creating a new software product from scratch, a lot goes into the initial planning phase. An app idea needs to be very well thought out in order to be successfully implemented. There is a particular process, referred to as the software development life cycle (SDLC), that has to be followed. It is an expensive and lengthy process that can stretch anywhere from weeks to months.
It starts with the developer needing to know in detail what the client wants from them. Next, the design process is carried out, detailing what the software’s user interface will look like. Then comes the actual coding. Even a simple software application might take weeks to perfectly translate into code. This code has to be thoroughly tested and any bugs fixed before the final launch. Sometimes, post-launch corrections also need to be made. With software prototyping, a lot of overhead costs and hassle can be avoided in the long run.
Software prototyping in software engineering helps to visualise the final product before resources are invested in its creation. It does not have to be a replica because that would defeat the purpose of the software prototyping process. It is supposed to be a quick mock-up that will give the client a rough idea of the appearance and/or functioning of the product and whether or not their app idea is worth the investment. Prototypes also play a major role in making the final product as user-friendly as possible.
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There are countless other advantages of prototyping software applications which we will be discussing further on in this article. Before we do that, let’s try to understand the software prototyping process a little better, starting with the different types of prototyping.
What Are the Different Types of Prototyping Models?
There are three broad software prototyping techniques that your chosen software development agency can adopt.
As its name suggests, a throwaway prototype is ‘thrown out’ once the product design is finalised. Also known as rapid prototyping, this technique is carried out over a short time. The designer can quickly hash out some design ideas in this phase, somewhat like a rough sketch. Some of the key functionality may also be incorporated into the software prototype.
Once the client and the developer have understood the initial requirements with the help of the prototype and know what to expect in the final product, this prototype is either partially re-used or discarded completely. Thus, throwaway prototyping is fast and low-effort, allowing quick feedback gathering and incorporation.
The name for this type of software prototyping is also quite self-explanatory. Starting with the basics, the evolutionary software prototyping technique allows the product to grow – evolve – over multiple iterations.
An evolutionary prototype is much more functional than a throwaway prototype, with some primary features coded into it from the get-go instead of it being a mere dummy focused solely on design. The screens (user interface) also have actual code behind them. The user can see and interact with the prototype as if it were the actual product. Over time and multiple feedback cycles, the prototype may have more advanced functionality added to it as needed by the client. The process thus results in the finished product.
This may sound similar to evolutionary prototyping but both of them are miles apart. While evolutionary prototyping focuses on starting from the basics and building upon the skeletal structure, incremental prototyping is based on breaking down the whole product into multiple modules and sub-modules, and working on them individually. Each module has its own prototype which is built upon over time. All these functional prototypes are then merged to form a single, final software application.
Software prototyping techniques can also be broadly categorised according to the level of detail you want to see in your prototype. A very basic, low-effort prototype (e.g. a paper prototype) is called a low-fidelity prototype. On the other hand, a prototype which has detailed design and/or functionality integrated into it is referred to as a high-fidelity prototype.
Depending on your requirements, the developers or designers will use appropriate user interface design and software prototyping tools to present to you the best possible outcome of this development activity.
Factors That Decide the Best Type of Prototyping for You
While there are many types of prototyping available, your decision of choosing the most suitable software prototyping technique would ultimately rest on the following factors:
- Scope & Fidelity
The Prototyping Process
Most development companies follow a fixed process for software prototyping, just like they do for the development of the software itself. In case you are wondering how a typical software house would work on prototyping your product, below are the steps that they are likely to follow.
1.0 Requirement Gathering
The first step to any software development activity is identifying the problem and coming up with a detailed solution. You must be clear about what activities your app will be used to perform. The developers may ask you for extensive details about the functionality of your software. You can also voice your ideas regarding the potential design of the software. Does your brand have a particular colour palette that your software must reflect? Which items do you want on the homepage? Perhaps you would like to specify how many pages or screens you want your app to have.
Depending on the level of detail that the software prototype will have, you can specify all the necessary details in this step in order to help the developers understand your product thoroughly. This sets the foundation for the creation of your app and is, therefore, the most crucial step of the software development prototyping process.
2.1 Initial Prototype Development
Generally, the earliest prototypes are more focused on the general arrangement of the app’s appearance and the functionality described in the first phase by the client themselves. They may be in the form of low-fidelity on-paper wireframes that informally outline the overall structure of the app, highlight a few basics, and describe the user’s flow across the app.
2.2 Detailed Prototype Development (Optional)
If you would like to see a more detailed functional prototype, the design and development team may use some advanced user interface design and software prototyping tools to create a more complex and comprehensive model.
3.0 User Feedback
One of the goals of going through the prototyping process is to save time by avoiding any major changes later on in the development process. This means the developers need to get as much input and feedback from the client as possible. By actively overseeing and providing feedback throughout the design and prototyping process, clients can let the developers know exactly what they want in the final product, thereby making it easier for the developers to understand and recreate their requirements as well.
4.0 Incorporation of Feedback
This is the final step in the process that brings the prototype to its most refined form. Once the client has provided feedback, the developers incorporate this feedback into the prototype to ensure that it is in line with the client’s demands. The only thing left to do after this is to wait for the client’s approval so that development can begin!
Steps 3.0 and 4.0 may need to be performed iteratively because it is next to impossible to get the prototype right the first time. Plus, a little bit of trial and error is considered a good practice as it encourages creative problem-solving.
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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Software Prototyping
Are you wondering whether you should go for a prototype or tell your development team to get directly to the coding part? Here are a few upsides and downsides of prototyping that might help you make the smarter decision.
There is a long list of significant advantages that prototyping offers to clients, so brace yourselves!
Get Started Right Away
Creating a new software application can sometimes feel like a very daunting task. It is impossible to think of every single thing you want your software to do. If you are not entirely sure, you don’t have to unnecessarily delay production. As a start, you can bounce a few ideas off of your software provider. Their designers can get started with a rough model which can then be refined gradually.
Clearly Define Your Vision
Do you remember the first step of prototyping in software development? Gathering requirements! Before they start working on the prototype, the developers will want to know what you want the software to do.
Once they start with the design process, the product will start to take a more certain shape and form. This will solve one problem for both you and the developer:
- When you see your product on-screen, you will be able to interact with it and see if there is anything you would want to change. Your idea might turn out way better than you had imagined. If not, you can easily let the developers know of anything that you feel is missing from the prototype.
- In case the developers miss something in the initial requirement gathering phase, they can now be clear on everything the product is supposed to be. On top of that, they can help you build stronger logic behind or identify any possible gaps in your app’s functionality. They will also be able to tell you about any risks or difficulties that they may run into during the actual development phase.
Communicate and Collaborate – Stay Involved!
Prototyping software requires a lot of back-and-forth between the client and the developer. With the right development team, you can both always stay in sync.
Clients are encouraged to provide their feedback to the design team after each iteration. The consistent communication between both parties also helps to manage expectations better.
Get a Visual Guide
This one is especially for those who like to see quick results and is arguably the best (read: most fun!) part about prototyping in software development.
While a basic prototype will probably help you make sure that the developers have got your ideas right, a high-fidelity prototype will allow you to see what your product will look like once it is complete. You can even interact with a high-fidelity prototype, go through the various screens, click on buttons, and make sure the app flows smoothly.
Achieve Greater Creativity
Considering how communication-intensive a process software prototyping is, it creates the chance for ideas to flow freely. Greater levels of collaboration, both between the client and the developers and amongst the development team members, allow all participants to pitch in and collectively solve problems. This proves particularly useful when trying to work out the kinks in the prototype, leading it to perfection.
Early User Acceptance Testing
Acquainting users with a new software application is quite a task. Imagine heading an organisation with hundreds of employees and feeling the need to switch to a new type of accounting software. When the new software is implemented organisation-wide, many of your employees might have a hard time trying to catch up with this drastic change. Despite extensive training sessions, some users might still face problems. This problem could very well be solved with the help of software prototyping in software engineering because it will help you catch any problems way before development is started on the new software.
There are a couple of strategies that you can adopt to counter this problem.
- Include the end-users in the testing process: The best kind of software is one that is best-suited to the capabilities of the end-user. In this particular example, the end-user would be your company employees. A certain number of employees can be selected to take the prototype on a test run. Allow them to walk through the app and see how much of it they can figure out. Ask for their feedback and incorporate it. For example, if they think a certain feature is too complicated for them, you can easily ask the developers to simplify it.
- Use the prototype as a training model: When your prototype has achieved a certain level of quality and functionality, you can make it available to the end-users en masse. This would also serve as an effective software testing strategy. Depending on the user feedback, you can gradually improve the product. The users could even continue to use an improved high-fidelity prototype until the final product is ready to be launched. This will make the shift to the new software even simpler and easier.
Save Time and Money
Let’s continue with the same example we used in the previous point. You implement the new accounting software throughout your organisation only to learn that it is missing a major functionality that is vital for your business! Neither you nor your developer will be happy about everything – your money and the developers’ efforts – going down the drain. It will also greatly delay the software’s implementation.
Prototyping helps to identify problems early on before development has even begun. This helps avoid making any major changes later on, in the development phase.
After thinking long and hard, we could come up with only two downsides to the software prototyping activity.
- It will add an extra step to the software development process.
- Over the course of this activity, you might want to add a lot more functionality to your app than you had originally intended.
But are these really that bad? It will be one extra step but think about all the time, effort, and money it will save you in the long run! As for the second issue, experimenting with the prototype will give you a better idea about the resources that will have to be spent on it. You will learn that complicating your app will also increase the time and cost for its development. This will keep you in check and motivate you to stick to your allocated budget and time duration.
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As part of our feedback-intensive software prototyping and development process, we will ensure that you, the client, are always in the know about everything that goes on in the playing field, saving you lots of precious time and unnecessary costs!
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Now that you know how prototyping in software development can make your life much easier and simpler, it seems to be quite the obvious choice, does it not?
Adding one simple yet crucial step to the software development process will help bring you, the developers, and the users on the same page, saving you from the hassle of major last-minute changes. This translates to a significant financial benefit, along with no unnecessary waste of time. Ultimately, your vision of a great software application will come to life with minimal difficulties and be truly rewarding for both you and your development team!