Why Prototyping First Leads to Better End Products


Even with pages of documentation, there still can be miscommunication and misguided assumptions about a product. A prototype serves as the vision for the product and helps everyone, from a salesperson to an engineer, understand what they are trying to achieve. This article looks at some of the benefits of prototyping early in the development process.

I put together my first contract when I was about seven. My mom was in procurement and I sometimes helped her put together contracts that were four or five inches tall. With all that documentation, how could things possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, they go wrong because no one reads documentation filled with every important person’s pet requirements. They go wrong because those pet requirements are based on what someone thinks they know about what someone else wants. They go wrong because we don’t know what business or organizational outcomes we’re trying to drive and we haven’t matched them to what we think the user needs.

You’ll know exactly what I mean if you’ve ever been involved in a project where more than half of the budget and time are gone and you’re stuck breaking your neck to deliver something that you know will hit the market with a thud.

What Prototyping Is and Isn’t

Before we get into the benefits of prototyping, it’s important to define what we mean by the word. As I define it, a prototype is a tool for testing ideas, assumptions, and customer segments. It allows for quick iteration no matter the medium you choose for the prototype. You can use paper, PowerPoint, HTML and CSS, or one of the many other tools you can find online. We mostly use HTML because our team is quick at writing it.

In order for everyone involved to be happy with the outcome, it’s also important to define up front what a prototype isn’t. A prototype is not:

  • Complete
  • Production-ready
  • Cross-browser
  • Fully designed

Let’s look at some of the benefits of prototyping early in the development process.

What Prototyping Can Do for You

Once validated, the prototype serves as the vision for the product and helps everyone, from a salesperson to an engineer, understand what they are trying to achieve. It can be a bit tough to change deeply embedded processes and manage expectations, but it’s worth the risk.

Among the many benefits of prototyping before starting to build production-ready software are that prototypes allow you to:

  • Take a user- and business-outcome-driven approach
  • Validate early with customers
  • Show internal stakeholders instead of telling with huge documents
  • Help developers understand the product quickly

Here are a few tips for how to get a start at prototyping what could very well be your company’s next big thing.

Start Small, but Start

Starting anything can be really hard. Coming up with reasons not to start is easy, especially when you try to follow a particular method or process exactly. Maybe you aren’t ready to fundamentally change your software methodology, but you can probably get your team to spend five minutes during a meeting sketching some ideas and getting feedback. As you get results, you will get the support to do more.

Be Comfortable with Showing Messy Work in Progress

I used to only want to show things that were polished, but I gave that up so I could be more responsive to the needs of my client and team. If you are leading a prototyping effort, you are going to have to show your messy work first to get others to feel comfortable showing theirs.

A prototype is like a movie set; we do just enough to make it believable and leave it really easy to change. Behind the scenes the set may be ugly and unfinished, but getting it perfect isn’t the point. This can be an adjustment for an engineer who has been trained to write quality code. “Working messy” gives us the agility we need to prove or disprove ideas quickly. Don’t worry about perfection up front.

You Will Be Wrong, but It Will Make You Better

Being wrong—or worse yet, failing—gives people hives, but I don’t know that anything innovative has ever happened without some failed experiments. Wrong is good if we learn something from it, and wrong is good if we save ourselves months of work or thousands of dollars building the wrong thing. Every time I learn something, I make the project better, and I get better. I get better at seeing from others’ perspectives, asking questions, and anticipating problems.

Focus, Focus, Focus

There are always things that will derail you. Sometimes it will be you. Set up a repository for all the great ideas, feature requests, questions, and assumptions so they don’t stop you from moving forward. The whole team is responsible for forward progress and reining each other in when people go off track, but it helps to have one person playing the enforcer.

Better Products Start with Better Prototypes

The bottom line is that 76 percent of all new products fail to meet their revenue targets.

To ensure you are on the path to success, invest time and thought into the prototyping process. Instead of working quickly through (or passing over) the start-up phase of an idea, go the extra mile. Because by starting small, sharing progress, taking risks, and remaining focused, the end product will benefit and result in higher revenue rates.

User Comments

1 comment
Kevin Dunne's picture


I really enjoyed your article.  To me, the idea seems obvious but I know it can be tough to get buy in for innovative ideas like this.  People will sink hours into documentation that will never be used again after it is signed, but will be hesitant to take a day or two of a developers time to create code if they know it will never be used in production. 

My question to you is if there are any ways you believe that are best for conducting this meeting.  Do you get everyone in the room at the same time, sitting their live while the code is written?  How do you balance the desire of wanting to gather everyones input and feedback as the prototype is created with the fear of having important team members sit around and watch code being written?



August 20, 2014 - 12:44pm

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