Why Prototyping First Leads to Better End Products

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Summary:

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.

User Comments

1 comment
Kevin Dunne's picture

Jessica, 

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?

Kevin

 

August 20, 2014 - 12:44pm

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