Software Development Prototyping 101: The What, Why and How.

With so many technicalities involved, software development is an intricate process. There is no universal standard to adhere to when managing a software project, as each product is different. The same rule applies to software prototyping, owing to the diversity out there. So what should you be thinking about, when it comes to creating a sample of your software?

Take our own country, for instance. The arena of software development in Sri Lanka is chock-a-block full with boutique digital transformation agencies that are on a sprint to fiercely compete with one another.

Opportunities are abundant; from the on-demand service sector where every single element on your mobile app has the ability to make or break your business, to the outsourcing market where every tech company is looking to impress foreign clientele (or aiming to reach higher by attracting foreign investors all together), creating impressive software has now become a matter of virtue amongst tech companies here.

However, it isn’t really about the software per se – it’s more about unique, extraordinary ideas that have the ability to change the world. For this purpose, software is a mere medium. Considering the impact that software can therefore have on our world, there’s no doubt that a system to develop it such that it is feasible and provides optimum value to the user, is absolutely necessary.

That is how software prototypes enter the picture, and this guide thereby gives you the insight on what you need to look out for when choosing the right one(s) – whether you are a technopreneur, designer or developer.

Starting off…

What is a software prototype?

From science to engineering, prototypes are a popular means of demonstrating what an idea, theory or object would look and feel like, not to forget how it will possibly function too. In short, prototypes are everywhere in the world where new items are developed for learning better, or for enhancing the quality of life.

Software prototypes hardly differ; they provide the knowledge and experience needed to understand how a certain application is supposed to look, feel and function, while offering the scope for teams to think how it can all be improved in due course of development.

Why is it important to prototype your software?

  1. Gives you, your team and your client a feel of your software during the early stages of development.

As mentioned above, software prototypes provide a means to experiencing a working product during the early stages of software or mobile app development. While working versions of a product are necessary when development is taking place in an Agile manner, it also opens the possibility of getting feedback during the early stages – from the core team as well as the client. This helps the team to alleviate any glitches, most of which may not have been prominent until the entire software was complete.

  1. Gives various team members a ‘canvas’ to base their share of work on.

With a software prototype, developers can understand what code works best, system administrators know what’s necessary to deploy the software, and content writers know the volume of copy to create.

  1. Encourages consistency if more features are added, or any changes are made.

With a software prototype, you already have the foundational architecture constructed for reference. Should the software need to be scaled, additional features can then be added, modified or removed in reference to this basic architecture – instead of doing it all from scratch every single time.

With software development having so many technicalities involved, a wealth of prototyping options are available out there. But how do you know which one is ideal for your project? Here’s the lowdown on selecting the right one, or a combination of the right ones.

How do you select the best way to prototype software?

To answer this question, we first need to be aware of the various ways that software can be prototyped. Each method has its pros and cons, and is able to cater to a certain niche pertaining to software development. Here are some of the most popular ones, starting from a fidelity rate of lowest to highest.

  1. Paper Prototypes

As its name suggests, paper prototypes are basic sketches of user interfaces and/or user journeys. As a designer or developer, it is a simple yet effective means of pinning down what you have mentally visualized for yourself, in order to share with others. All it requires is a pen, and (you guessed right) some paper.

  1. Wireframes

Just like paper prototypes, wireframes are low-fidelity mock-ups of how a software will look like, and the interface it will offer its user. There are plenty of wireframe generators online, which can be used via simple drags and drops to create a prototype of your own software. Even if you don’t wish to make use of an online tool, basic word processing or presentation programs (such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint) work just fine, all thanks to text boxes, tables and the like.

  1. Flow Charts

Another low-fidelity, but highly detailed means of articulating what you software is being created to achieve. Flowcharts do not provide any visual aid, but they are the perfect way to prototype your user’s typical journey through your software. From start to finish, mapping out your user’s journey is a preliminary point of reference to progress to the next step of your project, particularly the visual prototype of your software.

In conclusion, while flowcharts are a method of prototyping software functions, they also perform a dual role of assisting teams to create concise visual mock-ups, which in turn will be immensely helpful while doing demonstrations to your clientele.

  1. Proof of Concept

While every form of prototyping software focuses on design and interface aspects, Proof of Concept by far is the only one that well, doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the software from alternate perspectives, such as cost, timeframes, market and technologies to be used. Before beginning to capitalise on an idea, knowing whether it is bound to be lucrative or not will help save a lot of resources, for all parties involved.

If the Proof of Concept still doesn’t convince investors that an idea will (or won’t) work, an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) can be developed to test the market. While slightly more than a prototype, the MVP is the minimalistic version of your software’s entire gamut of deliverables, which when introduced to the market, can be gauged on whether it has been well received or not.

If so, the team and its investors can proceed with capitalising on the concept further. If not, it can all be abandoned, or modified, without suffering major losses in terms of money, time and energy.

  1. Horizontal and Vertical Prototypes

We now move on to prototypes of a fidelity that’s comparatively higher than those mentioned above. Displaying visuals and interfaces that bear close resemblance to the final product, both horizontal and vertical prototypes are formulated after much deliberation on the client’s requirements, and the overall scope of the application.

But that’s not all, almost every horizontal and vertical prototype is created after a low-fidelity prototype is made and approved by the client – further encouraging Agile working processes, and a set of concepts/features/ideologies have been confirmed after much rumination and feedback. This thereby also prevents the likelihood of any errors being discovered at the end of the development process, which could end up costing your team more time and money to rectify it, as opposed to easily making corrections earlier on during the process.

What’s more, these prototypes can be generated through elementary HTML and CSS, with minimal coding knowledge. They can also be password protected, making them a secure means of sharing a first-look of your software, especially if it’s meant to be copyright protected.

Horizontal and vertical prototypes consist of a singular differentiating factor, which is:

Horizontal prototypes: are prototypes that only provide a look and feel of the front-end (only what users will see and interact with) such as the aesthetics and interfaces.

Vertical prototypes: these are prototypes of the back-end, such as administration panels, and are areas that only the client’s team will interact with.

A combination of horizontal and vertical prototypes offer the client a bird’s eye view on how the software shall function, and how using it will feel like – for both client teams as well as the end user.

  1. Rapid Prototypes

Like its horizontal and vertical counterpart, rapid prototypes also provide an introductory vision of how your software will look like. But what makes it different? Rapid prototypes can be generated without a single line of code, through online third-party tools that are easy for anyone to use and get started with. As rapid prototyping doesn’t require any code, team members who do not have any knowledge of programming can take advantage of it by simply dragging and dropping elements onto a template.

Since rapid prototypes can be generated by anyone, they are a boon to non-technical personnel (such as clients or consultants) as they don’t need to take up the challenge to articulate to their designer exactly what they are envisioning (which can oftentimes feel like a Herculean task) in order to transfer their insights onto a prototype. As a result, rapid prototypes can additionally be applied to the very early stages of conceptualisation, which can save teams the prospect of going back and forth several times, and therefore, a lot of time and money.

Throwaway and Evolutionary prototypes – an alternative angle to scrutinize prototypes

While we have shed light on the different software prototypes available and what each is best at highlighting, understanding how sustainable each prototype variant is can make all the difference in which method you use to introduce a model of your software product.

What exactly does sustainable mean in this context, you may ask? In due course of software development, prototypes can be made to do nothing more than what they are supposed to do (which is giving your team and clientele the first look of a product) or have them exponentially modified/enhanced to be revealed as the final product itself.

This is what Throwaway and Evolutionary prototypes are all about. In a nutshell:

Throwaway prototypes: are inexpensive prototypes, often in the form of low-fidelity sketches, which are devised during the early stages of the software development project (particularly to help conceptualise). Once the prototype has been referred to for facilitating the design and development phases, it is discarded.

Evolutionary prototypes: usually more expensive, but versatile prototypes that can be progressively formulated to work as the final product per se. What’s more, any bugs can be identified and rectified as they appear, instead of waiting until the entire software is complete. Evolutionary prototypes are best suited for projects where it is possible to constantly receive feedback from end users, during the development process.

In conclusion…

Software prototyping is quintessential while developing any form of software, be it enterprise software or a mobile app. The two most pressing questions, though, are

  1. Which method of prototyping is viable for developing your software, and,
  2. Whether it is possible to utilise it as the end product itself.

As a project manager or someone who is an integral part of any software development team, both questions need to be answered every time you accept a software development project, as no two products are the same.

As a client, you need to ensure that you receive the transparency you need to judge the progress of your developing software – which can only be delivered via the right prototypes. So don’t be hesitant to initiate a discussion with your software development team during the early stages of briefing, by asking the above-stated questions once again.

No matter what prototype you eventually use, it must give you sufficient insight for foreseeing all the experiences the end user can possibly have, whether it will help attain the objective that the software is being created for – and any errors that happen along the way.

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