Five reasons every company should prototype before building software

Companies today know they must rapidly evolve to keep pace with customer and partner demands. Our collective expectations have shifted with the advent of on-demand app updates to our phones, tablets, laptops and even the set-top boxes connected to our TVs. We no longer have the patience to wait years, or even months, for a new system or platform to be deployed.

Prototyping is a company’s insurance policy for mitigating the risk of missed or misunderstood requirements — and more.

1. Align around a common vision and eliminate ambiguity

One of the best techniques for quickly aligning to a common vision is to use visuals to represent the needs discussed. When discussing a new user interface for a new digital product, why not gather everyone around the big screen and rapidly model wireframes? Immediately, everyone becomes aligned and stays aligned to a common vision. It’s much faster to update a prototype than existing code. According to Roger S. Pressman, author of “Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach,” the relative cost of fixing missed or misunderstood requirements is 60 to 100 higher than fixing it in the requirements phase. Drive your requirements by prototyping first, documenting second, building third.

2. Ensure your idea aligns with user expectations 

Traditional approaches to software development first leverage static wireframes, then static high-fidelity comps, and lastly an interactive system when development is ready for user acceptance testing (UAT). It is only in UAT that anyone can actually experience the system. Let’s hope it meets expectations. A proven way to mitigate the risk of missed expectations is to prototype early and test the prototype with prospective users. A medium-fidelity prototype is sufficient to socialize concepts and solicit qualitative and quantitative feedback.

3. Demonstrate the concept to gain buy-in from executives and investors

Do you have an idea for the next big thing in digital? Perhaps it’s a system that will increase new market share or reduce manual processes. Perhaps it’s a terrific new device that will be built in Silicon Valley and attract big investors. A clickable and interactive prototype demonstrates that you have thought through your concept thoroughly and have identified viable, day-to-day use cases for the product. Additionally, you can put the prototype in front of prospective buyers and users, and quote their favorable reactions.

Also, the prototype allows you to present a realistic cost and time estimate for bringing your concept to fruition.

4. Create a crystal-clear blueprint and build right the first time

Stakeholders, developers, testers and trainers need more than a wordy requirements document. They need something they can see and feel in order to deliver what the users really want. Prototypes are the perfect answer. I make a habit of prototyping first, then writing requirements, and lastly creating traceability between the two. Developers and testers consistently comment on how useful it is to read the requirement and also see the visuals to support it.

5. Generate buzz and prove that you’re listening

Several years ago I led an engagement where we collaborated on a new system that served college and university interactions with federal agencies. They had thousands of customers who had been waiting years for improvements. My client tried traditional methods of getting the product defined and developed, and all failed — until we introduced rapid prototyping. We traveled to a conference where the university stakeholders were present, set up a trade show-like information booth, and demonstrated the prototype of the new system numerous times. The university stakeholders were ecstatic.