“Fail early, fail cheap”

September: Driving innovation more rapidly and effectively with prototyping

Concepts like DevOps, agile working and rapid prototyping seek to make digital innovation faster and better. But when is a software prototype worthwhile? More about the advantages and pitfalls of prototyping, helpful tools – and why you should not fall in love with your prototype!

There are numerous concepts to keep the constant cycle from development to live operation not only running faster, but also at convincing quality. The goal of prototyping: to shorten long planning times by developing new software quickly with the help of models – prototypes. The prototype can be used to give users an initial impression and to obtain more specific feedback. The prototype is then optimised iteratively and in a very targeted way.
“Rapid prototyping” describes the even faster creation of software prototypes or models, for example, through the use of tools and low-code platforms. Low-code platforms are easy-to-use development environments that work with visual tools and graphic modelling instead of classical programming languages. This allows people without in-depth programming knowledge to (co-)develop software. All this in an effort to accelerate the development process and keep the costs low.

Prototyping: Two basic approaches

Evolutionary prototyping

Functions are developed, enhanced and added step by step.

Experimental prototyping

Different approaches to a solution are simulated and compared.

Advantages: The path is the goal

Often, the requirements for a software system are not fixed from the beginning and/or it would take a long time to record them. Especially when it comes to a groundbreaking idea, it is often difficult for the providers as well as the users to anticipate every detail “on paper”, so to speak. An idea grows and matures, which makes prototyping a good example of agile working. The development takes place step by step – it is iteratively developed, tried and tested, improved and feedback is sought again. Users and developers can feel their way into the product and give really constructive feedback as the prototype visualises ideas and functions.
Talking about one thing, exploring different possibilities and questioning them in the discussion – all this is explicitly desired – elementary and an important advantage in the prototype development process.
6 good reasons:
Save time; through shorter lead time without long-drawn-out set-up of requirements.
Continuous optimisation; changing framework conditions or requirements can be continuously taken into account.
Ideas that can be experienced; a prototype makes theory tangible, which in turn leads to new ideas and insights.
Constructive discussion; users and developers can give better, more specific feedback through modelling, often further ideas emerge through fruitful discussion – to the benefit of the final quality.
Reduce risk (and cost) of failure; by working on a prototype, it is much easier to assess whether the developed system will meet the requirements – and problems are also identified more quickly.
Improve quality (and return on investment); prototyping delivers better bottom line results through more focused and faster development.

To be considered: Focus, Future, FTEs….

There are a few things to keep in mind when working with prototypes. A clear focus or a clear question is important: What question should the prototype answer? Is it about defining the layout of an application or should a process with several steps be run through? It is also important to clarify whether the prototype is to be used once (a so-called “throwaway prototype”) or whether it is to be maintained and expanded in the long term. Depending on this, we use different tools and each of them has its strengths.
And of course, prototypes also involve effort, which should be discussed, calculated and planned for right from the start.

Helpful tools from A to F

In addition to pen and paper, there are now many tools that support the development of prototypes. There are three practical helpers from our point of view in this case.

Axure: Axure can be used, for example, to simulate detailed interactions between the user and the system interface. 

Balsamiq: At emineo, we like to use Balsamiq when we do not want to be distracted by user interactions and styling. Thus, it comes closest to the oldest (and depending on personal opinion, best) combination of paper and pen.

Figma: This tool is the defacto standard UI designer today (as of August 2022) and impresses with its visual styling. However, it is usually more time-consuming due to the high level of detail needed. We tend to use Figma towards the end of the design process.

Is a prototype synonymous with wireframe?

Sometimes prototypes and wireframes are used synonymously and the difference does not always seem clear. Wireframes refer to a very rudimentary drawing of a website or application. We draw the simplest elements such as lines, rectangles and texts to illustrate the design and structure from the user’s point of view. Accordingly, wireframes can answer questions about the design and structure of the site. Wireframes are a subtype of prototypes, but not all prototypes are wireframes.

Be careful: Please do not fall in love – and always remain critical!

After all, prototypes are used for testing. Often heard and also too often used by us is the “validation of a prototype”. This phrase should be avoided, especially in the area of user experience. This is because it implies the goal of considering a proposal to be good. In other words, it degrades everything other than validation to failure. You yourself as well as the reviewers are controlled by this and consciously or unconsciously emphasise the good points of the proposal. Criticism falls by the wayside and the results lose relevance. After all, one should not validate the prototype, but use it to test a certain assumption and answer a question. In short: “Do not fall in love with your own prototype!”

Source featured image: UID Web

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