What Is Software Prototyping And Why Do You Need It?

Ramesh Lal Developer Tips, Tricks & Resources

Software prototyping is a commonly known term that carries with it various myths. If we remove all misconceptions and present a simple definition, a software prototype is merely a base product that closely resembles the appearance and functionality of the final software product. However, this is not the case with all types of prototypes.

First, you have high-fidelity (HiFi) prototypes that represent the same functionality as the final software in the truest sense. HiFi prototypes provide a very clear and satisfactory demonstration of the software, lacking only a few cosmetic touch ups. The only downside is high-fidelity prototypes add to lengthier development cycles, which results in higher development costs.

Next, you have low-fidelity prototypes (LoFi) that are basically two-dimensional figures or charts. Instead of replicating the functionalities of the software, the best that LoFi prototypes do is list and explain features in black and white. LoFi prototypes are used to demonstrate the idea behind the application’s purposes to gain buy-in from other stakeholders in the application’s development.

In short, prototype software is a close replica of the final software that may or may not follow the same logic as the final software product. However, prototype software should be comprehensive enough for giving product demonstrations to customers, investors and clients, especially for entrepreneurs launching a new product or business.

Why Do You Need a Software Prototype?

There are a plethora of reasons for an entrepreneur or brand to require a software prototype model:

For Unifying the Vision

Software prototypes can help you evaluate the progress and direction of applications still under development. They demonstrate incremental functionality and where the final software product is heading, without adding significant, additional resources. Prototypes can be valuable at all stages of software development (such as a different prototype for an MVP, a different one for the first iteration and so on), helping to efficiently track the development process and direction of your project.

For External Involvement

Some software development projects require involvement from external stakeholders, investors or customers. To appropriately demonstrate in-progress software, prototypes can be extremely useful for third-party involvement. Entrepreneurs and developers can enhance the software based on external feedback, which may be critical for securing third-party funding.

To Evaluate the Pending Time and Resources

Software prototype models can also be used for evaluating any last minute SRS (software requirement specifications) changes. Models are helpful for checking if software is compatible with new requirements and whether changes can be implemented before deadlines or resources are exhausted. You can also use software prototypes to confirm the actual state of the software at the depletion of all resources.

Different Types of Software Prototyping

There are four practical classifications of software prototyping models:

1. Rapid Prototyping

Consider a scenario where a prototype is frequently required in the software development life cycle (SDLC) for various purposes no matter how small the changes in source code. Rapid prototyping is ideal for matching such testing requirements or demonstrating small additions. For this reason, rapid prototyping is mostly used in agile development methodology, where minimal changes are quickly developed and implemented for each sprint.

As software development moves from stage to stage, previous prototypes become useless. Therefore, rapid prototyping is also known as throwaway prototyping, where each precedent prototype becomes irrelevant to the current state of development.

Benefits of Rapid Prototyping

  • Time savings – rapid prototypes are built upon one another, eliminating development from scratch
  • Universal – iterative development is very useful for small to large projects
  • Cost efficient – with only minor alterations in iterative models, rapid prototyping has minimal impact on software development budgets

2. Evolutionary Prototyping

Sometimes, software requirements are unclear at the start of a project and require minor to major refinements throughout development. In such cases, evolutionary prototypes are developed that include only those features that are clearly understood. Once the evolutionary prototype is demonstrated, stakeholders can help to define and refine previously unclear requirements.

Evolutionary prototyping uses an interactive process for implementing external feedback, identifying new requirements and confirming compatibility as new requirements are added. In a way, evolutionary prototypes are similar to a minimum viable product or MVP, but instead of starting with basic, minimum features, development begins with only those features that are clearly identified and understood.

Benefits of Evolutionary Prototyping

  • Assists in understanding all specified software requirements
  • Makes it easier to detect missing features needed to carry out the intended functionality of the final product
  • Results in a more widely accepted software product, as stakeholder feedback drives feature development

3. Incremental Prototyping

Incremental prototyping is the only feasible model for enterprise software, because enterprise applications are typically modular and require significant integrations. In this type of prototyping, multiple, smaller prototypes are developed for each feature of the comprehensive software solution. Once all such prototypes are developed, they are combined into a single big prototype that represents the actual software.

Incremental prototyping requires tight collaboration

A clear distinction in incremental prototyping is that all developers and development requires proper synchronization. Otherwise, each smaller prototype may appear to be from a different software product, and the final result may look disjointed.

Benefits of Incremental Prototyping

  • The only prototyping model feasible for enterprise-level software
  • Very flexible, as smaller models are easier to execute changes
  • Good at finding defective code, as troubleshooting is restricted to smaller portions of the application

4. Extreme Prototyping

Extreme prototyping is specifically used in web development and divided into three stages, with the second stage being the most important. Critical to these stages are the various layers of an extreme prototype model: the presentation layer or user interface and service layers – communication, business logic and authorization.

The three stages of extreme prototyping:

1: Prepare an HTML build to represent the presentation layer

2: Convert the prototype into a fully functional model by connecting it with the service layers

3: Finalize the production by implementing the service layers

Benefits of Extreme Prototyping

  • Huge time-savings by eliminating all unproductive activities in the web development process
  • The various stages of extreme prototyping make it easier to demonstrate a web development project at all levels

Selecting the Best Software Prototyping Model for your Project

Even with the aforementioned details, you still may find it hard to pick the right model for your project. The only exceptions being extreme prototyping for developing a simple straight forward website and incremental prototyping for complex enterprise software applications.

Otherwise, for developing full-fledged solutions, you can opt for rapid, evolutionary or extreme prototyping. If the software development project is too large and complex then it can be handled well with incremental prototyping. On the other hand, if the software is being developed in various sprints like in agile methodology, then go for rapid prototyping.

Evolutionary prototyping is only helpful in cases where the software requirements are unclear or not understood well.

Rapid prototypingWhen developing software in sprints
Evolutionary prototypingWhen the software requirements are unclear
Incremental prototypingWhen developing an enterprise-level software
Extreme prototypingWhen developing a website

Software Prototyping Process

A business or entrepreneur can follow these steps to develop a highly efficient prototype:

Define Software Requirements

In the first step, the entrepreneur is required to define all primary feature requirements of the software. He/she can go into detail about the most important features that are required for the basic functionality of the product. In contrast, details of secondary features such as software security, settings option and an intuitive interface can be added later.

Create the Initial Interface

Once the software requirements are developed, a simple interface with minimum efforts is designed to showcase those features. This is called the initial prototype, which may not be fully functional but aims at resolving key problematic areas with the defined requirements and establishes an interface-like structure.

Review the Prototype

After setting up the interface, analyze it from various angles. Demonstrate features and added functionality to all stakeholders to confirm the direction of the project stays on track. Also get your prototype reviewed by test users, who can recommend the missing features and help you ameliorate the prototype. Note that in case of incremental prototypes, getting test user feedback can be costly and time consuming, so you may want to pass on getting early adopter feedback on all builds.

Improve the Prototype

Repeat the aforementioned steps, iterating improvements based on stakeholder and tester feedback until you develop a prototype that accurately demonstrates targeted application functionality. The final prototype should also be sound and capable enough for public demonstrations and developing the actual product.

Advantages of Software Prototyping

Visual Representation

Prototypes give you a better idea of the product by providing a visual model of the idealized software. Entrepreneurs, stakeholders and testers use prototype models to understand functionality and features. All stakeholders can check whether the prototype matches expectations and get a feel for what to expect from further development. This assists in strategic planning and establishing an attainable goal for the final product launch.

Risk Detection

The best part about developing prototypes is that nothing is concrete. As stakeholder requests are added and tested in the prototype, problem areas are often identified and malfunctions can be removed. Along with risk detection, prototype evaluation assists in identifying challenges and problems that can come with software when moved into production.

Head Start

Prototypes act as a training model for the final software. Furthermore, instead of identifying issues post launch that would tarnish the brand image, prototypes assist in resolving problematic areas beforehand. All this ensures a quick and well-gauged start that is not only less costly but also time saving.

Opens Scope for Innovation

Alongside identification of risks, prototypes assist in identifying and refining your most valuable software features. Smart developers and entrepreneurs will add complementary features or plan future upgrades for adding value. You may also identify unique selling points that differentiate your product and ensure that future upgrades do not interfere with any high-value features.

Disadvantages of Software Prototyping

Can Result in Indecisiveness

A prototype is often tested by multiple people, who may disagree on occasion. Also, a feature can turn out to have both benefits and disadvantages, which can increase the challenges of feature selection. If and when these things occur, your software prototype model may generate more indecisiveness than improvements.

Solution: Careful selection of testers and thorough budget analysis

Cost of Multiple Prototypes

Prototypes can be developed at various stages and will be equally helpful at all times you develop them. However, it is not possible for small brands to develop multiple prototypes for a single project. Although a prototype only costs a part of what it takes to develop the final software, developing multiple prototypes can send smaller and even larger brands over budget.

Solution: Do more investment in the first prototype and get it reviewed by as many relevant people as possible

Alternatives to Prototyping

Prototypes serve multiple purposes, but there are alternatives developers and entrepreneurs can try. Keep in mind that the usefulness and effectiveness of each alternative will vary.

1. MVP

An MVP is similar to an evolutionary prototype, but there’s also a big difference. An MVP only includes the bare minimum features to carry out the primary functions of the product. Along with demonstration purposes, an MVP is used more for market validation purposes, which is, whether the targeted market will like the product and the business idea is profitable.

2. POC

Proof of Concept (POC) is a bigger concept inclusive of an MVP that solely focuses on proving the feasibility of an idea in real-world conditions. In general, a POC is required by investors to predict their return on investment. If the product shows higher returns, then it is considered worthy of investment. Although a POC does not need to be functional, the more elaborative it is the better. For this reason, a POC is also inclusive of an MVP. Once the POC is prepared, an entrepreneur can move forward towards developing a prototype.

Conclusion

Entrepreneurs at various levels develop software prototype models to visualize or test market their idealized product. Prototypes can also demonstrate the actual functionality of the software to ensure investors are satisfied and improve time to market. However, the selection of the right prototype for your specific project is critical to success. Along with software prototypes, entrepreneurs and business owners can also opt for alternatives like MVPs and POCs. Finally, to reduce overall development costs, you may also consider hiring a prototyping software development company that also develops MVPs and POCs.

About Ramesh Lal

Ramesh Lal is a Senior Digital Marketing Executive at FATbit Technologies. He has extensive expertise assisting businesses with streamlining their business operations and launching new ventures. With in-depth knowledge of B2B marketing, Ramesh also assists B2B businesses in reaching new customers and securing conversions.