Software Prototype - Why It Is Essential and How to Build It?

Karolina Kurcwald

prototyping software development

Imagine you are developing your next big project. Let’s say it is a Web app that will be used by thousands of people and will take months to develop.

This means a lot of billable hours for your developers, designers, and UX experts.

Several months have passed and the app is ready. You are pretty satisfied with it. Although it has some flaws, but what app doesn’t at first? You’re going to improve it soon, but – as they say – done is better than perfect, right? And you decide to release it to the market (or maybe first do beta tests on a selected group of users).

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And the feedback is crushing. You overlooked a thing that is essential to the users, but adding it will basically mean rebuilding the app.

Or, the UX flow is so confusing to people it makes the app unusable (or hard to use, at best), although you thought it was fine. Whatever it is, you have just wasted many hours (and a lot of money), because of something that nobody thought of in the initial phase. And you need to get back to work. More work.

This happens a lot. Probably more than you think. But could you have avoided it, or some of it? You could have. If you had built a prototype first.

What is Software Prototyping?

A prototype is an essential part of the process of creating web software or a mobile app. During the prototyping process developers, designers, and end users can quickly review the user flow and design, and give important feedback on how to improve it. When you prototype, you get the chance to test your product way before you actually start working on it, and address any key pain points in advance.

Prototyping is one of the five stages of design thinking – a methodology for creating solutions to complex problems using creative techniques. In simple words, it means building one or several scaled-down versions of your product or a specific feature. It might be as simple as pen on paper sketches and mockups, or as complex as a simplified coded version of a functioning app.

Prototyping helps you test your ideas early on, and make changes before you and your team have done a lot of expensive work. Building a functional prototype lets you work with your users or your client before you launch the final product. It also allows you to get valuable feedback, with enough time and budget to improve it.

If you’re worried you don’t have the time to prototype, remember that a prototype doesn’t have to involve coding at all. It can be a simple mockup done by your designer or UX expert, basing on which you can draw up the interactions and plan your work.

Software Prototyping Process

The prototyping process itself has many stages and you can use it even if you are not really using design thinking as a whole concept. These are the key steps to follow:

1. Understand the landscape.

Carefully analyze the market and your own strategy. Investigate what technology you need and what you have available.
Focus on your future vision and build software with that vision in mind. This basic knowledge is necessary to build software that will represent your business needs and will be a good market fit.

2. Identify core requirements.

Look at the problems from the user’s perspective and try to solve them. In order to do that try talking to your potential or current customers. Ask them what they would like to see in such an app or software. Do they really need it and why?

3. Do your research.

Find out if there is any existing software that solves the same problem. Research your competitors and try to find more details about the competitive products. How is your product going to be different? That knowledge will help you define your unique selling proposition. Check out potential blockers and opportunities for your process.

4. Develop an initial prototype.

Use pen and paper or special prototyping tools and draw up a basic version of your product. The features you develop at this stage depend on the goal of your prototype. In general, you should focus on high impact features first. Solve potential complexities at this point, too – don’t leave them for later. Focus on the whole user experience and identify problematic areas you need to fix.

5. Test and review the prototype.

Evaluate it with your users and stakeholders. Identify any potential pain points and highlights of the product. Additionally, use it as an opportunity to drive customer engagement. Ask the people testing the prototype for their opinion, as the user’s views can also provide you with extremely valuable marketing material.

6. Revise and improve the prototype.

Use the collected feedback to change and improve the prototype. Tweaks are still easy to be made at this stage and they don’t cost the time of your developers. Once again, test it with potential end users and make sure that you got it right this time.

7. Repeat.

If important questions and unknowns remain at this stage, repeat the whole process until you can get rid of them and finalize the prototyping process. You can also go through the process again in order to test additional ideas to enhance your product.

Prototyping process

Prototyping process

A Few Guidelines For Beginners

Now, you may think that the process of prototyping may seem time-consuming, but you don’t want to waste even more time and money on the next project you are about to start without a prototype, so you decide to go for it. To make the process easier and more effective, there are some simple guidelines you could follow:

  1. Just start building – it will help you materialize your ideas and quickly decide if they are worth exploring. Once you get to work, you can build up on the simple things to explore more ideas and dive deeper into the user journey.
  2. Don’t spend too much time on it – the longer you work on it, the more attached you get to your ideas. The whole point of prototyping is challenging assumptions and experimenting with new ideas, remember?
  3. Always think of the user. Their needs and behavior are what should guide your work at all stages of product development. The initial analysis will provide you with relevant background information, while the testing phase will verify your assumptions. Use this knowledge to build great software.
  4. Remember what you are testing for – don’t lose sight of the goal of your prototype. What is it that you really want to test? At the same time, be open to other lessons you can learn in the process (and there will probably be many).

If you have enough time, it might also be a good idea to focus on choosing the right tools – you can create quick and simple low-fi prototypes that can be tested immediately or more complex high-fi prototypes that are closer to the final products in terms of interactivity, look and feel, but their production is more time-consuming and might potentially delay the whole project. On the other hand, a lot of useful and detailed insights can be discovered while creating a hi-fi prototype–so it’s your call to make. Base the decision on your goals.

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 Download a product spec template here

Why is Prototyping Important?

Prototyping will, most likely, make the development process longer. At least at the beginning. However, the initial time you spend on this task can actually save you more time and money later on. Let’s have a closer look at other benefits of prototyping:

Not only can it save your company a fortune by helping you avoid problems you could anticipate at this stage, but it can also give you the opportunity to research user needs better, and prevent some of your work from going down the drain

There is a multitude of prototyping tools available, and many of them are free and easy to use – such as pen and paper. This makes prototyping cheap, easy and fast.

If you agree on the design and functionality early on, you will get a visual guide to the finished product, which makes further development work easier with no need to explain every detail to developers. At the same time, you can create a more realistic timeline and budget for the development of your app or software.

The more you know about your project early on, the better you can prepare for the work ahead. You can acknowledge problems or limitations, especially ones you haven’t thought of at the beginning of the prototyping process. Also, you may find additional requirements you need to follow. All of these may ultimately lead you to creating a more complete product that will satisfy your users’ needs better.

As part of prototyping, you get early user acceptance testing. People can test your product at an early stage and provide you with valuable user feedback, so you can implement changes sooner rather than later and avoid the above-mentioned extra costs.

Last but not least, you get to innovate. Trying out “crazy” ideas at this stage is easier than when you are working full steam and they become too risky.

Can You Afford NOT to Prototype?

If you want to save money and time, you simply can’t afford to skip this process.

Prototyping is essential if you want to test your ideas and find new solutions before you engage in the lengthy process of software development. You probably don’t have the time NOT to prototype – and code the whole thing all over again.

Time concerned? Just build it into your workflow and project timelines as one of the necessary stages, and it will become natural.

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