The idea of rapid prototyping has existed in physical industries such as design and engineering for many decades. Producing scale models to demonstrate appearance and functionality can save you time, reduce costs and improve innovation.
Today, rapid prototyping is built into many people’s daily experience of interacting with online technology. Tech companies run public facing beta versions of software and apps to get early user feedback on a concept, for example Instagram’s game changing Stories feature. The soft rollout of a new product from its earliest stages offers opportunities for invaluable consumer testing that ultimately helps the product develop in a way that really works for the user. Sometimes you even end up with something quite different and even more useful, which is exactly what happened when we took on a project for a client working with the Ministry of Defence on a multi-billion-pound engineering contract.
Our task was to create a piece of software to help manage a complex, large scale project on which multiple teams were already working concurrently. As well as bringing together several pre-existing systems, the challenge was to create something that would work for the two ends of the project with very different requirements. Management wanted a system that gave them specific details on the status of different parts of the operation, while engineers who didn’t necessarily need this sort of big picture information need to be able to easily interact with the system when required. This meant creating something that brought everyone together in a highly visual and user-friendly virtual environment.
With this level of potential conflict, it was immediately clear than spending months away from the end users building every detail of the application in the hope it would suit all the stakeholders wasn’t going to fly. We needed to get potential users from each area of the company involved in development from the earliest possible stages.
Ghyston approached this project by working just on the front end, which meant we were able to demonstrate the software’s different functions and interface without having to do any of the heavy lifting required to make the back-end work. In effect we created quick operational ‘sketches’ and from which we received immediate feedback. This way of working meant we could produce everything on a laptop, with no need to save the project on to the company’s servers. This meant that we avoided being slowed down by the high level security sign off required for access to military servers.
In this case, rapid prototyping meant we were able to quickly find out what would and wouldn’t work for users upfront. In some cases we discovered that particular elements of the project were not as useful as expected, while other features turned up surprising benefits. Of course, the stage that follows rapid prototyping is inevitably slower and costlier, but from the feedback received we knew we wouldn’t be wasting any money building the wrong thing.
When you save time and money, you have the freedom to explore alternative possibilities, something that ultimately increases innovation. Early on, we discovered that one of the smaller pieces of functionality we had prototyped was going to be profoundly useful to all employees. As the software was bringing together a number of existing systems, test users saw that it would allow them to bypass the previously laborious method of raising requests through print outs or filling in online forms. The high levels of enthusiasm meant we were able to double down and make this a major feature of the end product.
For all of these benefits, there is one major drawback to rapid prototyping and it’s something we are always careful to raise with clients early on. The speed and versatility that rapid prototyping offers is not sustainable in the subsequent stages of development. We might have saved time and money and come up with wonderfully innovative solutions, but that doesn’t escape the fact the labour intensive work of building a robust product still has to be done!