Starting software projects can be daunting.
No wonder. An enterprise-level software project requires a significant time investment for stakeholders, and significant investment from your company budget. You should be cautious when beginning this kind of undertaking.
But if you stay daunted, you’ll never improve your technology stack and enjoy the benefits of a software project. At some point, you need to start—and if you wait until it’s too late, the competition and your customer base may pass you by.
The good news is, you don’t have to start with a massive project. You can start with a prototype instead. This approach can bring tangible benefits much more quickly, at a much lower cost investment.
It’s like putting a toe in the water to see what the temperature is. It helps you get ready for the next step, without the initial shock or splash-back of a cannonball.
WHAT IS A PROTOTYPE?
A software prototype can take a few different forms.
Some prototypes demonstrate the user experience and workflow of a web or mobile app. These prototypes may be clickable but are not truly functional. We often use Marvel App to create these kinds of prototypes to make sure we’re 100 percent on the same page with our clients before we begin building custom software.
Prototypes for software-driven products are more robust because they are actually functional. But they don’t have all the features or polish that market-ready product would have. IoT prototypes sometimes function this way, because it is imperative to prove that the connectivity and controls are working correctly.
No matter what form the prototype takes, it is meant to be a low-fidelity version of the planned business or customer-facing application. The goal is to create something quickly that can be used to gather information so that what you actually build is the right fit for your business and your customers.
BENEFITS OF A PROTOTYPE
Now that we’ve talked about what a prototype is, let’s discuss five ways building a prototype can benefit your business.
1. Prototypes help people imagine
When you have an idea for a business application or customer-facing web or mobile app, it’s exciting. You can see the possibilities and can’t wait to tell people about it.
Then you tell people and… blank stares.
The first time this happens, you think the problem is yours. So you refine your elevator pitch and practice it in the mirror. You go back out there and… crickets.
Now you’re feeling pretty depressed. You might even start to doubt your idea.
But you shouldn’t. That’s because the problem probably isn’t your idea. The problem is that translating an idea into reality is challenging.
Here’s the secret about what causes blank stares and crickets—a lack of imagination. People can’t picture something that’s just an idea. They need it to be tangible. This isn’t a problem. It’s human nature. So you need a tool to help you deal with the way people really are.
A prototype makes your idea tangible—which helps people actually imagine how wonderful your idea is.
Bye, bye, blank stares. Adios, crickets.
At Worthwhile, we use an established, proven process to build software. We know that going step by step leads to the best result in the end. But often, our clients don’t really get that A-HA moment until they see the prototype for the first time.
That’s a big reason prototypes are so valuable. They let people not just see, but really understand how a custom business application will really work.
We have multiple clients who have hired us to build a prototype that will help them build a customer base before the actual business application is built. By presenting a prototype that depicts the workflow, user experience, and functional benefits of what the app will eventually be, they are able to have better conversations with their end users. In the end, these clients could plan their web or mobile applications with scope closer to what users actually needed, which gave them more success at launch and beyond.
2. Prototypes clarify decisions
Prototypes can also provide incredible clarity about what your app needs to do—or whether you even need to build it.
We worked with a company that benefited from this clarity. This medical devices company had the idea to connect one of their products using Internet of Things technology. The engineering department wanted to build a working prototype to prove the value of this IoT product to the company as a whole. We worked with this company to develop a prototype within a rapid timeframe so they could take it to their board.
Worthwhile’s developers got the product working as planned, and the client’s engineering department demonstrated it at a board meeting. The C-level suite was impressed by the functionality. But in the conversations that ensued, the marketing department determined that the company couldn’t charge any additional money for a connected product vs. a traditional product. So the company killed the project.
This was a huge win! (I know, a dead project doesn’t feel like a win, but hear me out.) For a minimal investment of time and money, this company got an incredibly clear and actionable answer about whether a connected device was the right product for them to offer. Now everyone in the company is on the same page and knows it’s time to move forward and develop other product offerings.
Because a prototype is tangible, it eliminates uncertainty. You can give specific answers to questions like:
- What will it do?
- How will it work?
- Will customers pay extra?
- How much will it cost?
- Should we proceed with this project?
Eliminating uncertainty leads to clearer, more effective decisions. This is why Worthwhile uses prototypes in our major software builds, and it can be a great reason for your business to use them as well.
In addition, having a prototype makes the build process smoother. Product engineer Mike Lee put it this way: “Having a prototype the team can access whenever they want serves as a compass to help guide the team through the development process.”
3. Prototypes increase buy-in
Prototypes also benefit your business by giving you a powerful tool to create buy-in.
This is a necessity if…
- You’re trying to get an executive sponsor for your idea
- You’re trying to recruit investors, whether friends and family or angels
- You’re trying to crowd-fund a B2C mobile app or web application
For example, we have a client that recently turned a prototype IoT project into a successful half-million-dollar Kickstarter campaign. The power of the prototype proved the market was there, and now their business is off to a profitable start.
Often, an individual department in a corporation has the authority to approve and pay for a prototype for a reasonable amount of money (usually $10,000 or less). In this case, the department pays to build the prototype and then uses it to show executives how the business application or software-related product will benefit the company as a whole. The prototype is the key that unlocks C-level buy-in and ultimately the authorization for the software project.
The same thing can happen for companies looking for angel investors or early-adopter customers. The prototype helps them see the value in the software product and helps loosen the purse strings.
4. Prototypes jump-start user testing
Users are creative. Or maybe crazy. Or a little of both. Whenever a new software system or product is released, you will get feedback that you never could have expected. This feedback may unveil needed changes or sources of confusion. It may spark new ideas that take your offering to the next level. It may even tell you to go back to the drawing board. No matter what the user feedback is, If you know how to listen, you will find it incredibly valuable.
Prototypes can allow you to gather some of this crucial user feedback before you even build the software. This can save duplicated software development cost and effort (more on that in a second) and make the product or software you launch more effective from day one.
We are working with a Tier 1 automotive manufacturer on a business application that will touch dozens of stakeholders in multiple departments. We started with a prototype that all the stakeholders had a chance to review. The result was a lot of good conversation that clearly defined scope, brought up nuanced ideas, and increased buy-in. This step made everyone more excited and also answered questions before the software development process to make that step more efficient as well. By moving user testing earlier in the process, the end result was both better and easier to reach.
5. Prototypes reduce wasted time and money
When prototypes provide business clarity and elicit user feedback, they make a software build or product launch more efficient. And that saves money. Whether you’re saving the work capacity of an internal team or avoiding hourly fees for your software developer, efficiency creates measurable cost savings.
That’s a good way to start to calculate the ROI of a prototype—by measuring the cost of prototyping against the cost savings of efficiency.
Even better, efficiency reduces the timeline of development, so you gain the benefits of launching and capturing revenue more quickly. This often means that taking the time to create a prototype first actually saves time on the overall timeline.
The goal of a prototype isn’t to get everything right on the first draft. The goal is to learn so you can iterate.
This may lead to changes in your plan or in your feature set.
This may even lead to a seismic change (or stoppage) in your project.
If you’re willing to listen and learn, the prototype process can be incredibly valuable. We have seen multiple clients benefit when we work with them to create a prototype. We’ve heard even more stories of companies that found internal prototypes to be just as vital.
So find ways to put the power of prototypes to work in your business.