BMW showcased a prototype of their hybrid sports coup, known as the i8, at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2013. This sleek, 135-mpg marvel of technology accelerates from zero to sixty in 4.5 seconds. The production version, that you can purchase at a cost-conscious price point of $135,000, was further refined to traverse streets that have little in common with Tron. The objective of the prototype is simple - validate, test, and build a better product by using customer insight and feedback. In BMW's case, the designers found out that the vehicle was to be driven on planet earth. This article, then, is about the tools and processes Devbridge has developed to facilitate Rapid Prototyping in an evolving software space and how they address common pitfalls in enterprise software design.
Our financial services and manufacturing clients today leverage custom software to differentiate in a saturated market through higher efficiency, better user experience, and deeper data-driven insights. While off-the-shelf products have a role to play in the enterprise, our clients, and more specifically, the restless pioneers that facilitate strategic change, understand that one-size-fits-all in front-end applications is a mediocre strategy that drives lukewarm results. Furthermore, as many have learned - designing successful digital products is not simple.
The following should resonate with your past experiences:
- Strategic initiatives require alignment and sponsorship from the c-suite. The executive team, however, avoids commitment without demonstrated interest from customers (internal or external), as well as a tangible prototype that helps them visualize what success may look like.
- While the IT department may seem like the cost-advantageous route to take, they are seldom sitting idle. Their focus is distributed around supporting critical business operations and exposure to market trends is limited due to being embedded inside the company and industry. Sourcing resources alone may take months.
- Historic track record of custom software projects going over budget and missing target deadlines further deteriorates the confidence of all involved. The organization lacks a proven, market-tested approach to delivering results.
- And last, but not least, successful product delivery to market requires a rare skill set that combines User Experience design, web and mobile engineering expertise, quality assurance, dev ops, market research, user testing and more! Nurturing this expertise for banks in-house is about as simple as Devbridge releasing their own currency (even if my mug would look ridiculously good on a bank note).
Unless you are planning on acquiring a software design company (and many market leaders have done that in recent years), you face these challenges and fume over the lack of speed, thought leadership, and creativity. You are also going to love our Rapid Prototyping workflow, as many others have to date.
Prior to diving into the anatomy of what a Rapid Prototype looks like, let’s establish where this approach is applicable and will guarantee success. First, you’ve eliminated all of the software that already exists in the market. It either does not match your expectations of quality, does not exist because you are solving a very unique challenge, or does not facilitate a new service or workflow that is technology-enabled (e.g. fleet of tractors is generating IoT data that can help improve farmer efficiency while gathering crops). Second, the scope of the software is large enough where multiple releases into market will be necessary to fine tune the performance, validate with users and so on. Obviously, with scope comes duration and cost, so we’re interested in hedging our risk, failing fast and often, and designing the solution based on real-world customer feedback versus embarking on a multi-year build that doesn’t see the light of day. But more on that later.
Now that we’re ready to start, we should discuss what we’re trying to get out of the engagement. First, we want speed. The faster we can source the requirements and validate this concept, the sooner we can differentiate our service in the industry and capture market share with a fully developed software platform. Second, we want collaboration from key stakeholders within the enterprise that understand customers well, have access to insights, and recognize the need. Great products are not built by the person writing spec documents, nor are they built in isolation. Third, we want to have iterative feedback cycles built-in, where assumptions are validated with customers (again, can be internal or external users) and the product evolves prior to a significant investment in time and funds. So by building a cross-organizational team we blend the best of both worlds - our expertise in designing and building great software and your expertise in your business.
Prototypes can vary in complexity and depth based on challenges being solved. From a low-fidelity concept delivered in a couple of weeks, to a multi-month R&D dive with integration spikes, user testing sessions and so on. Fundamentally, however, all prototypes have similar activities taking place throughout:
- Team kicks off with a lean requirements workshop. The workshop usually takes half a day and engages stakeholders, customers, designers and engineers in a collaborative environment where technical and user requirements are captured through story mapping, persona analysis, affinity mapping, prioritization and release planning.
- While the story map is being converted into a detailed backlog, the teams ideate by creating low fidelity wireframes (sketches that capture workflows and rudimentary user experience) that are then reviewed by the stakeholders for consensus.
- In parallel, engineering teams may be diving into integration spikes that validate available APIs, establish data structures necessary to support core features, and other areas of technical risk (in other words, things that are beyond the control of the team).
- By combining Interface Design with the wireframes, the team quickly builds an interactive prototype that leverages work completed in all previous steps. Back-end engineers feed data into the front-end application and the prototype is presented to stakeholders for the second review.
- Once satisfactory fidelity and quantity of features is prototyped, the platform can be exposed to a select audience of customers that are presented with various tests. Special software tracks mouse movement and the user's ability to reach objectives, as well as areas that the user's focus is falling on.
As I’ve mentioned previously, a prototype can be as simple as an interactive mockup, or as complex as a fully functional, data-driven application. Rapid Prototyping deliverables, however, are consistent across all:
- A backlog that defines the MVP and beyond
- A hosted prototype
- A detailed release plan and build strategy
- An estimate for the Minimum Viable Product
This comprehensive packet enables enterprises to face and overcome the challenges I’ve outlined above. It aligns stakeholders and sponsors, improves upon the original idea through collaboration, trials the concept with a set of customers (internal or external), as well as provides a tangible toolkit for testing the market. Actively leveraged in the automotive industry, the prototype has now entered the software space and there's rubber to burn.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about our Rapid Prototyping process. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have experiences to share or would like to discuss how this approach applies to your organization.