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Merriam-Webster dictionary defines prototype as “An original or first model of something from which other forms are copied or developed.         

Prototyping is a favorite technique of inventors and it is as old as the early human inventions. Prototyping is very popular among mechanical and civil engineers. I practically experienced prototyping while working for a sugar machinery manufacturing company in the year 1991. My manager gave me an assignment to prototype a balancing system in AutoCAD®, a design and drafting software. While doing the prototype, we got plenty of improvement insights which we would not have identified otherwise.

We were able to manufacture the machinery within time and budget and it perfectly met the business and stakeholder requirements.

Many product development companies in the Information Technology industry adopted the prototyping technique and achieved great success in developing sound and superior products. But even today, these successful companies are just outliers. A majority of the companies have not yet reaped the benefits of prototyping. The reasons are two fold. One there is not much awareness about prototyping. Second, prototyping is seen as an added cost to the project. Of course prototyping doesn’t come free-of-cost. I would call this cost as a preventive cost rather than an additional cost.

The cost of not doing prototype far outweighs the cost of doing prototype.

Also there is a great confusion out there about what constitutes prototyping. Some say it is storyboard, others point to wireframes and yet others believe it is simulation. Let us clarify it here.

Storyboard

Storyboard is a panel or series of panels on which a set of sketches is arranged depicting consecutively the important changes of scene and action in a series of shots (as for a film, television show, or commercial). – Merriam Webster. The below image is a storyboard for a product (courtesy: web.mit.edu). Storyboards are good to capture the key stages involved in a product with the workflows at a high level. Storyboards are typically prepared on a cardboard with captivating images, textual descriptions and the sequence of events.

Storyboard technique came from the animation and movie industry.

But now widely adopted in the Information Technology and Appliance industry to summarize an application or process or to communicate the operation sequence to an user on a single page.

Wireframe is a visualization tool for presenting proposed functions, structure and content of a webpage or website. – Webopedia. The below image is a wireframe (courtesy: wireframesketcher.com).

Wireframes depict a particular state’s layout in a detailed manner with fields and controls.

Wireframe is a great tool to understand, plan and to communicate the layout of a given screen/state of an application or a website.

Wireframe

Simulation

Simulation is the imitative representation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of another – Merriam Webster. In the below image the stress induced on the body of the vehicle is the focus of study (Courtesy: globalstressengineers.info). So simulation is to study a particular parameter of the proposed system in a detailed manner.

Simulation Prototype

Prototype is something that gives a holistic picture about the proposed product or software. It explains the states like a wireframe, workflows like a storyboard and interactions like a real software. In addition it also captures the look and feel.

Prototype is a close mimic to the real Software.

In short, if I use all the wireframes and seamlessly connect them through the workflows then it will be a prototype. Prototype explains how each field, controls and workflows behaves in a real system.

Prototype

In terms of the details depicted in the prototype, they are classified as lo-fidelity prototypes and hi-fidelity prototypes. If one considers a continuum with extremes as requirements document on one side and the real software on the other end, then lo-fidelity prototypes and hi-fidelity prototypes fall in between them in the same order. We have two methods of prototyping. One is paper-prototype and the other is digital-prototype. This article focuses on the benefits of paper-prototype and how it can help us improve the products.

The fidelity of a prototype is measured on four parameters such as functionality, reality, look and interaction. Functionality refers to the degree of representation of the products functionality. Reality refers to how much it mimics. Look is how close it is in visual appeal to the proposed system. Interaction refers to the degree of activities a user can perform on the prototype. Some of the software that are used in digital-prototyping has exceptional hi-fidelity features. The paper-prototype falls little short on all the above four parameters [functionality, reality, look and interaction] compared to the digital-prototype as paper-prototype is lo-fidelity prototype.

In spite of lo-fidelity, I strongly recommend paper-prototype for the following reasons.

  • Paper-prototype is less expensive as it requires only few stationery items such as pen, paper, scissor, sticker etc. A business analyst can easily learn this technique and get started with his work and need not have to spend several days to learn a software. Each software that offers prototyping has its limitations, meaning you may not be able to perform everything you think about. But in case of paper-prototype, the BA’s creativity is the limit and not the technique.
  • As you might have noticed that our stakeholders are concrete people and we business analysts are abstract people. Abstract thinkers can build a ‘castle in thin air’, which is very difficult for the concrete people. This is precisely we face that many of our stakeholders are not in a position to give the comments on the requirements document, but were able to do so when presented the software for UAT. When things are live-and-kicking in front of them they are able to comment on the software but are not able to visualize based on the requirements documents. By doing the paper-prototype we provide them an opportunity to play with things that are concrete.
  • Paper-prototyping may depict a technology product, but is free from technology. I mean we are not using any software to create the prototype. This enables all the stakeholders to easily participate in the prototyping process and in the review sessions. Because sometimes, business users stay away claiming they are not so good on the technology part. Here it is just pen and paper!
  • Even with hundreds of states (may be in a very complex software) one can do paper-prototype, where one can see all the states. This is not possible in digital-prototype as one state will be visible at a time.

Paper-prototype can be used both for developing new products as well as to improve existing products.

Paper-Prototyping: New Product Development

Once the requirements specification and technical specification documents are ready and agreed by the stakeholders, paper-prototyping can be started. Typically for a software of medium complexity it take around 3 days and all the stakeholders need to be involved in this exercise of prototype development. The prerequisites to conduct the paper-prototyping session are necessary stationery materials, process maps, storyboards, wireframes and requirements specification & technical specification documents.

On the day of the paper-prototyping session all the stakeholders will gather in a large conference room with either a long table or wall space for displaying the paper-prototypes. The facilitator role normally played by a business analyst who will conduct a small session for the stakeholders to explain them what is all about paper-prototyping and its benefits.

Once the stakeholders are clear about the agenda for the prototyping session, the business analyst will handover the respective set of requirements, storyboards, wireframes and process maps to the stakeholders for development and work along with them till the completion. This whole exercise may take a day and then the team will review the completed prototype. During the review, as the paper-prototype does not display results like a digital-prototype, the participants should speak out what he is doing and what the result he is getting.

In case of new product development, paper-prototype helps the team to get a superior understanding of the product. It also helps them to point out inconsistencies in the interfaces and missing requirements, workflows, reports, fields and controls. As we indicated earlier, our stakeholders are concrete people. When we present something tangible, they are able to interact with that, understand the application and able to make comments. This is what happens when we present the software for their review. But by doing paper-prototyping we give similar opportunity to the stakeholders well before implementation. Since the stakeholders are able to interact with the prototype they give their comments at this stage itself and it helps the UAT smoothly sails through, which results in huge cost and time saving as there are minimal or no changes required on the implemented software.

Paper-Prototyping-Existing Product Improvement:

The exercise is almost similar to what we have done in New Product Development (NPD), but the major difference is that the product is already available. The first and foremost activity is aligning the product and the requirements and technical specification documents. Many-a-times, after UAT the changes are implemented in the product, but no corresponding updates are done in the documents. This results in different versions between the document and the implemented system. Once this is ensured, the rest of the activities are almost same.

After completing the prototype, the stakeholders will walk-through the prototype and list out the improvement opportunities and at the end of the exercise the identified opportunities will be prioritized for implementation.

I urge product development companies to instill the skill of paper-prototyping in their teams to design sound products. Simple does not mean less powerful.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication –  Leonardo da Vinci

Certified Prototyping Specialist [CPS]:

Fhyzics, recently launched a certification on prototyping. The enrolled participants go through five online video conference sessions and two practical sessions on prototyping. The course covers both paper-prototyping and digital-prototyping. On successful completion of the sessions they will appear for a three-hour practical examination held in major cities.

CPS is a Case Study based Examination.

During the examination the participants will develop the paper-prototype and digital-prototype for the given case studies. The participants need to secure 70% marks to be certified as CPS.

 

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