Prototyping

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The goal of a prototyping-based development process is to counter the first limitation of the waterfall model. The basic idea here is that instead of freezing the requirements before any design or coding can proceed, a throwaway prototype is built to help understand the requirements. This prototype is developed based on the currently known requirements. Development of the prototype obviously undergoes design, coding, and testing, but each of these phases is not done very formally or thoroughly. By using this prototype, the client can get an actual feel of the system, which can enable the client to better understand the requirements of the desired system. This results in more stable requirements that change less frequently.

Prototyping is an attractive idea for complicated and large systems for which there is no manual process or existing system to help determine the requirements. In such situations, letting the client “play” with the prototype provides invaluable and intangible inputs that help determine the requirements for the system. It is also an effective method of demonstrating the feasibility of a certain approach. This might be needed for novel systems, where it is not clear that constraints can be met or that algorithms can be developed to implement the requirements. In both situations, the risks associated with the projects are being reduced through the use of prototyping. The process model of the prototyping approach is shown in Figure.

The prototyping model.png

A development process using throwaway prototyping typically proceeds as follows. The development of the prototype typically starts when the preliminary version of the requirements specification document has been developed. At this stage, there is a reasonable understanding of the system and its needs and which needs are unclear or likely to change. After the prototype has been developed, the end users and clients are given an opportunity to use and explore the prototype. Based on their experience, they provide feedback to the developers regarding the prototype: what is correct, what needs to be modified, what is missing, what is not needed, etc. Based on the feedback, the prototype is modified to incorporate some of the suggested changes that can be done easily, and then the users and the clients are again allowed to use the system. This cycle repeats until, in the judgment of the prototype developers and analysts, the benefit from further changing the system and obtaining feedback is outweighed by the cost and time involved in making the changes and obtaining the feedback. Based on the feedback, the initial requirements are modified to produce the final requirements specification, which is then used to develop the production quality system.

For prototyping for the purposes of requirement analysis to be feasible, its cost must be kept low. Consequently, only those features are included in the prototype that will have a valuable return from the user experience. Exception handling, recovery, and conformance to some standards and formats are typically not included in prototypes. In prototyping, as the prototype is to be discarded, there is no point in implementing those parts of the requirements that are already well understood. Hence, the focus of the development is to include those features that are not properly understood. And the development approach is “quick and dirty” with the focus on quick development rather than quality. Because the prototype is to be thrown away, only minimal documentation needs to be produced during prototyping. For example, design documents, a test plan, and a test case specification are not needed during the development of the prototype. Another important cost-cutting measure is to reduce testing.

Because testing consumes a major part of development expenditure during regular software development, this has a considerable impact in reducing costs. By using these types of cost-cutting methods, it is possible to keep the cost of the prototype to less than a few percent of the total development cost.

And the returns from this extra cost can be substantial. First, the experience of developing the prototype will reduce the cost of the actual software development. Second, as requirements will be more stable now due to the feedback from the prototype, there will be fewer changes in the requirements. Consequently the costs incurred due to changes in the requirements will be substantially reduced. Third, the quality of final software is likely to be far superior, as the experience engineers have obtained while developing the prototype will enable them to create a better design, write better code, and do better testing. And finally, developing a prototype mitigates many risks that exist in a project where requirements are not well known.

Overall, prototyping is well suited for projects where requirements are hard to determine and the confidence in the stated requirements is low. In such projects where requirements are not properly understood in the beginning, using the prototyping process model can be the most effective method for developing the software. It is also an excellent technique for reducing some types of risks associated with a project.

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