Why Developers Should Prototype

Prototype, this is a term usually thrown around by designers and other professionals in the UI/UX space. It is such a shame that the practise is not nearly as popular in developer circles especially considering the great savings in time and cost it affords its practitioners.

A prototype is defined by Wikipedia as an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.

As I have said before waste is evil that includes waste of your own time. In this entry we will be discussing how prototyping is an essential tool in every developers toolbox.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Even for the most eloquent humans, expressing their ideas in words is usually a challenge. Now let us not kid ourselves, as a group we are not particularly eloquent. Prototypes provide a far clearer channel of communication.

By sharing your idea using even a low fidelity disposable image you will communicate a wealth of information.

Manage scope creep

No matter the tool we use there will always be a bit of ambiguity between what you and the client think needs to be built. Why not clear out the air by instead agreeing on a prototype?

I know of a friend of mine who keeps the initial sketches till the end of the project just in case the client gets creative on features but does not want to finance the creativity.

Run experiments

After spending months building a product that no one wanted, Eric Ries quickly discovered that the market does not care about effort. He then started the Lean Startup movement. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of his book The Lean Startup.

A key idea in the book is that you should not commit too much before you have validated your ideas. Prototypes are perfect for this type of work. They are easy to build, show and then discard.

Incremental development

If you estimate it will take you more than a few months to complete any feature, think if you could get some value by instead first building a prototype of the feature. If the feature works and is accepted then go right ahead and flesh it out to full on feature.

This may not be a very popular way of developing software but at least you will not be forced to discard hundreds of hours in effort if the end user rejects it. If the feature is a success then you already have production code ready and you just need to add a few more bells and whistles.

Tap into the most powerful process

In 1975 John Gall came across this pithy observation

    A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system

Evolution is a very powerful process and you want it on your side.

One way of doing this is by building prototypes and evolving them based on feedback from the stakeholders till a system that is useful emerges.

How do you use prototypes in your own practise? Tell us in the comment section below or tweet at me @jchex.

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Scrum in 4 easy steps

A lot of methodologies can not make claims of making your team work 400% faster. Scrum however is not one of those.

In the 22 years of it’s existence this way of working has proven particularly effective in almost all human endeavour in which teams we’re involved. Yet it’s effectiveness is matched only by its simplicity. If you have not been using Scrum in your projects then now is the time to start.

In this piece, we will look into what the process entails so you can give it a spin in your own team. You will note that, we assume what you are working on is a software project thou the principle can be easily replicated in other disciplines.

The people

At its heart, Scrum is all about the people. Roles defined by the methodology are not meant to enforce rank but provide value, as such all team members in a Scrum team are considered equals.

Product owner

Power without direction is useless. The product owner is in charge of the vision of the team, in short he/she is to ensure that the effectiveness granted by Scrum is not wasted on busy work but rather contributes to the business value of the project.

The PO can then act in lieu of the client on the day to day activities of the team.

Scrum master

This individual should be well versed with the dynamics of the team and fundamentals of Scrum. He/she will lead meetings, track progress and ensure that the rest of the team is living up to the ideals of Scrum.

When problems arise, as they will. The Scrum master is in charge of taking care of them ensuring the team is not affected by the minutiae of office politics.

Team

This is the technical muscle. Ideally should consist of 3-4 individuals. In my experience the combination of;

  • 1 designer
  • 1 front end developer
  • 2 back end developers

does the magic.

The assets

The materials needed to start out are readily available and can be found in any store with office supplies.

  • Board or glossy wall
  • Office stickers
  • Tape
  • White board markers

The process

The backlog

Each and every single thing that can be done by the team is written on a sticker. This are actionable items, i.e stories that can be converted to software.

Items such as “User management” don’t count, they should be broken down to something like “User dashboard showing all users and current login status”

A relative estimate should be attached to the item. So that you can have values like:

  • Easy
  • Intermediate
  • Difficult

Fibonacci numbers also work. So something like 1,2,3,5 … for growing complexity. The numbers are all relative to each other ie we can say the item with the estimation of 5 is estimated to take five times longer than the one with estimation of 1 and two times longer than the one with 2 etc

This works because while humans are terrible at absolute estimates, we shine on relative ones.

The sprint

We all love the feeling of getting something done. That’s exactly what the sprint is targeted at.

The team selects items of highest priority to get done within a certain period. This period is ideally two to three weeks. The items of highest priority are then moved to this list.

During the sprint all items on the sprint list must get done. In this case getting done means having the entire feature/story fully completed and working. In fact at the end of the sprint the team must demo their work to other stakeholders in the project including the client and representative of the end user.

Critical at this stage is that the items on the sprint don’t get added. That is no new feature can be requested. If it is, then its added to the nacklog.

Daily stand up

The daily stand up is a meeting like no other. The stand up in the name is literal, the meeting should be held with everyone standing up. This should discourage any would be “hearty speakers”.

The meeting itself should last at most 15 minutes with each member covering the following essential areas:

  1. What did you do yesterday to move the sprint forward?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. What are the obstacles in your way?

This ensures everyone is has full information on progress of the project. The Scrum master leads this session and should take care of any external or internal obstacles to project progress.

End sprint

At the end of the sprint the team should have a demo ready for the client showing what has been done thus far in the project.

Once the demo is complete a review of how the sprint went should be done with the purpose of identifying inefficiencies in the process. The team can then strategise on how this challenges can be addressed on the next sprint.

The identified improvements should take priority in the next sprint.

Conclusion

So there you have it, Scrum in a nutshell, kind of simple isn’t it? Taking the principles outlined above into practice will be the biggest challenge that your team will face.

Will you take on the challenge? Talk to us on the comment section below.

 

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