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Prototyping is the process of quickly putting together a working model (a prototype) in order to test various aspects of the design, illustrate ideas or features and gather early user feedback. Prototyping is often treated as an integral part of the development process where it is believed to reduce project risk and cost. Often one or more prototypes are made in a process of incremental development where each prototype is influenced by the performance of previous designs, in this way problems or deficencies in design can be corrected. When the prototype is sufficiently refined and meets the functionality, robustness, manufacturability and other design goals, the product is ready for production.
The prototyping model is a software development process that begins with requirements collection, followed by prototyping and user evaluation. Often the end users may not be able to provide a complete set of application objectives, detailed input, processing, or output requirements in the initial stage. After the user evaluation, another prototype will be built based on feedback from users, and again the cycle returns to customer evaluation.
The cycle starts by listening to the user, followed by building or revising a mock-up, and letting the user test the mock-up, then back.
In the mid-1980s, prototyping became seen as the solution to the problem of requirements analysis within software engineering. Prototypes are mock ups of the screens of an application which allow users to visualize the application that isn't yet constructed. Prototypes help users get an idea of what the system will look like, and make it easier for users to make design decisions without waiting for the system to be built. When they were first introduced the initial results were considered amazing. Major improvements in communication between users and developers were often seen with the introduction of prototypes. Early views of the screens led to fewer changes later and hence reduced overall costs considerably.
However, over the next decade, while proving a useful technique, it did not solve the requirements problem:
- Managers once they see the prototype have a hard time understanding that the finished design will not be produced for some time.
- Designers often feel compelled to use the patched together prototype code in the real system, because they are afraid to 'waste time' starting again.
- Prototypes principally help with design decisions and user interface design. However, they can't tell you what the requirements were originally.
- Designers and end users can focus too much on user interface design and too little on producing a system that serves the business process.
In electronics, prototyping means building an actual circuit to a theoretical design to verify that it works, and to provide a physical platform for debugging it if it does not. The prototype is often constructed using techniques such as wire wrap or using veroboard, that create an electrically correct circuit, but one that is not physically identical to the productionised product.
A technician can build a prototype (and make additions and modifications) much quicker with these techniques -- however, it is much faster and usually cheaper to mass produce custom printed circuit boards than these other kinds of prototype boards. This is for the same reasons that writing a poem is fastest by hand for one or two, but faster by printing press if you need several thousand copies.
- Point-to-point construction
- Wire wrap
- perf board -- a general-purpose printed circuit board
Sometimes these techniques are used for "the real product" in cases where only a few products will be built.
- The Interaction-Design.org Encyclopedia entry on Prototypes and Prototyping
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