The new project has you bursting with eager excitement. Finally, a chance to flex your creative muscles and design iteratively. No more rigid processes limiting the engineering skills you pursue. You have a tight-knit team of software developers with high hopes for an agile process driven by user needs. Together, you’re going to build this thing the right way.
In the hectic weeks that followed, your group of coding ninjas could barely step away from keyboards to eat after accelerated all-nighters chasing ideas. Each prototype ignited sparks across skills and specialties complementing each other. These hackathons distilled lifelong friendship from those hours full of energy you spent together pursuing something with a greater purpose.
But gradually, you notice clues that curb your enthusiasm. Your meticulous bug tester hesitates when users refer to the purchase module by the wrong name. How can diverging features confuse terminology badly enough to raise such concern? Puzzled, you log discrepancies, trying to trace complications bit by bit.
Meanwhile, your backend team grows anxious that integration dependencies have changed so much from the initial idea. They are concerned that ballooning complexity jeopardizes the plans you were aligned on. As prototypes grow beyond initial intentions, your developers finally confront you about overpromising estimates that are no longer feasible at this rate.
You realize how deeply detours had lured your team from its original scope. What began as promising flexibility had drifted into a months-long tech debt backlog. Confidence erodes with each new bug those hack weekends create. You watch the workload pressure tiring your team’s loyal commitment.
The Prototyping Shortcut
You probably know the frustration of spending months working hard building features people want only to see them miss the mark with users. Don’t put all that effort forth first. There’s a smarter, iterative approach that gets the feedback from your end audience early and saves piles of unnecessary rework down the line.
Say you’ve got a concept for something you think will delight end users. Rather than just charging ahead and building the whole thing right away, start by developing just enough of the idea in simple prototype form to share and test with a few people first.
Ask yourself, “What’s the bare minimum we need to show to let them kick the tires on this?” Focus on nailing those pieces first. Get the critical 20% of it built and skip gold-plating everything for now. Then, put that stripped-down version in people’s hands and watch what happens.
Once users start interacting with the new feature, listen to them think aloud. Where do they find sticking points? What questions pop up? Does anything strike them as too confusing or oddly useful? Don’t be shy digging in here — this feedback will make or break your concept.
Pay special attention to gaps between what you assumed people would do versus what they actually did. Their suggestions can spark clever insights on how to improve things. Ask follow-up questions until you understand what parts seem promising versus annoying across emerging themes.
Rinse and repeat moving forward by continuously looping ongoing user feedback into frequent iterations of your idea as it unfolds. Before you know it, following this trail of breadcrumbs leads you somewhere more satisfying than you could ever have imagined.
Keeping Your Prototyping In Check
Initially, you let your creativity run wild when brainstorming ideas for a new feature. There are no restrictions on trying every clever suggestion. The sky’s the limit on inventing weird new bells and whistles.
But pretty soon, things get messy. After a period of rapid-fire building, that little prototype explodes into this tangled jungle of functionality trailing all over the place. Soon, any single person on the team can barely explain what that feature even does anymore.
While thrill-seeking idea generation feels great out the gate, you must pace yourself and add some structure. Before building up each new prototype, take a moment to write down its core purpose and priorities.
What key customer need are you focused on serving here? Then, as you play around building it out, check back occasionally: does this new feature actually align with that North Star? Or are you just off on an entertaining tangent?
And most importantly, you have to start gathering user feedback early on versus waiting until things get solidified later. Checking in frequently is the best way to validate you’re delivering what people want.
Prototypes Help Avoid Drifting Off Course
You know those times when you embark on a task with bold ambitions to do everything right? Two refactors later, everything still looks messy, the team is bored to tears, and no one can remember the original goal. Pretty soon, someone’s building paperclip chainmail on a Zoom call while the rest debate over the button text for the 87th time.
Thinking about features as prototypes aimed to get feedback allows everyone to relax a bit — there will be a separate to make things right. Given that, you can start boxing off chunks of time and scope before diving into perfectionism. During the next meeting, spend no more than an hour attempting to untangle just the basics. When time’s close, pick the simplest implementation or one improvement you can commit to doing in a given amount of time and finish.
Then, wander off and return to other, more exciting work, while users try out your initial version. When you meet with the team again, set aside time for the next round of improvements or incorporate part of user feedback. It’s no big deal if you don’t nail the perfect solution end-to-end from the start. Call it good enough for now and iterate again.
If what you produce in that little sprint becomes valuable for users, it will motivate the team to move forward. You can start stacking a series of small wins like that — piece by piece, strengthening the foundations without getting so lost in the weeds that you lose hope.
Before long, you’ll have built one complex feature after another into a shape that works best for the users. And because you rotated efforts with other features, it’ll hardly feel like a long and tedious process.
Originally published on Medium.com