Friday, March 20th, 2015

A Product Journal: The Evolutionary Prototype

I’m blogging about the development of a new product in Mozilla, look here for my other posts in this series

I came upon a new (for me) term recently: evolutionary prototyping. This is in contrast to the rapid or throwaway prototype.

Another term for the rapid prototype: the “close-ended prototype.” The prototype with a sunset, unlike the evolutionary prototype which is expected to become the final product, even if every individual piece of work will only end up as disposable scaffolding for the final product.

The main goal when using Evolutionary Prototyping is to build a very robust prototype in a structured manner and constantly refine it.

The first version of the product, written primarily late at night, was definitely a throwaway prototype. All imperative jQuery UI and lots of copy-and-paste code. It served its purpose. I was able to extend that code reasonably well – and I played with many ideas during that initial stage – but it was unreasonable to ask anyone else to touch it, and even I hated the code when I had stepped away from it for a couple weeks. So most of the code is being rewritten for the next phase.

To minimize risk, the developer does not implement poorly understood features. The partial system is sent to customer sites. As users work with the system, they detect opportunities for new features and give requests for these features to developers. Developers then take these enhancement requests along with their own and use sound configuration-management practices to change the software-requirements specification, update the design, recode and retest.

Thinking about this, it’s a lot like the Minimal Viable Product approach. Of which I am skeptical. And maybe I’m skeptical because I see MVP as reductive, encouraging the aggressive stripping down of a product, and in the process encouraging design based on conventional wisdom instead of critical engagement. When people push me in that direction I get cagey and defensive (not a great response on my part, just acknowledging it). The framing of the evolutionary prototype feels more humble to me. I don’t want to focus on the question “how can we most quickly get this into users hands?” but instead “what do we know we should build, so we can collect a fuller list of questions we want to answer?”

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.