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Rapid Prototyping by Startups Cuts Costs & Saves Time


First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – Sept 1st, 2006

A large percentage of web applications are being designed by developers, and it’s costing the companies that build them more than they know.

A few years ago, I was at a web design workshop where the speaker was advocating the idea of treating web design as a visual technical spec for development teams. His suggestion was to design the user interface first and make it so clear that the developers would be able to write the supporting code using only these screenshots as guides, thus avoiding written technical specs entirely. A concerned participant, apparently from a Fortune 500 company, interrupted with the comment, “If we didn’t write technical specs at my company, my entire team would be on the street.”

The intensely visual nature of the web means that functional specs are generally a waste of everyone’s time. They cost time and offer no guarantees that the presentation of functional elements will be interpreted correctly. The problem is that simply writing down a technical process does not ensure agreement about how the tool will actually be experienced by the user. Getting everyone on the same page, literally, requires pictures.

This design-driven reality has become a popular theme in web application blogs and conferences. A plethora of websites and guides have sprung up to educate startups and development houses about the advantages of a design-first development process. Vocal protagonists like Tom Peters, Seth Godin and Jason Fried are even suggesting that enterprise-level development teams need to embrace the idea that engineers can no longer dictate how a customer-focused web tool will be designed and developed.

The problem is that technical specs disenfranchise the very people who will determine the success or failure of the application. The customer very rarely has any input when the spec is written, and the user interface designers are sometimes the last to see the product before it is pushed out the door. In today’s light-speed economy, it’s often too late to retrofit the tools with feedback from the customer or usability experts. Launching a complete product often gets blindsided by unfavorable customer feedback. As the erstwhile business philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.”

In subtle support of this philosophy — and in contrast to the bloated technical teams of the late 1990s — we’re now faced with an explosion of very small web companies with a desire to stay small. Small teams that can’t afford the luxury of architects and senior engineers are turning to their designers. By all accounts, startups in the Boston area are engaging designers to engineer their web products. Last month’s Web Innovators meeting announced several new web apps barely out of beta testing. From first looks, it was impossible to tell what part of these apps were real and what was just HTML presenting an interface aimed at testing audience reactions.

This back-to-front development process is allowing these companies to speed up the development process and reduce the cost of development. What’s surprising is that by giving the designers the lead role, the engineering teams are happier. Far from being angry or jealous of the designer’s rise to fame, engineers are embracing the idea. Bob Allard, CEO of North Andover-based Extension Engine, supports this.

“Rapid visual prototyping gives my offshore development team a foolproof tech spec that cuts about half the planning and development time out of the project,” he said. “That gives us more time to develop new clients and grow our business.”

Traditional programming processes often put the developers in the lead role, resulting in apps that were bloated or misdirected. Let’s think about the cost of programming for a moment. Nobody will argue that the architects and senior engineers are the most expensive part of any development team. The process of writing code is also expensive because the real output can only be measured once the tool or app is functional. Bugs and mistakes require constant quality assurance, regardless of the project size. On the other hand, design is a relatively short and inexpensive process that can be measured immediately. Photoshop files or HTML wireframes are easy to change and improve upon. Screenshots also cut across language barriers and subjective opinions.

There are other advantages to designing the product before writing any code. The wireframe, or prototype, of the product can be an effective sales or fund-raising tool. Beverly-based print facilities management startup Archimedia Solutions Group was able to close a deal with a key client based on an HTML prototype before it had to invest in months of programming. Archimedia’s CEO, Mark DiPasquale, commented that “Our bootstrap budget forced us to think of ways to get customer buy-in before we committed to a long-term development cycle. Designing the UI (user interface) first was just the smart thing to do.”

Although design has always been a core element of good business, it generally gets treated like the runt of the litter by the technical teams. Adding a user interface is tantamount to adding lipstick to the pig. Technical planning seems to be embracing design, and its positive impact can be seen in the number of early-stage businesses using this technique.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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