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Keeping Prototypes is a Bad Idea

Posted by Sat, 11 Mar 2006 14:30:00 GMT

11 comments Latest by Perry Tue, 21 Mar 2006 01:30:46 GMT

In a recent article titled, Just Build It: HTML Prototyping and Agile Development on Digital Magazine, Garrett Dimon writes,

“You need to temporarily suspend any notions that prototyping is always throwaway work. If you approach it as throwaway work, it will be. However, if you approach it with the intention of keeping it, you can create modular code that can be reused.”

I disagree. :-)

I’m not a HTML web designer, but when building applications, a prototype should be looked at as a process in which you agree that what is built will and should be thrown away.

Why?

When you are in prototyping mode… you should be very aware of the fact that it is a prototype. This is your chance to take shortcuts, break the rules, get creative, and express your ideas on a piece of paper, in plain HTML, or perhaps you may even run ./script/generate scaffold to spit out some code that you know will not be used in a production application later on. The goal here is to figure out what direction you want to take the project and get the client to sign off on these ideas… not to build reusable and modular code. If you’re building a prototype with the goal of reusing it than it’s likely that you’re spending too much time doing it.

Just Toss It

While you might not physically toss your application into a nearby trash can, you should aknowledge and remove any attachments that you may have that suggest that the prototype was a waste of time because no reusable artifacts came out of it. It’s the ideas that are expressed here that make this time valuable. Perhaps you don’t need a prototype phase… this would mean that you know exactly what you are about to develop. If you go the route of prototyping and find it to return nothing useful… than imagine how you’d feel if you just started developing and determined that you really missed an important requirement a few weeks later.

“The physicist’s greatest tool is his wastebasket.”

- Albert Einstein

The shortcuts that you should have taken earlier have likely created too much technical debt in your code. A fresh start should be the next step. Prototyping is part of the development process but the moment you allow yourself to think that you should reuse some of the prototype in your application is when you begin to become too attached to the notion that your prototyping phase was a waste of time end energy. Go into the prototype phase knowing that reusable artifacts are not the goal of this phase. Throw it away. ;-)

“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction”

- Pablo Picasso

Keep The Lessons and Ideas

You don’t need to rm -rf the_prototype but you should be very honest with both yourself and your client that the prototype phase is a way to quickly express an idea or process in a both a technical (and often) visual manner.

Prototyping Generates Confidence

Clients have (many) ideas. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s almost certain that they are not as confident in you as you would like to believe. Confidence evolves over time and should be nourished on a regular basis. Their ideas are important to them and they are paying you to be part of the execution of those ideas. If you even remotely sense that you are not confident in their ideas… tell them this. Prototype their ideas. It could save both you and your client a lot of time, money, and resources in the long run… especially if an idea proves to be too complicated to execute.

Ideally, this is when you both agree that this idea is a good idea and that you both understand how it will be executed. This is both a good and healthy process. :-)

Document your learnings, the changes presented by both your client and yourself, and then revisit your Use Cases.

What you are about to build is that much clearer now. This feeling of clarity is exactly why you created a prototype. Remind yourself of this.

Always Start Fresh

Now that the client and you have come to an agreement about what is to be developed… the next phase should begin.

rails the_real_app

...and remember… don’t be afraid to revisit prototyping again. If an idea is not clearly defined yet, whip up a new prototype and see what comes of it. Just keep it out of your code base…. and if it’s already happened… please Refactor. ;-)

Like I said… I am not a HTML person… reusing the colors, graphics, and html artificats that you worked on might be useful… but modular code shouldn’t fall out of a prototype.

However, prototyping is a good idea and I highly encourage it.

Prototyping can also be extremely fun!

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