Prototyping

Prototyping can be an effective way to carry on the discussion of both requirements and user interface design. Given only a hypothetical or abstract description of some software, it can be very difficult for people to imagine what the implications of its use will be. A simple prototype can immediately bring the discussion down to the concrete; people can point at things and say "I like this" and "I don't like that" and "How would I do so-and-so" and then see whether or not it would work. Sometimes, ideas that sound great on paper turn out to be pretty poor ideas when realized. Prototypes can help you discover that quickly and easily.

One very useful but inexpensive prototyping mechanism can be HTML that is, creating Web pages. Simple static HTML can be fast and cheap to build, but can begin to approximate what the user interaction will look likeespecially for, but not only for, Web-based solutions. It may not be an exact replica of the final product, but for a first step it can really get the discussion moving.

If the Ul is too complex for a Web page mock-up, you can still use HTML for prototyping by getting images (screenshots) of what you want your final solution to look like and then making these images clickable on Web pages, to simulate some simple user interaction with hyperlinked image sequences.

The idea is to get something "tangible" in front of people as soon as possible, to further the discussion in a way that written descriptions never can. ("A picture is worth a thousand words.")

Once you've built a prototype, shop it around. Hold informal meetings where you demonstrate the basic functions to stakeholders. We recommend, as much as possible, meeting with one group of stakeholders at a time. That way you can keep your conversations focused. If you have two different stakeholder groups represented and their expertise and interests are wildly different, you'll be boring % the participants all the time. Even if their expertise is similar, you may have groups with competing or conflicting requirements. While you need to understand such conflicting requirements and eventually come to some detente, this meeting is not the best venue for settling those issues; it would more likely simply scuttle your meeting and void any value from it.

After each meeting, review your requirements and see what more you need to add. Likely at such meetings, you'll begin to get requests for new features.

You have, in fact, begun the iterative process. Even the most bare-bones prototype that may only consist of a sequence of pictures is a first cut of your product. The sooner you can get to a running version, the sooner you will be able to respond to stakeholder suggestions by adding real features.

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