North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

What is a prototype in software engineering?

Posted on: March 19, 2024
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In the world of software development, prototypes play a crucial role in shaping the final product. A prototype model serves as a working model that demonstrates the functionality of a software application at an early stage of the development process.

This iterative approach allows a development team to gather user feedback, validate requirements, and make necessary adjustments before delivering the final system to stakeholders.

In this blog, we will delve into the concept of software prototyping, phases and types of prototype models, and advantages and disadvantages.

Understanding software prototyping

Software prototyping is a methodology used in software engineering and web development to create a basic prototype of an application. It can be of limited functionality and doesn’t always contain the exact logic of the final product, but provides stakeholders with a tangible representation of the application’s user interface, functionality, and services layer.

This early-stage prototype helps in gathering and validating user requirements, understanding exact user-specific requirements that may have been missed during initial product design, to ensure that the final product is fully functional and meets customer satisfaction.

Prototyping model phases

The prototyping model software development lifecycle (SDLC) is the process that development teams use to design and build high-quality software in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner.

The six phases of the prototyping model SDLC are:

  • Analysis: During this planning phase of developing a prototype model, the development team carries out requirements gathering from customers and internal stakeholders, defines goals and a schedule for the project, and estimates costs. 
  • Quick design: Software engineers then analyse the requirements and the new system’s basic design, not complete design, is formed to give users a quick overview of the application.
  • Prototype development: A small, low-level working model of the application is then created, which is intended to support knowledge gained from the quick design stage.
  • Testing: Customer feedback and suggestions are gathered for the developer once the proposed system has been presented for preliminary testing to establish its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Refining prototype: The model is refined based on any negative feedback received, and is tested again to determine user satisfaction with the upgraded model. A final application is then developed based on client approval.
  • Implementation and maintenance: Once the final application is fully tested and approved, it is then developed and regularly maintained to reduce any potential downtime or failures.

Types of prototype models

There are four common types of prototyping used in the software industry today.

Rapid prototyping

This model, also known as throwaway prototyping, involves creating a disposable prototype to validate user requirements and functionality. Although it may go through several cycles of feedback and modification, it is only expected to be relevant in the short-term. 

The initial prototype is discarded after its purpose is served, and becomes a reference for designers and developers as they continue through sprints of redeveloping the prototype in a more improved way.

Evolutionary prototyping

This model starts with a developed prototype which meets the system requirements in a basic way – it begins as a functional piece of software and not just a simulation.

It won’t do everything from the get go, but will be a good starting point. New features and functions are then added as more requirements become clearer and more defined. It is in this way that the prototype evolves.

Incremental prototyping

This model is ideal for software which has multiple modules and components. In incremental prototyping, several small prototypes are built in parallel, all evaluated and refined separately before being brought together as a whole.

This kind of prototyping requires a set of guiding principles to be established from the start and constant communication between developers to ensure consistency and avoid people working on different elements in silos.

Extreme prototyping

This model emphasises quick design and development, with a focus on user interface and functionality.

The user interface is designed and developed first, before any of the underlying technology is implemented. The back-end layer consisting of communication services and authentication and authorisation are then coded and the whole thing is brought together.

Advantages of using prototypes

There are many advantages to using prototypes in software engineering. These include:

  • Early validation: Prototypes allow for early-stage validation of user requirements, helping to identify missing functionality and new requirements.
  • User feedback: By providing a tangible representation of the software product, prototypes enable end-users to provide valuable feedback, ensuring that the final system meets their needs.
  • Faster development: The iterative nature of prototyping can lead to quicker development cycles, as it reduces the downtime associated with requirement analysis and routine maintenance.
  • Improved customer satisfaction: Involving stakeholders in the development process through prototypes increases their satisfaction by giving them a clearer understanding of the actual product.

Disadvantages of prototype models

While prototypes have many advantages, like most things, they also come with some disadvantages which are useful to keep in mind when developing new applications. These include:

  • Time-consuming: Depending on the complexity of the project requirements, creating and refining prototypes can be time-consuming, potentially extending the development process.
  • Limited functionality: Some prototypes may have limited functionality compared to the final product, which could lead to misunderstandings about the actual capabilities of the application.
  • Evolutionary nature: In projects with evolving requirements, or when using evolutionary prototyping, it may be challenging to define a final prototype as new requirements may continue to emerge throughout the development process.

Deepen your understanding of software engineering

A prototype in software engineering is a working model that demonstrates the functionality of an application at an early stage of development. It allows for iterative refinement based on user feedback, ensuring that the final product meets customer requirements.

Ultimately, software prototyping plays a crucial role in the success of application development, providing stakeholders with a clear vision of the final system.

If you’re considering a career move into software engineering, develop the skills employers need on the 100% online MSc Computer Science with Software Engineering from the North Wales Management School. 

Taught part-time so you can fit study around your current commitments, you will deepen your understanding in sought-after areas of software engineering, including mobile application development and software development for the web.