Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Power of Prototyping: Consultancy View

Imagine this scenario: You’re sitting in an initial meeting with a new client and they’ve just explained their requirements to you. Naturally, you’ve explained that you can build everything they’ve asked for and they look pleased. However, they are a new client. They’re new to you and you’re new to them. You haven’t worked together on a project before, so there hasn’t been chance for trust to build up between the two of you. And although you’re confident you can deliver, because you have experience from different aspects of a number of projects you’ve completed in the past, you can’t help wondering if that confidence has fully transferred to the client.

So why not just show them what you’ve done before? There may be at least two reasons. A lot of the work you may have done in the past might be internal to previous clients and therefore cannot be shown to a third party, even under NDA. Another reason might be that you haven’t built some of the specific aspects the new client is asking for before so there is nothing to show.

One solution is to build a basic end-to-end prototype which demonstrates a few key features and/or how a number of key technologies might work together.

For example a client recently came to speak to me and said he was looking for a system which would allow scanned documents to be stored in the cloud, classified and searched for. I have worked on a system in the past that included similar features, but I was unable demonstrate it as it was an internal system belonging to someone else.

To demonstrate that we could fulfil the clients requirements, I spent a few hours building a simple prototype web application which stored scanned documents in a well known cloud storage service, indexed them in an enterprise level search system and could then search for and retrieve them. This was both enjoyable and liberating! I had the opportunity to work with and learn about some technologies in a way I hadn’t before, some of them new to me. As this was a prototype, the functionality was basic and as I knew I’d be throwing it away, I worked without automated tests, continuous integration, static analysis or security.

Once I had something reasonably presentable (using a basic Bootstrap theme) I invited the client in to see the results. He was immediately pleased and excited about the prototype and I felt I had demonstrated that I could deliver his requirements and was reassured that he now had confidence in me. Of course I explained clearly that this wasn’t production ready code by any stretch of the imagination and further development would require investment.

While this demonstrates how powerful a prototype can be, what are the costs? Often no money is paid for prototypes. This means it is very important to do a cost benefit analysis. In the example described above the few hours it took to put the prototype were slotted into free time and the real cost to me was very small, while the benefit was relatively large. This may not be the case for every company or freelancer.

It is important not to give services away for free. You could take this argument to an extreme and say that even discussing requirements with a client is of material benefit to them and should be charged for. This is not what I believe, but is the reason why the prototype is kept basic and nowhere near production ready.

Prototypes are a powerful way of demonstrating what you can do and increasing your knowledge of unfamiliar technologies and how they fit together.

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