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Less Documentation, More Prototyping

More Sophistication, More Collaboration…More Resources?

It seems these days the characteristics of a website are becoming increasingly sophisticated. And, with sophistication, there is an inherent need for more collaboration and documentation, which can increase delivery times and costs. It doesn’t have to.

Traditionally, during a website design or re-design marketing teams will provide lengthy descriptions of what they want their website to do, what functionality needs to be included, and what back-end systems need to be integrated. It is then up to the development team to document this vision, make recommendations, and be sure everyone is “on the same page” before development. The problem with this approach is twofold.

First, it is difficult to translate these intricate ideas into words. It requires pages upon pages of detailed documentation to support complex concepts and the data object relationships needed to make the ideas come alive. Couple that with an understanding of how people are always nervous about proceeding until they feel comfortable their vision is completely understood and documented accurately; this documentation phase can require lengthy revisions and take a lot of time and a lot of conversations.

Second, it requires the majority of the solution be defined at the beginning of the process. Since it wouldn’t be cost effective to document all your options, you essentially have to make major decisions up front. Unfortunately, in many cases, stakeholders are unable to make informed design decisions because they do not fully understand the abstract nature of the documentation or they find it difficult to visualize the elements of the system we are trying to build.

Teams are paralyzed by this process. And, under these kinds of conditions, project stakeholders may feel the need to make sacrifices in certain areas in order to remain within budget and timeline constraints.

It is for these reasons, and many more, that I advise my clients to shift their perspectives on design processes and consider a prototyping approach. It will have a positive impact on development by making the design process more collaborative and facilitating a mutual understanding regarding expectations of the system. Additionally, it allows the developer to demonstrate the various ways you could approach any one element and empowers you with the knowledge you need to make the best decisions as you move forward.


The goal of prototyping is to stand up raw and unfinished systems that act as a proof of concept and demonstrate the desired mechanics BEFORE developers write the first line of code. By building a rough mockup of a system, we can immediately convert abstract concepts into concrete scenarios. And, while they may look unrefined, prototypes provide enough substance for everyone on the team to make decisions needed to push the ball forward.

When it comes to conceptualization for advanced website functionality, I always mention that you will not know it until you see it. Prototypes are just one tool that design teams can use in conjunction with wireframes, sitemaps, and design mockups to accomplish this. No matter what kind of technology you use, such as an open-source CMS like Drupal, or a stellar enterprise tool like iRise, what we are trying to achieve with prototypes is a collective “aha moment,” when everyone on the team finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

Since prototypes help communicate the way a system should work without having to link together the technical pieces behind the scenes, they facilitate our accomplishing the more intensive goals of this new era of website functionality without causing major problems for scope and budget management. Organizations are not spending time with debate on semantics or explanations of how something should work; instead, we are able to move into deeper conversations about the relationships between objects on a website and how we can use these relationships to build rich interactive platforms for online marketing.

Prototypes are not always the answer. In some cases, where stakeholders are unable to separate functionality from design, it can prove to be a different type of challenge. One where they are expecting to see the solution as they envision it, instead of just seeing the mechanics, so it is important to make sure that you explain the concept of prototyping before getting started.

Even so, it is my assertion that by moving beyond the abstract and enabling collaboration, we can uncover development issues as early as possible, eliminate unexpected costs, and establish the level of confidence necessary to move forward. I truly believe this is the only way we can keep costs and timelines under control as we broaden our dreams for how our websites should work.