THE PROTOTYPING MODEL
Often, a customer defines a set of general objectives for software but does not identify detailed input, processing, or output requirements. In other cases, the developer may be unsure of the efficiency of an algorithm, the adaptability of an operating system, or the form that human/machine interaction should take. In these, and many other situations, a prototyping paradigm may offer the best approach.
The prototyping paradigm (Figure 2.5) begins with requirements gathering. Developer and customer meet and define the overall objectives for the software, identify whatever requirements are known, and outline areas where further definition is mandatory. A "quick design" then occurs. The quick design focuses on a representation of those aspects of the software that will be visible to the customer/user (e.g., input approaches and output formats). The quick design leads to the construction of a prototype.
The prototype is evaluated by the customer/user and used to refine requirements for the software to be developed. Iteration occurs as the prototype is tuned to satisfy the needs of the customer, while at the same time enabling the developer to better understand what needs to be done.
Ideally, the prototype serves as a mechanism for identifying software requirements. If a working prototype is built, the developer attempts to use existing program fragments or applies tools (e.g., report generators, window managers) that enable working programs to be generated quickly.
But what do we do with the prototype when it has served the purpose just described? Brooks [BRO75] provides an answer:
In most projects, the first system built is barely usable. It may be too slow, too big, awkward in use or all three. There is no alternative but to start again, smarting but smarter, and build a redesigned version in which these problems are solved . . . When a new system concept or new technology is used, one has to build a system to throw away, for even the best planning is not so omniscient as to get it right the first time. The management question, therefore, is not whether to build a pilot system and throw it away. You will do that. The only question is whether to plan in advance to build a throwaway, or to promise to deliver the throwaway to customers . . .
The prototype can serve as "the first system." The one that Brooks recommends we throw away. But this may be an idealized view. It is true that both customers and developers like the prototyping paradigm. Users get a feel for the actual system and developers get to build something immediately. Yet, prototyping can also be problematic for the following reasons:
1. The customer sees what appears to be a working version of the software, unaware that the prototype is held together “with chewing gum and baling wire,” unaware that in the rush to get it working no one has considered overall software quality or long-term maintainability. When informed that the product must be rebuilt so that high levels of quality can be maintained, the customer cries foul and demands that "a few fixes" be applied to make the prototype a working product. Too often, software development management relents.
2. The developer often makes implementation compromises in order to get a prototype working quickly. An inappropriate operating system or programming language may be used simply because it is available and known; an inefficient algorithm may be implemented simply to demonstrate capability. After a time, the developer may become familiar with these choices and forget all the reasons why they were inappropriate. The less-than-ideal choice has now become an integral part of the system.
Although problems can occur, prototyping can be an effective paradigm for software engineering. The key is to define the rules of the game at the beginning; that is, the customer and developer must both agree that the prototype is built to serve as a mechanism for defining requirements. It is then discarded (at least in part) and the actual software is engineered with an eye toward quality and maintainability.