Foundation of a Successful Data Project: Agile Rapid Prototyping
This blog is the third in an ongoing series by the State Chief Data Officers Network at the Georgetown Beeck Center reflecting the best practices and lessons learned by our cohort of participants in Data Labs. The Data Labs initiative helps states launch data-driven economic recovery projects as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
February 15, 2022 – By Ashley Thompson
Finding solutions to data challenges can be one of the most rewarding parts of working in public technology. Yet, finding a way to implement ideas for positive change can be time-consuming and difficult.
Agile rapid prototyping—a process that allows teams to quickly build new prototypes to evaluate the overall functionality and/or visual aesthetics of a product’s design—is a method for mitigating the natural challenges that come with problem-solving. Using this strategy, teams collect data on their products and measure feasibility all before the idea is realized or the product has even been built.
Source: Emily Tavoulareas, Beeck Center For Social Impact + Innovation
Build, Measure, Iterate
When developing a project, teams usually encounter challenges that must be addressed before moving forward. A project team will spend time ideating before settling on a solution. They spark an idea, discuss and vet it, and finally, confirm a solution. This is a common experience for project teams, but most agile teams understand that an iterative review cycle can yield better results.
In December 2021, Marcie Chin, veteran product manager and Technologist-in-Residence at U.S. Digital Response (USDR), and Jan Overgoor, Data Lead at USDR, guided Data Labs state teams through an agile rapid prototyping exercise focused on crafting simple, low-tech prototypes to help teams quickly test their products.
Before engaging in the rapid prototyping process, it is crucial to reach a consensus on the key requirements for a prototype. Doing this at the start defines the parameters within which a product can be built. Specifically, these requirements can include functional conditions (what the product should do), non-functional conditions (accessibility, security, performance, and reliability), and quality conditions (maintainability, user experience, etc).
Agile rapid prototyping is composed of three simple steps:
- 1. Sketch out a prototype
- 2. Gather feedback to measure feasibility
- 3. Iterate
First, sketch out a potential solution. This allows individuals to translate the ideas and commit them to ‘paper’ to share with others for feedback and further ideation. Sketching formats can vary from user flows, wireframes, technical designs, or any low-to-high fidelity mock-ups of a product’s design.
- > To sketch a prototype of a potential solution:
- +Focus on one core aspect of the concept to work on
- + Nominate a lead sketcher in the group
- + Utilize online or off-online collaboration tools (i.e., Jamboard, paper/pen) to capture ideas
- + Stay high-level and avoid debate or critical feedback at this stage
Second, gather feedback from relevant stakeholders. Teams then review the prototype and ask questions for clarity. Is the product usable? Accessible? Feasible? Desirable? Useful?
- > To gather feedback from relevant stakeholders:
- + Present one prototype
- + Gather feedback from the audience
- + Think about the next steps for the next iteration of the process
The final step of agile rapid prototyping is to incorporate feedback into the design of the product. This is an integral step in the process that leads to more sketching to further iterate and refine the solution.
The number of iterations necessary is dependent upon the project. Iteration lengths typically vary from two weeks to one month, but teams should aim for a minimum of two iterations. This gives product owners sufficient time to gather and review feedback. Once the first round of iterations is complete, the project team will gather stakeholders to present their work and the group collectively decides what work to do next.
One of the key benefits of utilizing an agile approach is that product scope can change through incremental design iterations. Time and cost are fixed constraints for agile projects, so teams focus their efforts on completing high-priority work (in consultation with the product owner) first in order to meet project goals. The project should stop once the goals are achieved or resources are depleted. This new approach makes the solution design process increasingly efficient while focusing on the needs of the user.
Chin and Overgoor also emphasized that teams should leave the experience with these key tips:
- > Continue technical scoping: Identify necessary components/how they interact together and what level of functionality is required.
- > Define success metrics: Understand how you will know if what you’ve built accomplished the set goals.
Tech Tools Compilation
Once the agile design process is completed, teams may identify the major components of a technology stack that will be used for design, hosting, maintenance, and analysis of their projects. This could be leveraging existing systems or acquiring new tools. Teams can document technical details like how data is moved, where it’s stored, how it’s linked or matched, and considerations for analysis and dissemination.
In tandem with conducting a data audit to understand the data assets, mapping field levels can assist in documenting specific data fields in disparate data systems that are critical to the success of the project.
Testing Ideas to Bring Actionable Insights
Iteration is a crucial step in the process toward refinement, planning, and, ultimately, implementation. Rapid prototyping helps teams form a consensus around a project’s direction before the product is built or the concept is realized. By sketching out potential solutions, gathering feedback, and incorporating that feedback into new sketches, teams can collect feedback in real-time from relevant stakeholders to reduce risk, evaluate feasibility, and enhance quality. This is key to deciding what technical elements will be required for a project’s success. After the rapid prototyping process produces a more refined solution, the information gathered here will be critical in informing and identifying the technical and technological needs of your product.
This process provides a space for teams to experiment, gaining actionable real-time feedback to understand user needs and improve the design. The more that teams commit to iterating and refining a project through this agile design approach, they’ll be more likely to find enhanced efficiencies in time and resources when executing their solutions.
Ashley Thompson is a Program Manager for the Beeck Center’s Data Labs: Roadmap to Recovery program.