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Proof of Concept: 5 Steps for Successful Software Development

Proof of Concept: 5 Steps for Successful Software Development

This article dives into answering the most common questions about a software proof of concept, including why you need one and how to go about writing a PoC.

Have you ever had a disappointing product launch met with less-than-enthusiastic users? A well-defined Proof of Concept (PoC) could have prevented those wasted resources. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the ideation process. Dreaming up a new piece of software is energizing. The brainstorming process inspires team members to create something new that solves a problem. 

While ideation is exciting, if you don’t put your idea through its paces, you may not end up with the product you expect. This comprehensive guide will break down the five essential steps for creating a successful PoC, helping you de-risk your development process, gather valuable feedback, and ultimately, build a product your customers love.

What is a Proof of Concept in Software Development?

The definition of a PoC in software development is creating evidence and documentation about the feasibility of an idea. It outlines how the idealized product or service would become market-ready, how it would function, if it’s needed, and who is the target demographic. 

For AskIris, a healthcare application designed to help use and manage hospital supply closets, a strong PoC helped align the app with user behaviors. It outlined potential challenges and important user considerations, leading to flexible and effective development. As a result, the app adapted easily to any hospital supply closet system, thanks to the app’s customizable bin system. 

Learn More: AskIris Case Study

Where is a Software Proof of Concept Used?

While a proof of concept has several applications in different fields (ranging from marketing to medicine), when it comes to software development, it applies to a specific process. For software ideas, a PoC helps determine if the software can be built in the real world, what technologies should be used in development, and whether the software is likely to be adopted by its intended users.

Why is a Proof of Concept Important in Software? 

In creating a proof of concept for software development, you are laying out on paper why your idea would succeed in the market. Think of it like a business plan for a software idea. Though the inclination to skip making a PoC can be tempting, it’s important to fully flesh out your idea for a few reasons. 

  • A proof of concept validates your ideas. Before you skip to development, you need to know if your idea is feasible. Can it be built within your budget? Is there a demand for it in the market? What would the ROI be
  • Early feedback with focus groups makes your idea better. So many startups waste time and money building something they think people want, only to go back and change it when they get feedback that their idea missed the mark. Taking a proof of concept and testing it with your potential user base will help you get early feedback on what people actually want. From there, you can streamline your idea’s development, saving many hours and dollars spent on solving the wrong problems.
  • Investors need to see proof of concept before giving you funding. If you plan on sourcing investors to back your project, you’re going to need to show them you’ve thought your idea through to the end. Creating an early roadmap that predicts market value, possible sticking points, and how to monetize your software idea will create investor confidence in your product.
  • Projects go smoother when you have the chance to think ahead. Creating a proof of concept forces you to think through all the possible hurdles you might encounter in making your project come to life. Once you’ve outlined your idea on paper, you’ll have a better sense of how much time and other resources you’ll need. When you’ve had a chance to think through all the logistics in this way, your chances of effective project management are much better. 

Proof of concepts can take a nebulous software idea and turn it into an actionable plan. When two educators wanted to make their expertise in leadership coaching more accessible to large organizations, the app Virtuosity was born. Figuring out exactly how to transfer their in-person training to an app wasn’t straightforward, and a detailed PoC helped guide the project in a direction that made sense for their users. Ultimately, a well-planned development process, rooted in a strong proof of concept, was what made the Virtuosity app so valuable to organizations. 

Learn More: Virtuosity Case Study 

What is a proof of concept

Why Do You Need a Proof of Concept in Software? 

Pretty much everyone who comes up with an idea is convinced it will work, but that’s not always the case. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to do PoC in software contexts. Creating a proof of concept to test your idea will ensure you arrive at the best version and will save you time and money in the process. When you lay out every detail of your idea, you’ll start to notice gaps you wouldn’t otherwise see in your product plan. That’s one of the huge benefits of a PoC.  

Plus, a proof of concept is free, so it’s a low-stakes way to test your idea with other people. Whether you’re adding new features to an existing software or building something new from scratch, a proof of concept will help you take the fastest, most direct route to success.

Done well, a software proof of concept should answer the following questions: 

  • What value could this idea create for the industry or users?” 
  • In the real world, who would use this product/app? 
  • What possible challenges can we anticipate in the software development process? 
  • How will we fund this idea or business?

Consider the idea of a dog grooming app as a software example of a proof of concept. In this example, the PoC would identify: what the app would add to the world of booking dog groomers online, which users are likely to request grooming services through it, possible problems that might pop up during development, and a plan to monetize this app.  

The Paidback app design and development process is a great example of a real-life PoC. Designli’s proprietary road-mapping session, the SolutionLab, took founder Amber Master’s idea—to make the process of paying off debt social—and fleshed it out completely. A clear, comprehensive PoC has paved the way to help the Paidback app resonate with users and incorporate their feedback from a solid foundation.

Learn More: Paidback Case Study

What is the Difference Between Proof of Concept, Prototype, and MVP?

If you’re new to software development, the terms proof of concept, prototype, and MVP might seem similar and confusing at first. They’re all involved in the early stages of creating a new software product, but they represent three distinct phases.

Proof of Concept vs Prototype

You might be wondering, “What’s the difference between a proof of concept and a prototype?” These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they represent two different phases of development.

Proof of concept always comes first. Think of this like a Word document, where you have written down a fully formulated idea. After you have this document, confirming your suspicion that your idea is a good and needed product, you move on to the next step—prototyping. 

A prototype is the first, very basic iteration of your software idea. It takes the words from the proof of concept and brings them to life in a tangible product. Software wireframes are a great example of a prototype. Another could be a design mockup that allows you to visualize the user flow and look of an app that’s to be created. Unlike a PoC, usability is the primary focus of a prototype.

So, let’s say, for example, that if your software PoC outlined an idea for a wedding planning app, then your prototype could be a program demo that allowed you to click through the basic screens of that app. The prototype gives you a better feel for what the final product will become. 

Prototype vs MVP

After you have a prototype, creating a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is the next step. An MVP is the simplest, most stripped-down version of your software idea, yet it still retains enough features to be released to the general public for actual use. Minimal Viable Products are a common topic in software development with a lot of buzz, so you may want to learn more about the pros and cons of creating an MVP.

Proof of Concept vs Prototype

How to Write a Proof of Concept

There is no cut-and-dry method for writing a proof of concept. The rules aren’t strict like those for other written documents, like research papers, which have to follow a specific format. 

Instead, you can have some creative freedom with a proof of concept. Just be sure specific key topics are covered, however you want to achieve that. A proof of concept is a living document that you can update as you have new thoughts and get fresh feedback from people who read it. For developing software ideas, follow these steps to create and build upon a strong software PoC.

Step 1: Prove the Need

It only makes sense to put time and money into building a product if people need it. Maybe those people are employees, who need to improve their productivity. Maybe they’re a new market the company isn’t currently serving but could easily reach. Whoever they are, you’ve got to be sure the software you’re building will meet their needs.

Before you begin building the software, you’ll want to be crystal clear on the pain points your target audience is experiencing. Instead of guessing what these issues are or assuming you know, talk to a representative sample of people in the group.

You don’t have to talk to hundreds of people at this point—just enough that you start hearing the same concerns repeated. As you interview potential users and stakeholders, ask them about what the pain points mean for their work, life, or experience. You’ll want to learn both the business and personal impact of each so you can create a prioritized list.

Eventually, you’ll start to see patterns and common threads emerging. You might also be surprised at what you don’t hear in these interviews. By the end of this step, you’ll have a list of specific needs and goals that the software should solve.

Step 2: Map Pain Points to Solutions and Get Feedback

This step involves brainstorming ways to solve each pain point you identified in the first step. Usually, there will be several ways to solve each issue. After your brainstorming, you’ll think through each possible solution to figure out how it stacks up as far as cost, competition, timeline, technology challenges, etc. At the end of this process, you should have a clearer idea of which solutions to include in the final product.

Once you have this list of solutions, go back to the users and stakeholders you initially interviewed. Learn their reactions and responses to the recommended solutions. Describe how you envision the product working, and ask for their feedback. This input will provide you with valuable insight as you move forward.

As part of this solution and feedback process, start a list of what you need to cross the finish line. This could include an expected timeline, materials, team, and even the metrics you’ll need to see to declare your project a success. You’ll refine your project roadmap in Step 5 after you’ve had a chance to test and get more feedback.

Step 3: Prototype Your Solution and Test

You may be wondering: What happens after Proof of Concept is Developed? Your next step is to create a prototype that wraps your solutions into a rudimentary product that you can use to test with those you interviewed previously. This prototype should have the expected feature set as well as the UI/UX.

Once the prototype is built, test it with your interviewees for additional feedback. Record how they use the product so you can see how intuitive the interface is, and find out if you overlooked any important functionality.

Step 4: Create a Minimum Viable Product

An MVP is different from a prototype because it’s a fully functional solution you can use in the real world. While it will include only the most important features to solve the pain points you identified, it should function for users just like the final product. 

The MVP allows you to test the product beyond your small group of interviewees, to a wider group that’s more representative of your market or audience. It offers a great opportunity for more feedback that will tell you if the product in its current iteration resonates with users and stakeholders.

Step 5: Design a Roadmap

From all the information you’ve gathered in the previous steps, create a roadmap that describes what you’ve learned and outlines a step-by-step process for building the product. Your project manager will thank you! Think of this roadmap as a set of blueprints for constructing a building. With the plan as a guide, everyone will be on the same page through product development and will have a clear picture of the end goal.

Main Takeaways for Creating a Proof of Concept in Software Development

At each stage, gather as much feedback from your intended audience as possible. Here are a few questions to ask yourself at each step of the process before you proceed.

  • Step 1: Can I articulate the top 3 pain points this solves for customers?
  • Step 2: Do I have clarity on what success looks like at the end of the project? 
  • Step 3: Have I gathered user feedback to inform the next iterations of my prototype? 
  • Step 4: Does the current version of my product meaningfully solve user pain points? 
  • Step 5: Can I articulate the key project milestones, an end goal, and a plan to reach it? 

It’s important to be able to answer each question thoroughly before rushing ahead to the next step. Ultimately, a well-thought-out PoC will save you time and resources in the future. 

Remember, the more information you know about what your users actually want, the sooner you can focus on those features, cut unnecessary ones, and save yourself iteration time and expenses along the way. You can continue to fundraise at each point, using these supporting documents to show investors the product’s progress. 

Many startups fail because they skip over a proof of concept, and, convinced their idea is a unicorn, rush straight to market. Taking some thoughtful time on a PoC is a great first step to getting you on the way to a rewarding market launch. 

Want to talk through ideas for your new software solution and explore a proof of concept? Schedule a consultation.

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