The design process is just that—a process. It’s rare for an initial product design to work perfectly the very first time you prototype it. Usually, you need to come up with multiple design iterations before you land on the right one. With iterative design and prototyping, you can go through this entire process quickly and smoothly without racking up excessive costs. It’s one of the best ways to finalize your design so you can get your new product into your customers’ hands.
In this guide, we’ll explain the five most important benefits of the iterative design and prototyping process. When you work with a product developer that understands and appreciates the value of iterative design, you’ll keep costs low, streamline the manufacturing process, and produce the most user-friendly products possible.
Iterative Design vs. Traditional Design
Iterative design and prototyping is a repeating cycle of designing, prototyping, testing, and refining multiple “versions,” or iterations, of a product. It differs from traditional design in that it’s more collaborative and you can refine the design as you go. Rather than working in distinctive stages, one after another, you make small adjustments to the design in real-time as you identify problems, get user feedback, or come up with innovative new ideas. It’s more intuitive and efficient than traditional design techniques.
For example, here’s what an iterative design process looks like compared to a rigid, traditional design process:
Traditional Design and Prototyping
Iterative Design and Prototyping
|Step 1: Finalize the design before you’ve had the opportunity to prototype or test it.
|Step 1: Create a working design, rather than a final design, and start making prototypes based on this design as early in the process as possible.
|Step 2: Create a prototype based on this final design.
|Step 2: Use rapid prototyping to create and test multiple iterations of the product.
|Step 3: Test the prototype internally (without getting end-user feedback yet).
|Step 3: Ask a group of end-users to test the prototype and provide feedback. You can even provide multiple prototypes to test, so they can identify the ones that are most effective.
|Step 4: Create a final prototype for end-users to test.
|Step 4: Adjust the designs and prototypes based on end-user feedback.
|Step 5: Start the process all over again from scratch if end-users identify problems with the design.
|Step 5: Repeat the testing and prototyping phase as many times as needed until you have a final design your end users are happy with.
Both methods require you to come up with a design, make a prototype, and test the results. The difference is that iterative design and prototyping typically bring end-users into the conversation much earlier in the process. This allows you to identify potential problems early on and immediately address them in future prototypes. It’s entirely customer-driven and no design or prototype is final until the entire development process is complete.
By comparison, with a traditional design methodology, you’re largely cut off from end-users until just before the manufacturing phase begins. Overlooking a major flaw in your design at this stage could set you back months, as you’ll have to start all over again from scratch. It relies too heavily on just one design idea—the engineering equivalent of having all of your eggs in one basket.
Using an iterative process, you shouldn’t have to return to the drawing board and start again from scratch. Instead, you’re constantly designing and refining at every single stage of the process. This has a number of benefits for your products and your bottom line.
5 Benefits of Iterative Design and Prototyping
There are five major benefits of iterative design and prototyping over traditional methods:
✓ Greater efficiency and faster time to market
✓ Lower product development costs
✓ Thorough product testing
✓ Fewer redesigns
✓ More user-friendly products
Below, we explain in more detail how iterative design and prototyping gives you an advantage.
1. Greater Efficiency and Faster Time to Market
Iterative design and prototyping is typically more efficient than a traditional design process because creating new designs and prototypes is fast and simple. The initial design process only lasts a few days to a few weeks depending on the complexity of the design. The goal is to get a working prototype of the design as quickly as possible so that engineers can identify and fix potential mechanical problems, material challenges, or other details that can’t be easily foreseen during the design stage.
However, although the initial design phase is relatively short, engineers actually spend more time in total on the design when they use an iterative design process compared to a traditional one. That’s because the design phase never truly ends until the product is ready for manufacturing. For example, if an aspect of the design isn’t working, engineers can create a new design iteration and prototype in as little as a single day. It speeds up the design and prototyping processes simultaneously, allowing you to get your product to market faster.
2. Lower Product Development Costs
Iterative design and prototyping relies on cost-effective tools like CAD software and rapid prototyping technology, such as 3D printers or CNC machines. These tools make it easy to produce multiple prototypes at relatively little cost. This is often more cost-effective than pooling most of your resources and labor into a single prototype, especially if that prototype ultimately doesn’t meet your end-users’ needs. You’ll also spend less time overall on the product development process, which saves labor costs and speeds up ROI.
3. Thorough Product Testing
One advantage of iterative design and prototyping that can’t be overlooked is its impact on the quality of the products you create. This process relies on thorough testing and feedback with every new iteration. You’ll know exactly which design details work and which don’t. This makes it much more likely that your end-users will enjoy your final product and you won’t have to recall defective products after it’s on the market.
4. Fewer Redesigns
A full redesign slows your product development process down significantly and adds to the total cost of the project. Iterative design helps prevent this by encouraging designers and engineers to iron out serious flaws in the design as early as possible. In a traditional design process, you might not catch certain flaws until after the prototype is complete, and by this time you’d have wasted weeks or even months on a design that was flawed from the start. When you find and avoid major issues in the first few days or weeks of the design process, you can spend the remaining weeks or months making minor adjustments to the design that increase the quality of the product.
5. More User-Friendly Products
Because end users are typically involved much earlier in the process, you’re more likely to create an end product that they actually find useful. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to know what end users’ pain points are, and if you overlook these pain points, your product will be less effective. Asking them for feedback throughout the design and prototyping process can inform your design and give you an edge in your industry.
How Do You Begin an Iterative Design Process?
To take full advantage of iterative design and prototyping, you need to work with a product developer that has experience with this process. First, the product development team will collaborate with you on the initial working design. They’ll help you refine this based on factors like your end-users’ needs, industry standards, timeline, and manufacturing budget.
You don’t have to bring a fully-realized product design to the engineering team either. In fact, having just a loose idea of how you’d like your product to operate can be even better than bringing the team a finalized design that’s ready to prototype. With a working design, the team can help you identify flaws or even opportunities for design innovation that you hadn’t considered before.
From here, engineers will handle rapid prototyping and quality control testing to see these ideas through. This is yet another reason why it’s beneficial to work with a team of product developers that understand the manufacturing process, as they can create designs and prototypes that would be relatively easy to replicate during manufacturing. This all-encompassing process allows you to move seamlessly from an idea to a final product you can be proud to release on the market.
PRL’s engineers have dozens of manufacturing options available to help you solve any challenge facing your product: CNC machining, custom tooling, 3D printing, thermoplastic molding, reverse engineering, and more. No matter what stage your product is currently at, we can create it and optimize it for manufacturing.