What is Iterative Development and Why Should You Use It?

What is Iterative Development and Why Should You Use It?

Developing a new product from scratch can be risky, especially for startups and entrepreneurs. When you have a limited budget and resources, you can’t afford to waste any time or energy on products that ultimately go nowhere. However, using iterative development, you can create marketable products with much less financial risk. This method optimizes every stage of the product development process so you can feel confident in the quality, feasibility, and marketability of your design. Here’s everything you need to know about using iterative development to realize your ideas. 

Iterative Development vs. Traditional Development

Iterative development is the process of designing, prototyping, and testing different versions (iterations) of a product in repeating cycles. This differs from a traditional product development timeline, which is more linear. For example, traditional product development typically looks like this:

Traditional product development process

However, iterative development looks very different:

Iterative product development process

In an iterative process, you don’t stick with just one idea or design and move through the prototyping, testing, and manufacturing stages with that singular idea. Instead, you design and test multiple versions of your product at every stage of development, from idea to fabrication. With each version, you learn something new about the design, prototyping materials, functionality, and usability of the product. Every iteration should be an improvement on the one that came before it.

How does this process look exactly? Here’s what you can generally expect when you use an iterative development process:

Conceptual Phase

Sketch or Model the Concept Create the first iteration of your product based on market research. Get feedback on the basic design from end-users or stakeholders.
Prototype the Concept Make a basic prototype of the idea from cardboard, foam, or a 3D printer and test this design with users or stakeholders. You will likely go through multiple prototype iterations and may even have to return to the first step and start again from scratch. These prototypes should get more complex and complete as time goes on.

Engineering Phase

Additional Prototyping New, more complex iterations of your product are made using prototyping tools like 3D printers or CNC machines. At this stage you can start making prototypes from the actual materials you plan on using in the end product. Each new prototype is thoroughly tested and improved upon until it is functional and meets end-users’ needs.
Quality Control Testing The working prototype from the last step is then put through other rigorous quality control tests. This is the stage when engineers consider how to manufacture the prototype on a larger scale.

Pilot Phase

Introduce the Product to Users Create a short run of products based on the latest iteration from the engineering phase. Ask for detailed user feedback on the products and note any areas that need improvement.
Return to Prior Steps  Based on results from the pilot study, you can either choose to move on to the manufacturing phase or return to the engineering or prototyping phases. If end-users identify multiple areas that need improvement, you’ll need to resolve these problems with additional iterations before you’re ready to manufacture the design.

Manufacturing Stage

Manufacture the First Run The first 12 months of manufacturing are critical because if there are any other unidentified issues with the design, they will likely become evident within this timeframe. You can continue to make improvements to the product at this stage.
Make Improvements  Even years after your product is on the market, you can keep a log of all of its previous iterations. This is helpful information to have if you want to continuously improve your product over time. For example, if new technology becomes available, you can revisit an older idea that you weren’t able to create before.

At any point during this process engineers can return to a prior iteration of the product design and continue from there. This is just one of the many advantages of this process. You could also see benefits to your bottom line, the quality of your product, and your time to market. 

From concept to market with Iterative product development

The Advantages of an Iterative Process

The number one advantage of iterative development is that it’s often less risky than traditional methods. This is because you’re never fully committed to just one design or material. By testing every iteration of the design long before you start the manufacturing process, you can eliminate design details that aren’t user-friendly, cost-effective, easy to manufacture, or that hinder the functionality of the product.

This leads to less financial risk in the long run. Instead of investing heavily in just one or a handful of designs and hoping you get it right the first time, you experiment with many different options during the design, prototyping, and engineering phases. It’s generally more cost-effective to test out different design options at these early stages than it is during manufacturing or in the final stages of the product development process.

For example, making a prototype out of inexpensive foam or cardboard is a great way to test the structure and size of the product. You can also get some early beta user feedback. Once you’ve worked out the dimensions of the product from these materials, you can create a new iteration of it from the materials you actually plan on using in the end product. This saves you from wasting costlier materials during the prototyping stage.

Stages of iterative product development

Performing thorough testing also improves the quality of the end product. You can think of iterative development like sculpting. You start off by blocking out the basic shape and size of the structure before you hone in on the finer details. This leads to the production of higher quality products and makes the development process more efficient. You won’t waste time perfecting minor design components that will get scrapped in future iterations. This is why so many startups and inventors choose to use this method to bring their products to life.

Should You Use This Method for Your Project?

Many inventors, especially entrepreneurs or those working for startups and small businesses, should use iterative development instead of a traditional process. This method is more reliable and often produces higher quality products—an especially important benefit if you want your product to stand out in a competitive market.

However, while this process is the best option for many product creators, there are some possible downsides to consider as well. Iterative development can take more time and effort than traditional development. It involves spending more time in the design and prototyping stages and bringing in beta testers to ensure the design meets user expectations.

That said, one thing to keep in mind is that although you’ll likely spend more time on the early design stages, this extra effort could lead to fewer manufacturing and engineering challenges in the future. In other words, this process is relatively slow in the beginning but gains speed and momentum as the project reaches completion.

If you hire engineers that have worked on iterative development projects before, this process could also go much faster. Some products can be designed in just two months using this method, so it isn’t always slow-paced.

This is why, if you’re considering using an iterative development process, you should work with a product developer and contract manufacturer that has experience with this method. They will know exactly how to effectively test each iteration and when it’s time to move on to the next step in the development timeline. A good engineering team will also give you advice on which details or materials to avoid, so you won’t waste any time or iterations on these flawed designs.

Each iteration gives you the opportunity to learn something new about your design or your end-users. Continuously building on this knowledge pool will help you reach your final objective and may even inform future product ideas you have in the works.


Pacific Research Laboratories is an experienced product developer and manufacturer. We specialize in iterative development, helping our clients design, prototype, and test innovative products with end-users in mind. If you have a new product idea you’d like to bring to market, visit our contact page or call (206) 408-7603.

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