Proof of concept in app development process

Now let’s take a look at the role of a proof of concept (POC) in the app development process. As Wikipedia nicely puts it, a POC is “a realization of a certain method or idea in order to demonstrate its feasibility… A proof of concept is usually small and may or may not be complete”. In other words, it’s a way of testing whether the idea you’ve had is actually going to work.

Let’s imagine you have an idea for an app, service or feature, but you’re not sure whether it’s even possible to achieve from a technical standpoint. You ask your developer if it can be done but they’re not sure either. Or they know that it’s possible, but aren’t sure about it’s stability, scalability or the impact of myriad other considerations which might affect it. The next step is for them to create a very minimal, functioning prototype which demonstrates the feasibility of the proposed technology.

That might sound a little vague to you. Remember though that POC by its very definition deals with unusual, previously unencountered situations. That’s why when the need for POC arises it’s different every time.

The bigger picture

To put it into context – we’re moving on from the design phase into the actual development phase. Everything up to this point (the mockups, wireframes, design, demo app) – all of that is primarily to show and develop the concept of the project. When they’re all done you have a solid plan for where you’re headed. A POC on the other hand, is the first step of the actual technical implementation of that idea. It demonstrates that the project can be done, (and therefore sits in between the design phase and the main development phase), but also creates a starting point for the development of the project as a whole (assuming it works).

POC case study

By way of example, let’s take a look at one of the POC’s that we did last year. It was for a potential medical app, whose idea was to give users notifications and warnings about their heart condition. For it to work, it required a special device to be worn by the patient at all times, monitoring their heart rate and immediately transmitting that data to their smartphone.

First off we did some research to try and find whether there were any easily accessible tutorials or guides from other developers who’ve dealt with this problem or one similar to it before. Finding nothing directly applicable, we then examined the market to look for other apps with a similar functionality. In this case there were a couple of other apps with similar elements, which we were then able to download and study, but nothing out there did exactly what we needed to do. At this point we needed to take what we’d learned elsewhere along with our own innovative skills and see if we could achieve the desired results in the form of a prototype app. It would have none of the flare, UX or additional features of the final product, it would just attempt to achieve the technical elements we still had doubts about.

As it turned out, we were able to prove this POC. That is, we successfully created a prototype which achieved the desired effects. As well as proving the viability of the app’s concept, creating the prototype also revealed a number of potential pitfalls and weaknesses to be avoided during the main development of the app. On the basis of this R&D we were then able to create a more accurate project estimate and move on to the development phase.

When do you need a proof of concept?

Most of the time you only need a POC when you or your developer are not sure whether the technical result you want is achievable. This might be because you’re trying to do something completely original and new, or it might be because you’re trying to create a streamlined, cheaper version of something done elsewhere with more investment. Whatever the reason for your doubt, the POC will lay it to rest one way or another. Either it will become clear that your project is viable, or it will be time to go back to the drawing board.

You don’t always need a POC. In fact, the majority of the apps and projects we work on don’t require them. In most cases, the technological concepts required for an app are familiar, tried and tested. When working with a proven idea, no POC is needed. There are plenty of fringe cases though where the client has wanted to create an original twist on an otherwise proven feature, or even achieve something completely new. In these, more rare scenarios where there’s uncertainty about how or whether the idea will work, we might well need to invest some time and manpower into doing this sort of research before being able to give an accurate estimate for the project as a whole.

If your developer advises that a proof of concept will be needed before going further with the project estimate, this is a great sign that your project is breaking new ground. How long it will take and how much it will cost will depend on the idea you’ve come up with, but however much it is, it’s far more cost effective to make a prototype than to dive straight into development and only then find out that the idea is not possible or much more complicated than anticipated.

Thanks for reading! I hope it helps 🙂

Taking it further

If you’ve got any questions about developing a proof of concept or you have advice of your own to add, please do write in the comments below. And if you want to get a quote from us for some development work you’ve got upcoming, (including potential POC’s) get in touch now.

If you want to read more about the app development process, check out my last article on the role of Wireframes or my intro to the topic of developing apps which contains a list of the topics I’ve written on and links to the relevant articles.