Imagine that your team has been tasked with developing a new product that's the first of its kind. How would you proceed?
1. Go all in and hope that everything works out
2. Test the idea before launch to see if it's feasible
Most people would choose option number two. You should ensure your idea works before investing significant resources and time into it to avoid repeatedly going back to the drawing board.
Using a proof of concept (POC) prevents wasted time and effort and ensures you only commit resources to projects designed to succeed.
What is a proof of concept (POC)?
A proof of concept in project management demonstrates that an idea can be applied in the real world.
Testing out an idea before committing significant resources to it was popularized by NASA in the 1970s. The space agency created technology readiness levels to ensure that the systems being developed were ready for launch. They couldn't risk billions on an unproven idea whose outcome would only be known after launching into space. Proof of concept was the third level of readiness or TRL3.
"When active research and design begin, a technology is elevated to TRL 3. Generally, both analytical and laboratory studies are required at this level to see if a technology is viable and ready to proceed further through the development process. Often during TRL 3, a proof-of-concept model is constructed."- NASA
Because a proof of concepts is developed to confirm or disprove an idea, they are often short-lived, never production ready, and have minimal functionality. Mayan Verma, senior engineering manager at Lyft, describes a good POC as "a series of things sticking together by loose threads long enough to collect the data that confirms/denies the theory."
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When should you use a proof of concept?
Not every project needs a proof of concept. According to Gitlab’s Engineering Handbook, the best time to carry out a proof of concept is when you are unsure where to start the project because you don’t have enough context or don’t know if the technical result is achievable.
You should also use a proof of concept when working on a high-risk project or when you need approval from stakeholders.
Why is a proof of concept necessary?
In project management, a proof of concept serves three essential functions.
- Project managers can’t tell the future, so you must look before you leap. A proof of concept ensures the project idea is viable and worth pursuing before committing significant resources.
- They identify any potential issues or challenges that may arise. This saves money and time down the road. “The cost to fix bugs multiplies by 100 when a product is in production. It’s more manageable and cheaper to fix when it’s in a conception or usability testing phase,” says Jasmin Mayfield, UX researcher at Float.
- They help get buy-in for a project idea. You are more likely to get a client to sign off on a novel or high-risk project if you can prove beyond reasonable doubt that it works.
Proof of concept vs. minimum viable product vs. prototype: What's the difference?
Although proof of concept, minimum viable product, and prototype are related terms, they each have their purpose and use case.
Proof of concept
A proof of concept demonstrates that a proposed system or idea will work as intended. The goal is to show that it works and can be implemented. It is built in the early stage of product development. It doesn't usually involve user feedback and is evaluated by the team.
A prototype is a working model of a proposed system or application. The goal is to determine how a concept will work and to get user feedback. It is built immediately following the approval of the POC.
Minimum viable product (MVP)
A minimum viable product is a scaled-down version of the finished product that is released to the market to collect feedback from early adopters. The goal is to determine whether there is a viable market for the product and to identify any additional features that need to be added. After the prototype is successful, an MVP is created and used to get user feedback.
How to carry out a proof of concept test: Step-by-step instructions from an expert
At Float, we always test new ideas to improve our products. Here's the framework Senior Application Engineer Christian de Witt uses to validate ideas before scaling them.
1. Clearly define the scope
When building POCs, it is essential to set clear goals before testing. Without a scope, you might find your proof of concept taking longer than it should and slowly morphing into a prototype or an MVP.
"Before the development of the POC starts, lay out the parameters within which the POC must be developed so that it remains a sound ROI and does not encroach upon the definition of a prototype or MVP," de Witt says.
Here are some questions to ask when creating a scope for your proof of concept:
- What problems are we trying to solve?
- What issues are we not trying to solve?
- How long will this process take?
- What is the budget?
Keeping to the boundaries of your scope will ensure that you arrive at the desired outcome– proving the feasibility of an idea.
2. Outline the success criteria
How do you know that your idea works? This is where establishing success criteria comes in. According to de Witt, your success criteria should incorporate tangible metrics to measure the outcome of the proof of concept.
For example, suppose you are building a new app that uses augmented reality technology to enhance the shopping experience for customers. A helpful metric might be that users can upload 3D models and link them to products successfully.
3. Document learnings
Developing a proof of concept is a great learning opportunity. Document the results of the proof of concept, including any successes, challenges, and lessons learned. You can use the results to determine how to build and scale the entire product in the future.
De Witt explains one mistake project teams make is carrying out proof of concepts without being recorded.
"Even if an idea gets canned during or right after the development of a POC, it's still important to document those findings as it can be beneficial to stakeholders in making decisions going forward," he says.
While POCs are not the final product, the process and results might have valuable insights your team can use when building a prototype or MVP. And even when an idea is dropped, it is still worth documenting the findings as they can help inform future decisions.
4. Plan next steps
Without a follow-up plan, a proof of concept is of little value. A POC can be developed into a prototype or MVP based on how well it performs against the success criteria and other stakeholders' acceptance of those results. De Witt suggests preparing for this step with a succession plan or a well-defined road map.
Tips for creating your proof of concept from experts
Experts recommend keeping these points in mind when setting up a proof of concept that will increase your chances of success:
Begin on paper
Senior DevOps Engineer Chris Nash begins the POC process on paper and avoids writing any code until he has to.
"Always start on paper if possible, as you can scribble, delete, add and let your brain flow ideas onto the page. At worst, you waste some paper and save yourself hours in the project itself," Nash says.
Outlining the problem with a pen and paper helps him work through the idea. In turn, he can identify what is needed to build the feature/product. He can also see known and unknown potential obstacles and eliminate them beforehand.
Break down big projects and solve the most challenging problems first
If you are working on a large project with many moving parts, Nash suggests you get granular and break the project into small steps. Prioritize the more significant problems because solving them will bring you closer to proving your idea. "You usually need to create a proof of concept for a more complex thing than a small thing," he says.
Don't expect your proof of concept to solve all the problems or be perfect
Nash points out that the purpose of your proof of concept is to prove some things will work or figure out how your product will look. Trying to make it perfect will lead to you wasting time that could be spent working on other parts of the project.
Don't get attached to your proof of concept
While the initial version is critical because it validates your idea, Nash explains that your proof of concept serves as a sketch.
"Any proof of concept you need to create should be done fast and scrappily; you should be happy to throw away a POC in the end. It's your way of proving something can work and figuring out all the bits inside that you might not realize it needs," he explains.
Set your project up for success with proper planning
A proof of concept lays the foundation for a successful project. But solid project planning is what allows an idea to come to fruition.
A tool like Float creates a centralized location for planning your projects. You can automate milestone settings, timeline planning, and review your historical data to make better decisions on future projects.
Project planning software helps predict potential risks and resource shortages before they occur. You can track your resources' availability and capacity from start to finish and always find the right skills for the job.