Iterative Product Development Process With Examples

iterative product development

It is September 23, 1999.

A day marked by a mix of anticipation and apprehension in the world of space exploration. NASA’s robotic space probe, launched to study Mars’ atmosphere and climate, is set to enter orbit around the Red Planet. 

The Mars Climate Orbiter mission, costing $327.6 million, would help gain a significant step in our understanding of Mars.

However, in the unpredictable universe of innovation, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

The unexpected occurred, and instead of entering the orbit, the spacecraft was lost.

Investigations revealed a shocking and somewhat elementary oversight: a catastrophic mix-up between metric and imperial units. The engineering team from Lockheed Martin used imperial units (pounds-force), while NASA’s team used metric units (newtons). 

This critical mismatch in calculations led to the orbiter approaching Mars at a lower altitude than planned, causing it to disintegrate in the Martian atmosphere.

This incident, a glaring example of a small oversight leading to a colossal failure, underscores the importance of refining the path to success.

Image Credits: Dall·E 3 (link to high-res image)

However, this challenge extends well beyond the aerospace industry. 

From aviation’s decade-spanning aircraft design challenges to construction projects exceeding budgets and deadlines—the common thread is the struggle with unforeseen variables in the real-world.

As we explore the subsequent sections, we will uncover how this iterative approach to product development has revolutionized the way products are conceived, developed, and refined.

This approach effectively addresses the challenges of traditional methodologies, ensuring that products remain relevant and competitive in the rapidly evolving landscape of modern industry.

A paradigm shift in product development

The transition from traditional development, represents a significant shift in mindset

Traditional development often follows a linear, ‘waterfall’ approach, which involves extensive planning and execution in a sequential manner.

While this method sometimes has its merits, it often lacks flexibility and struggles to adapt with:

  • Market changes – Think COVID-19!
  • Technological advancements – Consider the strategy pivots required after the launch of ChatGPT in Nov 2022,
  • New requirements – Customers and their needs evolve daily, 
  • Changing Business needs, and
  • Your level of understanding about the problem.

Iterative product development, on the other hand, embraces change. 

It is built on the premise that product development is an evolutionary process.

This approach acknowledges that not all requirements and challenges can be known at the outset.

By breaking down the development process into smaller, manageable iterations, teams can focus on delivering functional segments of the product, learning, and adapting as they progress.

Image taken from
Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and

Ship Work that Matters by Ryan Singer

A core component of iterative development is the continuous cycle of feedback and improvement of new features.

Each iteration involves designing, developing, and testing a product component. This cycle provides regular feedback from real users and stakeholders, allowing teams to make informed decisions and adjustments early and often.

This responsiveness improves the final product’s quality and aligns it more closely with the evolving user needs and market demands.

Iterative development also markedly lowers risk factors by addressing the project in smaller chunks of shippable releases. 

This effectively confines potential errors or issues to these individual increments, simplifying their detection and resolution. 

In contrast, traditional development models often reveal errors only in advanced stages (as we saw in the example of the Mars Climate Orbiter mission), leading to costly and labor-intensive revisions.

Iterative and incremental development

Iterative and Incremental Development (IID) is a software development methodology that emphasizes flexibility and adaptability throughout the software development cycle and process. It involves breaking down the software development process into smaller, manageable parts and continuously refining and improving the product through repeated iterations.

Here are the key characteristics of the iterative and incremental approach to development:

  • Iterations:
    • Development is divided into a series of iterations, with each iteration representing a small portion of the overall project.
    • Each iteration goes through the phases of planning, designing, implementing, and testing.
    • After each iteration, a working version of the software is delivered, allowing for early feedback from users or stakeholders.
  • Incremental Development:
    • The software is built in increments, where each increment adds new functionality to the existing system.
    • Each increment is a fully functional release of the software, even though it may not contain all planned features.
    • Additional features are added in subsequent increments, leading to a gradual and incremental development process.
  • Flexibility and adaptability:
    • Changes can be easily accommodated at any stage of the development process.
    • Feedback from users or stakeholders during and after each iteration allows for adjustments and improvements in subsequent iterations.
  • Continuous testing:
    • Testing is performed continuously throughout the development process, not just at the end.
    • Early and frequent testing helps identify and address issues sooner, reducing the likelihood of major defects in the final product.
  • Client involvement:
    • Clients or stakeholders are involved throughout the development process.
    • Regular feedback from clients helps in understanding their evolving requirements and ensures that the final product meets their expectations.
  • Risk management:
    • Risk is mitigated by addressing high-priority features early in the development process.
    • Risks are continually assessed, and adjustments are made as needed.
  • Cyclic nature:
    • The development process is cyclic, with iterations building upon the work of previous iterations.
    • Each iteration is an opportunity to refine and enhance the software based on feedback and changing requirements.
  • Parallel development:
    • Different parts of the system can be developed in parallel by different teams or individuals, leading to more efficient use of resources.

Iterative and Incremental Development contrasts with traditional waterfall development, where the entire project is planned and executed as a single, sequential process. IID is particularly well-suited for projects where requirements are expected to change or are not fully understood at the beginning of the development process. Popular methodologies that embrace both iterative processes and incremental principles include Scrum and Agile development.

Real-world case studies

Imagine if NASA could mitigate the mission’s risks by implementing incremental releases — might that have averted the perilous fate of the Mars Climate Orbiter

While they had their limitations, let’s look at some examples of companies applying the iterative process model of product development to address these challenges in their business.

Netflix: Shaping the future of online entertainment 🎥


Image Credits: Netflix Website (link to high-res image)

Netflix’s approach to content creation exemplifies iterative product development at its best. 

The company often pilots shows, like the initial episode of “House of Cards,” to gauge viewer interest and fine-tune their execution. 

This method ensures investments align with viewer preferences, guiding the development of the entire series.

But the process doesn’t end with the pilot. Netflix continues to refine its series based on ongoing viewer feedback, influencing aspects like character development and plot direction.

This continuous adaptation ensures that the content remains relevant and engaging, showcasing the effectiveness of iterative development in responding to audience preferences.

Zappos: Minimizing risk early 🚩


Image Credits: Zappos Website (link to the high-res image)

Zappos, a now-renowned online shoe and clothing retailer, pioneered the use of a ‘fake door’ test to validate market demand before launching its full e-commerce platform. 

Founder Nick Swinmurn designed a setup, following the principles of iterative development, to test consumer willingness to purchase shoes online.

He started by creating a basic website showcasing shoes from local stores, without actually holding any inventory. When orders were placed, Swinmurn personally bought the shoes from stores and shipped them to customers. This innovative approach quickly caught the attention of the footwear market.

Upon confirmation of significant customer interest in buying shoes online, and the feasibility of the business model, Zappos laid the groundwork for what would become a billion-dollar business.

PackageX: Solving mailroom logistics

Image Credits: Dall·E 3 (link to high-res image)

During the early stages of my time at PackageX, we embarked on a mission to realize our founder’s vision of streamlining the complexities of last-yard logistics.

In the initial planning phase, we identified that the world of package handling is filled with diverse nuances globally. We chose to focus first on the US market, driven by its size and the relatively straightforward nature of the challenge it presented.

Our team developed an innovative machine learning (ML) algorithm designed to accurately read package labels, a solution aimed at significantly enhancing the efficiency of mailroom operations. 

Initially, we piloted this technology in the US market, but as we collected more data, our ML algorithms became more robust and generic. 

The insights and experiences gained from this pilot were invaluable and formed the basis for our subsequent, carefully strategized expansion into 100+ countries across six continents, allowing us to adapt and refine our solutions to meet a wide array of global logistics challenges.

The 5 steps of the iterative process of product development

Ever since the industrial age, several great minds from different industries have long sought to address the constant challenge of adapting to changing user needs and technological advancements efficiently.

Iterative development frameworks like Lean Software Development, Scrum, Kanban, Design Sprints, Shape Up and many more, offer slight variations of their solution to this challenge. 

Despite their unique approaches, they all revolve around the same essential stages:

  1. Planning
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Testing & Feedback
  5. Refinement

These stages form a cohesive structure that guides teams through a process of continuous improvement and adaptation.

Let’s delve into each of these stages to understand the intricacies of their role in the process.

1. Planning

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

In iterative development, the Planning stage departs significantly from the exhaustive mapping of requirements in traditional development methodologies. Here, planning is less about specifying every detail upfront and more about establishing a clear but adaptable direction for the product development journey. 

In this initial phase, the product vision and goals are defined and broken down into smaller, releasable chunks to form a high-level roadmap for delivering incremental business value. 

The focus is on defining outcomes, instead of features. 

The plan should provide enough clarity to keep the team aligned and focused, but shouldn’t be so detailed that it becomes a constraint to innovate and adapt. It’s about setting clear objectives and a direction that guides the development team, while simultaneously allowing enough room for creative solutions and adjustments based on emerging user feedback and market trends.

This balanced approach ensures that the team remains engaged and proactive, capable of navigating the evolving landscape of product development with both vision and versatility.

2. Design

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

Design, or in some frameworks known as the Discovery, is the stage where raw ideas take tangible form. It is an ongoing conversation between functionality and innovation, a harmonious blend of what is needed and what could be.

In this phase, the primary objective is to validate the problems, as well as the viability and feasibility of the proposed solutions. It involves assessing whether the ideas can be transformed into practical, workable solutions that meet the product’s objectives.

Techniques like feasibility studies, market analysis, various testing phases and prototype testing are employed to evaluate whether the concept has the potential to succeed in the real world. This step is essential to ensure that the team does not invest heavily in an idea that is unfeasible or does not meet market needs.

For a more in-depth understanding of the design stage, refer to Jake Knapp’s book which offers an innovative framework to streamline the discovery process in a concise timeframe.

3. Development

“Vision without execution is just hallucination.” – Henry Ford

After the foundational stages of Planning and Design, the Development phase is where ideas begin to transform into tangible products. This stage is the execution engine of the iterative development cycle, where the concepts validated in the initial version and Design phase are built and brought to life.

Development in iterative frameworks is characterized by incremental progress. Instead of constructing the entire product at once, development non iterative process is broken down into smaller, manageable increments or iterations.

By focusing on incremental and quality-driven development, teams can effectively manage complexities, reduce risks, and ensure that the final product is robust, user-friendly, and aligned with the evolving demands of the market.

4. Testing & Feedback

“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.” – Burt Rutan

After development, the product undergoes rigorous internal testing to identify defects and issues. 

Testing in iterative development is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. It involves various rounds of testing (alpha, beta, gamma) and evaluating each product increment for functionality, usability, and performance. 

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this phase is gathering feedback from actual users. 

This feedback provides invaluable insights into how well the product meets user needs and expectations. It’s not just about finding bugs or issues (like the metric system mismatch in the Mars Orbiter) but understanding the user experience and making necessary adjustments to enhance it.

5. Refinement

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

While it is often seen as the concluding phase in the iterative development cycle, it’s crucial to understand that the principles of refinement are deeply woven into every stage of the iterative design process.

Right from the initial planning to the intricate stages of design and development, each component undergoes a process of refinement. It’s about fine-tuning every aspect of the product, be it the overarching strategy or the minutest details.

Refinement embodies the ethos of continuous improvement, adapting the product based on feedback and testing outcomes, and evolving it to meet changing needs and expectations.

This might involve tweaking features, improving user interfaces, or even removing unnecessary elements to streamline the user experience.

Optimize your iterative product development with Usersnap

As we explored the complexities and nuances of the iterative development cycle, it has become evident that continuous refinement is the key to success in iterative product development, encompassing both the incorporation of feedback and the resolution of issues. 

Usersnap stands as a vital ally throughout the product development journey, offering a comprehensive solution that allows teams to document, categorize, and address issues and feedback systematically, ensuring that each next iteration of the product is better than the last.

It creates a shared space for teams to collaborate, discuss feedback, and strategize on improvements, ensuring that all members are aligned and working towards a common goal throughout the development process.

With Usersnap, the time between user acceptance testing and iterations can be significantly reduced as it takes away the complexities of feedback consolidation, allowing teams to swiftly act on user feedback and issues, streamlining the refinement process.

Concluding remarks on iterative development process model

In the iterative design journey, success is a dynamic process of constant evolution and learning. As you navigate this dynamic realm, I am leaving you with these pointers to serve as a compass:

👉 Cultivate Adaptability: Foster a culture where change is seen as an opportunity for improvement.

👉 Embrace Flexible Planning: Allow plans to guide, not constrict, adapting based o customer feedbackk and trends. But don’t let this be an excuse for poor planning.

👉 Empower User-Centricity: Prioritize user feedback over your personal ego of ‘always being right’ at every product stage of the development lifecycle to shape your product effectively.

👉 Fail fast and cheap: Utilize affordable, quick prototypes for early user feedback, accelerating development and minimizing the risk of heavy investments.

👉 Perfection is the death of growth: Celebrate small wins and ship in increments today, instead of waiting to build a perfect product.

👉 Utilize Collaboration Tools: Leverage tools like Usersnap for streamlined communication and feedback consolidation.

May your path be as iterative and inspiring as the products you create!

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