The Iterative Process: Origins, Methodology, Examples, Advantages

8 min min read
Updated on September 13, 2021
The Iterative Process: Origins, Methodology, Examples, Advantages

Key Takeaways

  • The iterative process involves systematically repeating a sequence or formula to hone in on the desired result.
  • It originated as an alternative to the waterfall method, encouraging teams to think on their feet and address issues as they arise.
  • The process can be broken into five basic steps: plan, design, implement, test, and evaluate and review. Engineers, marketing executives, educators, and many other professionals use this versatile approach.

When it comes to creating an exceptional product, it’s worth revisiting a popular adage: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It takes hard work and experimentation to achieve success. If you’re looking to energize your team while minimizing risk, consider implementing the iterative process.

 

What is an iterative process?

via GIPHY

An iterative process involves systematically repeating a sequence or formula to achieve the desired result. Through trial-and-error, you may get closer to a solution or discovery.

For a given product, the iterative process is as follows. Plan, design, implement, test, evaluate and review. This cycle is followed continuously until a satisfactory product is achieved. 

 

Origins of the Iterative Process

The iterative process originated as an alternative to the waterfall model. In the latter approach, each phase of the project is dependent on the previous one. This inflexible model doesn’t allow a team to address project inefficiencies or changes in the market. Through iteration, teams can:

  • Think on their feet
  • Address questions and issues as they arise

NASA first adopted the iterative model in the 1960s with Project Mercury. They also used it when working with the U.S. Air Force to develop the X-15 hypersonic aircraft. 

During the 1970s, IBM  applied the approach to computer system design. In the 1990s, Canada used it to develop an air traffic control system.

Nowadays, a range of businesses— from marketing agencies to software companies— use the iterative process to achieve exceptional results. 

 

How does agile methodology relate to the iterative process?

Agile methodology is an approach to project management that combines iterative and incremental processes. An iterative process emphasizes progress through revision, whereas an incremental process prioritizes progress through completed components. Unlike the waterfall approach, the incremental process allows for overlapping phases and multiple development cycles.

Through agile methodology, you might plan for the project to improve with every iteration while also delivering completed work throughout the process. This model enables teams to achieve process adaptability without sacrificing product delivery or customer satisfaction.

 

Examples of the iterative process

Across industries, professionals implement the iterative process to improve team collaboration and outcomes. Here are just a few examples of how it is used in different fields:

Engineering

Engineering teams use the iterative process to develop new features and fix bugs in computers and other technology. Programmers are skilled but do not represent the people who use their products. As a result, it’s easy for them to create an interface that isn’t intuitive to the average user. Thankfully, through the iterative model, they can test products with users, gather feedback, and make changes until they arrive at the best version. Interfaces and software often continuously evolve, using consumer feedback and needs.

Product Development

Once you start to think about it, it’s not surprising that product design is iterative. Consider the technology you use daily, and then think back to the previous versions that you also owned. 

For example, the smartphone you use today is probably very different from the one you used 10 years ago. The same goes for computers, headphones, and even household appliances. Through the iterative process, designers change products to reflect consumer wants and needs.

Marketing

Marketing teams use the approach to develop effective copy. For example, they might track and compare consumer engagement with variations on the same copy. Similarly, they may send prospective customers two versions of an email newsletter and then compare clickthrough rates. In analyzing the available data, they’ll discuss which content is performing best and why that might be. Then, they can eliminate content that isn’t performing, and develop strategies to create and circulate more effective content.

Education

Educators use the iterative process to encourage students to learn from their mistakes. For a given task or assignment, such as an essay, students may be taught to reflect, refine, and revise their work. While this approach might not work in computing or math, where there is often a single right answer, in other subjects it encourages students to see learning as a continuous process.

 

Advantages of the iterative process for small businesses and anyone who wants to produce action fast 

Small businesses and anyone looking to improve productivity may find the process especially useful. Here’s why:

Efficiency & Flexibility

In more traditional approaches, such as the waterfall approach, team members rely on fixed steps to achieve the end goal. Along the way, they might encounter unexpected issues or changes that disrupt the plan. Since movement is linear, they’ll have to work through the issue according to a predetermined methodology before moving forward. As a result, the project can get delayed. 

The iterative process embraces flexible thinking, easily accommodating unexpected issues and deviations from the plan. Plus, with collaboration encouraged, team members with varying expertise can work on an issue from different angles and quickly arrive at a solution. This is perfect for young businesses looking to improve processes and get a product on the market quickly. 

Even though the iterative process is great for quick action, it’s always important to know where you are going as a business. That’s why we created our course called, “Building Your One Page Strategic Plan”. Take the free course preview here. 

Cost-Effective

​​For small businesses, minimizing costs is essential to achieving both short and long-term goals. Because iteration allows room for changing requirements and processes, it can reduce costs. After one iteration, team members might reconsider the existing product, incorporating changes that save money and improve performance into the next iteration. 

Encourages Open Communication

Open communication between team members promotes efficiency and solidarity. The iterative process foregrounds inconsistencies and other issues with a project’s design or code, so everyone is on the same page. This also makes it easier for managers to track progress and decisions. Plus, clients and stakeholders will appreciate the transparency built into the method: they’ll see evidence of the team’s hard work through product evolution.

Minimize Risk

According to iterative methodology, teams will often iron out the higher-risk elements of a project in early iterations. With time and a system to address issues, there’s a lower risk of problems coming up late in the process. 

Even if higher-risk aspects aren’t addressed at the beginning of the project, the approach encourages risk identification with every iteration, so team members are always working to minimize unknowns.

 

When not to use the iterative process 

If you’re taking on a construction or architectural project, the waterfall approach is preferable. For these endeavors, you will have to finalize the planning, designs, and materials ahead of time. Developers and construction crews measure progress by the completion of each phase. At the end of the project, team members check the structure for safety, but it is otherwise complete.

As trial-and-error is central to the iterative approach, it can often lead to scope creep: the project could develop in unanticipated ways, and thus require more team members and resources. So, in general, projects on a tight budget and/or timeline should generally opt for a method with stricter parameters.

 

How to Implement the Iterative Processiterative process

Regardless of your project or industry, there are a few steps you can follow to implement the iterative process. Try these five to get started:

Plan

In this phase, the team can map out general project requirements, including deadlines and client specifications. They can also gather relevant documents, and create a plan and timeline for the first iterative cycle.

Design

Based on the plan, you should develop a thorough understanding of the project goals. At the same time, finalize database models and technical requirements. Analyze components of the project so you can create effective systems for product testing. Ultimately, this allows you to get closer to the end goals with each cycle.

Implement

Start developing the product according to the plan. Meet the minimum requirements and improve on any previous version. Aim to create something that can be tested and provide concrete insight for getting closer to the final product.

Test

Gather feedback on the product using surveys, stakeholder presentations beta testers, and focus groups. Identify aspects that aren’t working or meeting the goals you set out. 

Evaluate and Review

Once testing is complete, it’s time to assess the iteration, deciding on what elements you should change going forward. To determine the iteration’s success, ask yourself if it achieved the objectives. For those aspects that aren’t up to par, determine whether this is a result of processes, materials, or another factor.

Iterative development is circular and teams can aim to refine the product with each cycle. Eventually, you will achieve the desired end product.

 

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