The Software Development Life Cycle – Explained by an Expert

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Understanding custom software development can feel overwhelming. After all, most of it is literally in a different language — programming language. But just because you don’t speak Python or JavaScript doesn’t mean you should feel confused when building custom software for your business. In fact, your software will likely yield better results if you’re familiar with the process and able to give valuable feedback to your development partners.

To help you get the most out of a software development partnership and feel confident in the process of creating custom software, this blog will:

  1. Define the different software process models
  2. Outline the steps of the software development life cycle 
  3. Include some tips on what to watch out for when working through the life cycle with a development partner

At its core, the software development process is a systematic way of managing the development of software to ensure that the final product meets business requirements and end-user expectations. In short, if you want software that works, you must go through each phase of the life cycle: requirements, design, development, test, deployment, and support. 

There are several different approaches to the software development life cycle (SDLC) that have been tested through the years, called software process models. We define each one in this article, but it’s important to keep in mind that the difference to each model is just the number of times and frequency with which you repeat the steps of the life cycle. 

The software development life cycle is non-negotiable when developing fully custom software. You should be highly wary of any custom product development partner that promises to deliver a valuable product without a detailed plan for how they’ll work with you through each of the six steps in the life cycle.

Software Process Models

Before we dive into details of the software life cycle, let’s talk about the different software process models. A reminder that not every software development process will look identical, but they all include different repetitions of the life cycle steps. There are four different development models that your development partner might use based on your business and your needs:

Waterfall model

The waterfall model of software development is a strict, sequential following of each life cycle phase. Each step must be completed before moving to the next phase. The steps are each completed only once and the final product is delivered after the entire development process is complete.

The waterfall method is suitable for projects with well-defined, unchanging business requirements. Once you move past mapping out your software requirements, it is considered finalized and only changes through rigorous change control. 

We don’t recommend hiring development partners who use the waterfall methodology. Although there may be use cases where this method can be successfully implemented, fully customized solutions need more space to adapt and change throughout the development process and beyond. 

Agile model

The agile methodology is a more flexible approach to the software development process, where the entire life cycle is completed once every two weeks. This time period is called a “sprint.” The client receives a small working iteration of the software every sprint, allowing for incremental feedback and changes. 

This model allows for more continuous improvement to the product, usually resulting in high-quality software products that are best suited to the client’s business requirements and completed in a shorter timeframe. 

Iterative model

The iterative model is similar to the agile model. The major difference is that it's time frame is variable and not in strict two-week sprints. Your development partner will work on your project continuously, and as they make meaningful progress, they’ll send it over for your review.

Incremental model

The incremental model is a hybrid of the waterfall and iterative methods. The premise is that the entire project is broken down into smaller phases (or increments) and delivered phase by phase. This gives you more room to make changes throughout the development process, but is often still too rigid for businesses with truly unique needs.

At EnterBridge, we use a mix of agile and incremental methodologies that puts us in a better position to gather and respond to continuous client feedback. 

The Software Development Process 

Now that you’re familiar with the different approaches to the software development process, let’s discuss the specific steps.

Step 1: Establishing Requirements 

Establishing requirements for the software is the critical first step of the software development process. It’s usually referred to as the “planning” or “requirements analysis” stage, or as we call it, the “Listen and Analyze” stage. Step 1 drives the entire success of a software development project.

In this step, customers explain what they want in the user experience – desired objectives, what benefit or capability they want to add to their business, how they would like to be operating, etc. It could even be as broad as, “We need software that lets us manage our pricing strategy.”

A big mistake that many custom software development companies make is expecting their clients to perfectly articulate the details of their business requirements. Not only is this unrealistic, but it puts an undue burden on you as the client to determine exactly what solutions you need before you ever start work with your development partner.

Choose a consultative software development partner that understands your business well enough to fill in the detailed requirements that meet your objectives. This might mean a few weeks of getting to know each other so they can understand the ins and outs of your business. That’s okay. Just don’t go with a partner that makes you execute Step 1 alone. 

Your software partner should be able to take “we need software that lets us manage our pricing strategy” and produce detailed stories (“A user can do this…”) and draw mock-ups for requirements you might not have even known you needed. 

It’s important to watch the calendar during this step because it can eat up a lot of time in the software development process and cause projects to go over time and over budget. We approach requirements with the question “What do we need to know to start development?” and then work backward from there to ensure we aren’t spending unproductive time determining the scope of your needs.

Step 2: Product Design

The next stage of the development cycle is designing your software. There are two major components to software design: visual design and architectural design. 

Visual design goes hand-in-hand with establishing requirements. Mock-ups or wireframes of product features are a great way to visually demonstrate fulfillment of a requirement to the stakeholders. You can also start to get an idea of how the user interface will look and function to ensure it supports your business and customers. 

Architectural design is when your partner will work with your internal IT group if they have requirements for which software architecture the application is built in. A good partner will design the application to match your company’s current maintenance and hosting environment. 

If your IT group doesn’t have requirements or your partner is going to host and maintain the application for you, they will usually recommend an architecture they have previous experience with.

Step 3: Coding and Implementation

Also called the development phase, this is where the bulk of time in the development process should be spent. This step is rather self-explanatory, so we won’t go into too much detail here, but we do have a pro tip for you.

It’s a bit unusual, but we often  start the development process with about 60% of business requirements defined. Many project managers wait for 90% to start development but, as I mentioned above, the requirements phase can eat up a lot of valuable time. We’ve found the time really starts to drag out in the last 20 – 30% of defining business requirements. So instead of waiting to get those final pieces defined, we start working with what we do have to maximize our time on your project.

To accommodate this approach, we expect each of our developers to be business-minded and become subject matter experts. With these two qualities, it’s easy for our software engineers to identify missing requirements in the development stage.

Step 4: Testing

There are many types of software testing, but we focus on just two: functional and regression. 

Functional testing is a validation that everything new to this release is working as expected. Regression testing ensures everything that was working before this release still functions properly. 

Both of these testing phases must occur and should occur separately and independently. One by your software development partner and one by your client implementation team. When these two phases happen independently, it’s more likely that you’ll find bugs or uncover missing requirements. 

Another unique approach that we often take is having our quality assurance (QA) analysts heavily involved in the requirements and product design phases. They generally are creating the stories and mock-ups in Step 2 so that when time comes for them to be testers, they know exactly what they’re looking for.

It’s important to note that testing can take as long as development. It is a critical piece of the development life cycle and should always be done thoroughly and completely. 

Step 5: Deployment

Deployment is simply pushing the release into production. Your development partner should always deliver detailed notes so you know exactly what features were delivered in each release. 

At this stage, real users begin interacting with the product. It’s almost certain that the last remaining business requirements will surface after deployment. The beauty of the agile method is that you can go back, fix immediately, and release the next version of the product with the new functionalities. 

Step 6: Maintenance

There’s usually a break-in period for the first 2-3 days after a new release. During the break-in period, we are always ready to respond to a client right away with a hot fix.

After the break-in period, we usually offer on-going, as needed support. The most common reason that applications break are data-related issues. It’s a priority for us — and should be for your development team — to investigate and fix any issues with your custom application as soon as possible so it doesn’t interfere with your day-to-day business operations. 

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Are You Ready for Custom Solutions?

After reading through the entire custom software development process, do you feel ready to take on a custom solution?

The most important thing for you to consider when starting a custom software journey is who is going to support you. A top-notch development partner or internal IT team that you trust is imperative to success. Look for a software development team with the following qualities:

  • They will consult with you and take your high-level ideas to map out a detailed plan for how to accomplish your goals.
  • They’re an agile-minded partner that allows you to be flexible as your business needs change.
  • They employ business-minded software developers
  • They can hold an intelligent, industry-focused conversation with every person involved in your project. 

There are so many benefits to custom software that will truly transform your business. Understanding how a custom software partner is going to work with you is a crucial first step.

If you’ve been considering custom software for your business, book a call with us today to learn more about what custom software can achieve and how we can help.

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