What Is the Iterative Process? (Definition and Steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 15, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Effective research and development processes can help companies improve their offerings, better understand the needs of their customers and optimize their operations. Regardless of the product, service or process you're looking to improve, implementing a development strategy can be very beneficial to accomplishing your company's goals. The iterative process is one method companies use to advance their business strategies and improve their offerings. In this article, we define what the iterative process is, explain why it's used, simplify the iterative process model and provide an example that explains how the process works.

What is the iterative process?

The iterative process is a technique research and development teams use to help them optimize their products, services and business processes. The process involves repeated trial-and-error style cycles, where researchers adjust each cycle according to what they learned in the previous iteration. By using this method, teams can design planned changes for their processes and encourage steady improvements toward an end goal. Careful planning and consideration of feedback can help teams conduct successful iterative processes.

Typically, business development and marketing research professionals use the iterative process to help them address design concerns, improve business strategies, optimize product features or quickly adjust to market changes. The method can used for a variety of businesses and applications. Teams in marketing, software development, engineering, education or design might all use this process to analyze products or processes within their business.

Related: Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Scrum vs. Kanban

Why should you use the iterative process?

There are many reasons why you should use the iterative process in your research and development efforts. It can provide various benefits to you and your organization because it is:

Flexible

One reason to use the iterative process is for its flexibility. A major benefit of the model is its ability to allow users to revise and refine their products or processes quickly. This can be especially beneficial if a company is still in the planning phase of product development and doesn't yet have a completed model available.

Usually, companies who use the iterative process do so to help them evaluate and improve their current products or processes. They might also use it as a troubleshooting strategy to help them arrive at an effective solution. Regardless of how you choose to implement the process, the iterative approach adapts to many scenarios and business types. It allows for environmental or market changes and can aid your efforts to produce deliverables that match the needs of your customers.

Useful

The iterative process can also be a useful way for development teams to create new strategies and establish successful products. Because every iteration improves on the previous step, it's easy to understand what phase you're in with your product development. The iterative process often starts with a rough prototype that enters a testing phase to give you timely feedback as you work toward a completed project. It can also be useful for producing visible results early on. Each cycle or milestone represents significant improvements and changes that can optimize your timeline management.

Efficient

Some alternative development approaches, like the waterfall approach, rely on established steps to arrive at a desired result. When using these processes, external or internal changes can sometimes disrupt teams' ability to implement improvements quickly and stay on track for timelines and specific requirements.

In contrast, the iterative process allows for deviations in the plan and for large changes mid-way through development. This can help companies stay on target and quickly recover as they implement their changes. Typically, iterative processes require an entire team's help as well. This can increase efficiency because the iterative process often encourages dispersed workloads and well-balanced teams.

Related: A Complete Guide To the Waterfall Methodology

Cost effective

Another reason companies choose to use the iterative process is for its cost effectiveness. Compared to methods like the waterfall approach, the iterative process can accommodate changes to overall requirements and scope at lower costs. Again, this is because the process encourages teams to rethink their existing offerings. Change is both expected and necessary for this approach. Each cycle asks teams to evaluate their product using new feedback and to incorporate necessary changes for the next round.

Traditional trial-and-error models can do this somewhat haphazardly. With the iterative process, however, teams plan and strategize their decisions beforehand to make sure they're optimizing their efforts. This can reduce overall development costs in the long term.

Accessible

The iterative process is a useful tool because it is highly accessible. It can encourage collaboration, clear communication and transparency. Because the process highlights inconsistencies and areas where teams can improve a project's design, code or ability to meet client specifications, it's easy to track certain movements and decisions. This feature can help eliminate misunderstandings. Presenting the results of the iterations to clients or stakeholders can also be easier with this approach because they can clearly visualize the product's evolution.

Buildable

The iterative approach allows companies to improve their existing offerings consistently and reliably. Each iteration cycle allows teams to evaluate areas for improvement and to implement the lessons they learned. That means every new iteration is typically better than the last. By improving the development process consistently, teams can create thoughtful products and carefully design processes that possess guaranteed quality.

Low risk

One last reason many businesses and development teams choose to use the iterative approach is because it is relatively low risk. Often, teams address the higher-risk aspects of a product first. Gradually, as the process goes on, each iteration becomes more and more refined. This can reduce the risk for major discoveries near the end of the process because teams have had so long to address issues and concerns. The method can allow companies to identify and resolve risks early.

If you're using an iterative approach in software, smaller iterations can also aid in testing and debugging processes. This is because clients and users are often more involved in the process early on and they can alert you to necessary fixes.

What is the iterative process model?

There are five steps in an iterative process model. They are:

1. Plan

The iterative process often begins with a planning and requirement research phase. Here, teams can map out initial requirements like deadlines and client specifications. The planning stage is also a good time to collect and organize relevant documents and define a project timeline for the first cycle iteration.

Related: What Is Agile Project Management?

2. Design

In the second phase of this model, consider focusing on your design and analysis. This includes fully understanding your goals, assembling database models and defining the project's technical requirements. Careful analysis of your project's individual components can help you create systems for your product testing that reflect your overall goals.

3. Implement

The third phase is implementation. Here, it's important to develop your product's or process's functionality. Do your best to meet minimum requirements and improve upon previous iterations, if there were any. Create something worthy of testing that can give you usable insight into next steps.

4. Test

For the testing phase, gather feedback on your offerings. Carefully work to identify aspects of your project that aren't working or meeting expectations. You can use surveys, stakeholder presentations, beta testers and focus groups to collect and gather feedback. Carefully selecting your testers to ensure you're getting the right information at the right times can be helpful to the iterative process.

Related: How To Conduct Effective Product Focus Groups

5. Review

The last step is evaluation and review. If it's your first iteration, compare your feedback and notes with the project's original requirements. Try to understand how you can implement the improvements you discovered. Also, take the time to understand what went well in your first iteration. Building on what is working can be just as useful as improving what isn't.

After you've completed your evaluation and review, apply your knowledge to your product or work to refine your processes. Try to stay open to additional needs or unanticipated challenges. These can arise but often they are opportunities to increase the success of your iterations. When you've developed your product using the lessons learned, you can repeat the cycle by returning to step one.

How does the iterative process work?

The iterative process works by using cycles of feedback and improvements to create quality products and improve operational processes. To illustrate how the process works in action, consider an air freshener company is working on a new scent. They might employ the help of a focus group to conduct smell tests. In each testing round, the air freshener company might ask their groups to compare the scent of their product to that of a competitor.

They can take notes on the feedback they receive and use the information to keep what worked and discard what didn't. From here, they might bring the testing group back again and conduct the same experiment. By repeating the same approach for each session, they can adjust their product until it is ready for the market. Using their findings from each round, they ensure they're improving their offering continually and outperforming their competitors.

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