Ask any two software developers what the best approach to development is, and you’ll probably get two different answers. Development is both a logical and creative pursuit, so there’s a lot of room for personal opinion.
That said, most methodologies can be broadly categorized into two competing approaches: waterfall and agile. Agile software development is arguably more popular, used by a greater percentage of individual developers and businesses. It’s also commonly touted as the “superior” approach – but is it? And are there situations or projects where the waterfall methodology is better?
What Is Waterfall Development?
Let’s start by analyzing the waterfall development methodology.
Think of a waterfall in nature. The water flows in one direction, from its source, through the fall, and down to the pooling water below. In a similar way, waterfall development is unidirectional. You’ll start with a specific, detailed plan on what you’re going to develop and how you’re going to develop it. Across a series of phases, including research and planning, you’ll flesh out the details, then start building the architecture.
Your goal is to create the product from the ground up, as completely as possible, with minimal changes along the way.
There are several advantages to this approach:
- Clear central planning. With the waterfall methodology, you’ll invest a lot of time and effort at the beginning of your project. You’ll analyze the competition, make thorough documentation about the type of product you want to build, brainstorm the possibilities, and make critical decisions that will impact the project for weeks or months to come. This front-loaded process leaves you with more information and a clear direction to follow for the entirety of the project.
- A clean, phased approach. Waterfall development also has a very clean, phased approach. There’s no ambiguity as to when a phase is over and you’re not bogged down by competing priorities. In many environments, this leads to painless, straightforward development.
- Easy coordination and workflow. Many developers also find that waterfall makes it easy to collaborate, especially with people working in other roles (like project management). It’s very obvious when the project should change hands, and there’s no question about when the project is ready for launch.
- Less back and forth. As we’ll see, conversation and the “back and forth” process of collaboration can be valuable for software development. However, it can also be time-consuming, confusing, and complicated. In waterfall development, there are fewer micro conversations that need to occur and fewer meetings that need to take place. Developers can spend less time talking and more time coding.
What Is Agile Development?
By contrast, agile development is all about flexibility and adaptation. You’ll still spend time researching and planning – but nowhere near as much as you’ll need to spend if you’re following the Waterfall methodology. Here, the goal is to start working as soon as possible, building a loose sketch of a product, then filling in the details later.
During this process, you’ll be reviewing your work, talking to clients, collaborating with others, and fine-tuning your approach. You’ll be developing continuously, even after your product launches, polishing old features and adding new ones.
These are some of the best advantages:
- Faster startup. The intensive planning in the initial phases of waterfall development can be beneficial, but they can also delay your startup. If you’re interested in developing a minimum viable product as quickly as possible, or if you need to get rolling immediately, agile development will work out better for you.
- Easy modifications. There are many reasons why you might want to change the nature of your product, or its core features, in the middle of development. There might be new technologies, new competitors, or new market dynamics to think about. You might second guess a key feature or come up with a new idea on the fly. You might even find that your original idea isn’t working out the way you want. In any case, agile methodologies allow you to adapt – rather than being stuck with your original plan.
- Continuous testing. Thanks to AI and other powerful testing tools, agile software developers have the advantage of continuous testing on their side. They can discover flaws and bugs as they’re developing, so they can stamp them out long before they ever impact a user.
- Active client involvement. Agile development is also popular because of its ability to support active client engagement. Project managers and clients alike can get into conversations with developers, analyze the product, provide new direction, and guide the product to the finish line together.
- Constant communication and refinement. The agile methodology also provides opportunities for constant communication and refinement. You can consistently polish your product until it’s as perfect as you originally imagined it.
Why Agile Has Become Dominant
Agile software development has slowly grown to become the dominant methodology in the development field. It certainly has plenty of advantages, but why has it become this popular?
There are a few influential factors:
- Evolving scope. Scope creep is a problem for all kinds of projects. Clients change their minds. Stakeholders come up with new requirements. People get new ideas. With agile, scope creep isn’t nearly as big of a problem; you can adapt to the new requirements responsively and keep making progress toward the finish line.
- Changing landscapes. The landscape for your software is always changing. You’ll experience the introduction of new competitors, new technologies, and new ideas. Waterfall can lock you into a position you don’t want, while agile gives you an opportunity to escape.
- Faster progress. Tech businesses have a desperate need to generate revenue as quickly as possible. Only agile development allows you to hit the ground running.
- Customer service. In many ways, agile development also provides opportunities for better customer service. Your customers are more involved and more invested in the development process; accordingly, you’re likely to see better results if you’re creating products for others.
When Is Waterfall Better?
Is waterfall ever better?
The short answer is yes. Waterfall is more efficient, more streamlined, and faster when it comes to specific types of projects like these:
- Small, quick projects. Generally speaking, the smaller the project, the better suited it is to waterfall development. If you’re only working with a few hundred lines of code or if the scope of the project is limited, there’s no reason to take the continuous phased approach.
- Low priority projects. Low priority projects – those with minimal impact – don’t need much outside attention or group coordination. They can easily be planned and knocked out with a waterfall methodology.
- Internal projects. One of the best advantages of agile development is that your clients get to be an active part of the development process. But if you don’t have any clients, that advantage disappears. If you’re working internally, there are fewer voices and opinions to worry about – which means waterfall might be a better fit.
- Projects with few stakeholders. Similarly, if the project has few stakeholders, waterfall can work better than agile. If you’re working with a council of managers or an entire team of decision makers, agile is almost a prerequisite. But if it’s just you and one other guy, waterfall may be ideal.
- Fixed projects not subject to change. It’s sometimes hard to tell which projects will be “fixed” and which ones will be subject to change in the future. But if you feel confident your project isn’t going to change or evolve in the future, you should consider waterfall development.
The agile development approach is so popular and so well-received that it’s even influencing organizational culture beyond the realm software development. But despite its appeal and lasting popularity, it’s not a perfect system – and there are some projects that perform better with the help of waterfall development. Analyze your project and your goals completely before deciding which methodology to follow.