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What is Rapid Application Development (RAD)?

Last updated

30 April 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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Until the 1980s, the traditional model of software development was linear and sequential. The limitations of this model gave birth to the concept of Rapid Application Development (RAD). In the mid-80s, James Martin laid the groundwork for what would be formalized as RAD in 1991. This new approach focused on:

  • Prototyping

  • Iterative development

  • User involvement

  • Modularity

In this article, we'll dive into RAD and how it stands apart from other common software development models. We'll see what came before it, what's come after it, and why RAD remains a popular model in the software development world.

Core principles of RAD

To fully understand RAD, we need to delve deeper into three of the four principles mentioned above: prototyping, iterative development, and modularity. The fourth principle, user involvement, is a fundamental aspect of RAD, inherently integrated into the first two principles. Let’s take a closer look at each:

  • Prototyping: RAD relies less on creating detailed specifications up front and more on developing prototypes refined over several iterations. These refinements are driven, in part, by user feedback.

  • Iterative development: Rather than developing the entire product in a single, linear timeline, RAD focuses on small sections at a time. The prototyping stage drafts the features to gather feedback and refinements before finalizing the cycle and starting the next.

  • Modularization: Software is built with modules or components that can be reused in other projects or later in the same project. This allows for faster development, easier changes, and fewer opportunities to introduce new bugs into the software.

Pros and cons of the Rapid Application Development (RAD) model

Like all approaches to software development, RAD has upsides and downsides.


  • Accelerated development and delivery: Iterative development allows problems to be addressed earlier, while they're still easy to fix. It also forces developers to focus on specific segments of the software at a time, further increasing productivity.

  • Improved adaptability to changing requirements: When software is developed in cycles, there's a built-in mechanism for incorporating feedback, resulting in a more dynamic, adaptable process rather than an all-at-once solution.

  • Increased customer feedback and involvement: User feedback is an integral part of RAD. This ensures the final product is aligned with user needs and expectations, resulting in higher end-user satisfaction.


  • Potential for scope creep: Flexibility can have its downsides. The adaptability of the RAD model means that, without strong discipline, the project can become subject to scope creep. If it does, too many features are added and development slows, rather than accelerates.

  • Dependence on strong team collaboration: RAD requires everyone involved to continuously communicate on the scope of the current cycle and to agree on the changes and goals for that cycle. Absent a strong culture of teamwork, the project may suffer.

  • Limitations for large and complex projects: As projects get larger and more complex, the number of stakeholders grows and the process of gathering and reacting to feedback can become overwhelming. For large projects, additional layers of management and better tracking tools are required.

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When can you use the Rapid Application Development methodology?

Now we've seen the pros and cons, we have a better idea of how to know when RAD is an appropriate solution for a given project. Let's delve deeper into that question and examine when the methodology is a good fit.

When you can reliably test your prototypes

Testing is an integral part of the RAD model. It allows for immediate feedback on the functionality and usability of the prototype. Without reliable testing, the benefits of the RAD model degrade.

To use RAD effectively, you need integrated development environments (IDEs) that allow for rapid coding, testing, and debugging. Automated testing tools also radically speed up testing times and bring greater consistency to testing. Having the right tools in place will provide you with the resources needed to test at the level RAD requires.

When you have the budget

The focus on rapid delivery and minimization of wasted effort makes RAD a cost-effective option. However, the need for robust development tools and resources for continuous user testing and feedback drives up some initial costs.

For development teams that aren't well-versed in RAD, training costs might also be a requirement. When deciding on whether or not to make the switch to RAD, consider these costs in your evaluation.

When you need a project done quickly

When a project must be completed quickly, RAD is a great option. To make development even faster, prioritize the features that will be included and leverage the unique skills of each development team when assigning tasks. Keep the project on task and avoid the delays of scope creep by allocating fixed periods to each cycle.

Four phases of Rapid Application Development methodology

Having covered when to use a RAD approach, let’s examine the method in detail, outlining each of the phases involved in Rapid Application Development.

Phase One: requirements planning

The goal of this phase is to gather an understanding of the broad goals and specific objectives of the project. During this phase:

  • Define what the project aims to achieve

  • Figure out how those goals align with overall business needs

  • Set clear objectives that will guide the development process

During this phase, stakeholder analysis is vital. Identify all the stakeholders who have an interest in the project, for example, users, sponsors, management, and team members. These people’s feedback will drive development during the project, but their needs and concerns will also play a big role in defining the goals and scope of the project.

Once the requirements have been outlined, the planning phase concludes with resource allocation. This means determining the time, budget, personnel, and technology required to complete the project. Once those elements are acquired and distributed, you’re ready to begin the second phase.

Phase Two: user design

Many software products have suffered from great functionality that isn't all that useful because it isn't intuitive for users. The user design phase focuses on quickly creating prototypes that can be tested and refined.

As with all RAD processes, user feedback is critical here. That feedback can be acquired through workshops, interviews, or other feedback sessions. To get the best results, encourage users to speak their mind about how well the product meets their needs and preferences.

This is an iterative process and should continue until the design meets users’ requirements. This way, the development team can be assured their final product will not only be highly functional but also that users can easily take advantage of that functionality.

Phase Three: rapid construction

Now the development of the application can begin. This is where the finalized design is fleshed out into a functional piece of software.

Although the design phase is over, user feedback doesn't stop. In addition to continuous integration and testing, feedback provides a vital mechanism for identifying and fixing issues early in the process when their impact is still minimal.

As with the rest of the process, this phase is iterative. The RAD methodology allows for changes and revisions to be easily incorporated as cycles progress. By breaking down the project into short cycles with clear goals, development teams can ensure all goals are met to the satisfaction of management and users before moving on to something else.

Phase Four: cutover

This is the final phase of development, when the software moves from development to production. During this phase, any final testing and bug fixes are performed to ensure the software is ready for real-world use.

This is also the phase where user experience is brought to the forefront. Documentation and other training materials are prepared to ensure that users can find the functionality they use and see the full benefit of the software. The refinement that RAD allowed for in the previous phases helps you create software that's easy for users to understand and for developers to document.

Of course, a product's life cycle doesn't end when it reaches consumers. From this point until the software is retired, maintenance and support must be planned for. Bugs should be fixed as they're discovered, new features should extend the life of the product, and feedback should remain a major part of the process.

How to choose an app development platform

In today's technology landscape, there is a vast array of software development tools encompassing different languages, frameworks, and environments. Each option offers unique advantages and potential drawbacks.

Choosing the right platform requires a careful evaluation of your project's life cycle. Here's how to align your tool selection with each phase of app development.

1. Define the requirements

After establishing the project requirements, you'll have comprehensive guidelines that will help pinpoint the necessities for your development tools.

Consider how each software requirement affects your choice of app platform. Key aspects like required integrations and the target user base will significantly narrow down your options.

2. Prototype

Prototyping tools have evolved to offer powerful functionalities, enabling the creation of interactive user interface mock-ups with minimal coding. This allows stakeholders to visualize how the final product will function.

Since RAD emphasizes continuous iteration, opt for tools that are straightforward and intuitive, allowing for swift modifications. Evaluate each tool's ability not just to create visually appealing UI mock-ups but also to incorporate interactive elements, as this can greatly enhance the speed and effectiveness of your iterations.

3. Construction

When it comes to actual development, your choice of platform may depend on the target environment. For instance, iOS apps require the use of Xcode for final product release.

There are, however, various frameworks that support development across different programming languages and can output files for specific platforms. These tools sometimes trade off full native functionality for broader compatibility.

Assess the options carefully, considering the specific needs of your project, such as:

  • Performance requirements

  • Integration capabilities

  • Maintenance expectations

4. Deployment

RAD also requires quick iterations for testing, which is aided by support for automated deployments.

The tools you choose should support CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) pipelines so updated builds can be quickly run through automated testing and built for deployment with as little manual intervention as possible.

In addition, the availability of monitoring tools to track the performance of the software after it's been launched can make the maintenance phase much easier.

Rapid Application Development vs other software development models

Finally, we'll examine how RAD compares to some other common software development models.

The waterfall model

The waterfall model was among the first software development models. It's a rigid approach where each phase is completed before the next begins.

  • Flexibility: The waterfall method follows a strict sequential order that makes it harder to remain adaptive to changes. RAD, on the other hand, is designed with flexibility in mind from the start.

  • Speed: RAD's use of prototyping and iterative design allows it to move quickly through the process and eliminate problems early. The more linear nature of the waterfall method means problems can pile up before being noticed, and changes take longer to apply.

  • User involvement: The waterfall method typically only engages with users at the beginning and end of development. RAD makes user feedback an integral part of the entire process.

Agile development

Agile development is more similar to RAD. It focuses on a flexible and iterative approach to development. Agile is a broad category, containing many specific methods.

  • Structure: Agile development brings a much more structured approach than RAD does. Agile offers a very systematic approach to each of the development cycles to keep projects organized.

  • Scalability: One of the problems with RAD is that it is less effective when dealing with large and complex projects. With less focus on intensive user feedback, Agile can be more suited to those projects.


Scrum is a type of Agile development that focuses on short development phases called sprints. These sprints have a fixed length and aim to deliver a potentially shippable increment of the product.

RAD's cycles are more open-ended, relying largely on user feedback to guide the process.

Lean methodologies

Lean development is another type of Agile methodology. The goal of this method is to use resources that minimize waste and optimize processes.

Although RAD could adopt these goals, its primary focus is on speed and adaptability.

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