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Paper Prototyping

Issue № 231

Paper Prototyping

by Published in Layout & Grids, Information Architecture, Interaction Design · 43 Comments

As interfaces become ever more complex and development schedules seem to get shorter and shorter, you may find it useful to give up your user-interface modeling software for awhile in favor of something simpler. All you need is paper, pens, scissors, and your imagination.

Everyone loves paper

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Just as a political party aims to be a “big tent,” product development teams should seek input from as many people as possible during the early part of a project’s design phase. Though HTML prototypes can be useful, they can also discourage those who are unsure what the medium is capable of. Paper prototypes, on the other hand, invite people with little-to-no technical background into the design process.

I cannot emphasize enough how important the inclusive quality of paper can be. Though some people shy away from paper prototypes because they feel they will not be taken seriously, I argue that many people are intimidated by a formal, highly technical design process and that the less “professional” nature of paper prototyping is a great way to lighten the mood and engage a more diverse group. Just offer plenty of paper, pens, scissors, and other materials for anyone to grab and use. If anyone feels nervous, let them eat the paste.

Easy iterations

Paper prototyping can also help improve the final product: the prototyping stage is the right time to catch design flaws and change directions, and the flexibility and disposability of paper encourages experimentation and speedy iteration. Instead of “deleting” hours worth of layout code you’ve used to position a column in the right place, you can draw a prototype, throw away the ideas that don’t work, and move on.

Built for your budget

If you are on a shoestring budget, paper is a great low-cost alternative to many software packages—and if you have a larger budget, you can use products like Post-it notes or tabbed index card dividers to make your paper prototypes more sophisticated. If it helps your team, you can print full-color objects to use in your prototyping sessions. You might want a low-quality printer in the meeting room connected to someone’s laptop for printing out new ideas. If someone recommends a website they’ve seen online, just print out a screenshot, tack it to the wall, and start doodling on it.

On the flip side, you can also use paper prototypes to run a technology-free design meeting: turn off your laptops, stop checking your e-mail, and focus on the task at hand.

Easy documentation

Another benefit of using paper is that you can write notes right on the prototype or on the back of each sheet or index card. While an advanced group might feel comfortable using a wiki for information capture, other teams may find these attached notes a godsend weeks later when they actually start writing code for that pesky dialog box.

Show me the paper

Traditional user interface widgets can be modeled easily with paper. Here is a set “tabs” showing a couple of buttons and what happens when you “click” on a drop-down menu:

Photo of mockup drawn on paper

Photo of mockup drawn on paper

You can always save a buck or two by using regular index cards and cutting out the tab labels yourself.

Dynamic boxes, common in websites with contextual or personalized information, are possible too. To “refresh” the page, simply swap out the index cards. Here a username not found in the database triggers an error and on a successful login the box displays the “my account”widget:

Photo of mockup drawn on paper

Photo of mockup drawn on paper

Photo of mockup drawn on paper

It is possible to demonstrate problems such as a pop-up windows that block key elements of your interface and potential alternatives to the pop-up:

Paper prototype sample of a pop-up window over a body of text.

For every link and button on your mock-ups, be prepared to have a matching sketch ready to display—or have someone take suggestions from your group and sketch a new dialog, page, or window in real time.

Besides the materials mentioned, I recommend a removable glue stick that can be found cheap at an office supply store. Glue sticks are the “magic” that lets you easily put together and take apart a paper interface.

Where does paper prototyping fit into the design process?

There are two dominant uses:

  1. The design team uses paper for their presentation to a larger group of people who have a vested interest in the product.
  2. Users run through a set of existing paper mock-ups or are given blank paper and asked to represent a concept by sketching it.

Option two is a great way to “unplug” and go directly to people willing to test your interface. As an example, let’s look at the ways in which paper can fit into the usability testing process.

Usability testing with paper prototypes

A paper usability-testing session works much like any other usability-testing session. Begin by selecting a range of testers who represent your expected audience. Have scenarios ready for the user to perform. Document the testing sessions with video to review the users’ emotional state when using your mocked-up interface. Debrief users afterward to measure interface recall. With paper, you can also:

  • Allow users to mock up ideas they think would solve a problem.
  • Mark on the prototype where a user attempted to “click” or otherwise interact with the interface.
  • Ask users to draw what they expect to happen next.
  • Keep going even if you don’t have access to a testing lab or if computers, networks, or high-tech prototypes don’t work as expected.

While it’s valuable to measure the success of your interface via time-based benchmarks, the emphasis should be on getting your focus group to be creative.

If you’d like to read about a real-world experience check out Carolyn Snyder’s article on a six-day session using paper prototypes with clients and end-users.

When paper isn’t ideal

A major benefit of paper is the user-generated content that comes out of the feedback sessions. Chances are, a one-person shop will have a hard time reaping the benefits of paper without the collaborative process that occurs in “using” the prototype with others.

There are also certain concepts that remain difficult to demonstrate with paper: how long a screen takes to load or refresh, for instance. Horizontal and vertical scrolling is a common website interface problem that is almost impossible to discover with a paper prototype. Specific colors, images, and fonts aren’t easily represented on the simplest paper prototypes. Still, I have used computer print-outs in combination with paper to tackle at least some of these issues.

Earlier in this article, you saw an example with Arabic text that uses material I printed out. Because Arabic text is written right to left, I wanted to keep this in mind when positioning the main body of text on the interface. The Arabic font also requires the text be large enough to read diacritical marks. Be sure to include people in your paper sessions who can explain how advanced interface widgets, graphics, fonts, and embedded multimedia elements might affect the design.

Where do we go from here?

If you want to dig deeper, Carolyn Snyder’s Paper Prototyping is the most recognized work on this subject and is highly recommended.

Paper has seen a resurgence with knowledge workers who aim to organize every aspect of their lives. The Hipster PDA breathed life into its community and spawned projects such as the DIY Planner, which is based on a set of printable templates for calendars, to-do lists, and more.

Note: The paper prototyping field might benefit from an open-source library of similar printable widgets, which could be modeled using SVG or provided in a standard format such as PDF. Online resources such as the GUIdebook and wireframing templates for Visio and OmniGraffle may provide a good start point for generating ideas. If anyone is interested in creating an open-source printable widget library, I will provide free hosting space for project tools such as a wiki and SVN repository for checking out the latest and greatest templates.

Finally, there are some efforts to merge paper concepts with technology using tablet computing. Professor James Landay at the University of Washington has been working on a tool called DENIM since the mid-90s that is aimed at creating websites. DENIM allows you to sketch your ideas, annotate them, and even export a working HTML site suitable for use in demonstrations.

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