Paper Prototyping

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What is Paper Prototyping?

Paper prototyping is a process where design teams create paper representations of digital products to help them realize concepts and test designs. They draw sketches or adapt printed materials and use these low-fidelity screenshot samples to cheaply guide their designs and study users’ reactions from early in projects.

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See why paper prototyping is a small, yet invaluable investment.

“Paper prototyping is great for exploring design possibilities. You can try as many as you want, and if they don’t work for you it’s fine, just throw them in the bin and start over. It opens your eyes on things you haven’t thought of and gives you new design perspectives.”

— Chaymae Lougmani, CEO & Co-founder at www.Snaget.io

Paper Prototyping saves Money—and Designs

Paper prototyping is a core activity in design processes. You depict screenshots (in what you can call “paper-shots”) to help determine how your design/product should appear. Like other forms of low-fidelity prototyping—e.g., card sorting—paper prototyping is a cheap-and-easy way to help shape concepts. If you use it early on, you can prevent unwanted development costs.It’s useful in brainstorming, where your team searches how to address users’ problems best. As you proceed, you can do “down-and-dirty” or guerrilla testing to informally test ideas with users and course-correct as needed.

Pros and Cons of Paper Prototyping

Consider the strengths and limitations of paper prototyping:

Pros:

  1. Quick iteration

You can build overviews without getting bogged down in details. In minutes, you can see whether an idea works on paper.

  1. Cheap

Paper is inexpensive; so are printed prototyping materials/kits.

  1. Universal

Everyone can make rough sketches of ideas. Stakeholders from outside the design team can join in.

  1. Pieces serve as documentation

Later on, you’ll have annotated hard-copy evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Team-building

When team members get creative, they can bond. Everyone can get involved in drawing, cutting and pasting and forget role/department barriers.

  1. Honest feedback

People comment more freely than if they must criticize polished prototypes (i.e., someone’s “baby”).

  1. Useful throughout the design process

You can use paper prototyping to help stay flexible about revisions throughout development.

Cons:

  1. Lack of realism

Whatever you draw, you can’t completely mimic an interactive design. Also, users’ gut reactions will differ compared with the finished product.

  1. Inappropriateness in some contexts

You can’t always translate users’ constraints onto paper, especially regarding accessibility. You may need a sophisticated high-fidelity prototype to capture the user experience.

  1. Requires in-person testing

You have a smaller pool of test users and greater risk of missing insights.

  1. Lack of user control

Without an interactive design, users must give blow-by-blow accounts of their actions and thoughts. Also, you can’t moderate from a distance. You must give directions about next steps, without leading users.

  1. More work

You’ll make digital prototypes, anyway. These may suit your concept without the need for primitive prototypes.

  1. Interpret results carefully

Users can’t get a real feel of the product. Positive feedback is a good indicator of how to proceed, not a guarantee.

How to use Paper Prototyping Best

You should enter with the right tools and mindset. So,

  1. Gather stationery – pens, pencils, markers, paper, card, Post-its, scissors, tape, glue, rulers and suitable stencils. About $10/£10/€10 is typically enough to cover this. You can use graph paper to help guide ideas. Colored paper is great for representing buttons.

  2. Get building – Just go ahead and see where you go. As you get your ideas down on paper, you can think about them more concretely. Later, you can get insights about improving them.

  3. Make one sketch per screen.

  4. Move quickly – If you spend too long making your prototype, you’ll get attached to it. Don’t waste time erasing: You want to get ideas down rather than revise them and potentially miss insights from the raw version.

  5. Remember what to test – Build with that purpose in mind, but stay aware of other factors.

  6. Prototype for small screens first –When you go mobile-first, you can prioritize your content better.

  7. Remember the users – As you’ll test your prototype against users’ behaviors and needs, consider their expectations as you build.

Remember, the earlier you use paper prototyping, the better.

Learn More about Paper Prototyping

Dive into our Design Thinking course to see all about paper prototyping.

This UX Planet blog has some helpful paper prototyping tips.

Discover a wealth of insights into paper prototyping from UX content strategist Jerry Cao.

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Literature on Paper Prototyping

Here’s the entire UX literature on Paper Prototyping by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Paper Prototyping

Take a deep dive into Paper Prototyping with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

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