Paper Prototyping, Revisited

Paper prototyping is the kind of activity that you practice in school but don’t see a lot of in the real world. At least that’s been my experience here at Viget where we tend to collaborate on the whiteboard and then move on to functional prototypes to help capture and experiment with interactions.  

Paper prototyping is a design process that uses paper materials to create a rough representation of a design. The prototype can be tested quickly and then discarded or improved upon. This video demonstrates the process of conducting a test with a paper prototype. It’s a great example of a paper prototype in action.  

I recently revisited paper prototyping — not as a tool for testing and validation but as a process for exploration and collaboration. I ran a paper prototyping workshop with interested folks at Viget so we could flex our paper prototyping muscles and re-examine paper prototyping as a tool for ideation.

During this workshop, several benefits of paper prototyping as part of a collaborative, iterative design process emerged:

  • Involve more people. Anyone can participate in the creation of a paper prototype which enables you to include more people in the design process. By moving the prototyping process out of a digital medium, you can gather a wider range of perspectives and ideas.  
  • Invite external groups into the process. Paper prototyping can easily be incorporated into a collaboration session with your client teams or even be used as a participatory design method with users.
  • Poke holes in your design. Testing your paper prototypes (even just with others in your prototyping session or folks in the office) allows you to see flaws in your design much more quickly than a traditional sketching session.  
  • Think more deeply. A benefit of paper prototyping over sketching is that it pushes you beyond the layout of a single view and forces you to consider what happens as a user moves through your design. As you move through the various views, you start to see certain things fall apart more quickly than you would with a flat sketch of a single layout.  
  • Introduce a component based mindset. The shift from a single layout to a flow also helps you think about reusable components earlier in the process.
  • Create an iterative atmosphere. Paper prototyping works best as an iterative process. Make a prototype, quickly test it or walk through the prototype, and then make modifications to reflect what was learned. This iterative process makes it easier to throw work away and try alternatives.  

Paper prototyping isn’t all positive. It doesn’t produce a final product or present a realistic interface. It can’t portray all interactions. Production will also eventually become cumbersome as functionality and fidelity increase. That said, it can be a beneficial tool, especially for initial ideation, exploration, and collaboration.  

As I work on new projects, I’ll look for ways to incorporate paper prototyping into the ideation process — both internally and with client teams. I encourage you to work it back into your process as well.  If you have tips for incorporating paper prototyping into a collaborative design process, share them in the comments below.  

Laura is a senior user experience designer in our Boulder, CO, office. She helps clients such as PUMA, the Lupus Foundation of America, and Craig Hospital understand the needs of their users and create captivating experiences.

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