From Paper to Prototype


By Heather O'Neill

I recently attended Usability Bootcamp run by Perfetti Media, to gather new knowledge on usability and more specifically, usability testing. One of the more interesting and surprising things I learned is a process called Paper Prototyping. The name denotes a concept far from my technical, internet-filled realm. Yet, after a single afternoon creating and running a paper prototype test, I’m sold. Bring back the pens, pencils, markers and, of course, paper. We’re going to build a web product!

We’re building a what? With what?

My first thought as we began the discussion was, “we’re really going to build a computer simulation with paper? REALLY?” In my mind, this was an overly complex process for potentially little gain. We were broken into groups, and off we went, creating. The premise for our “test” was to design a new touch screen kiosk for a fictitious taco joint. Off the bat, my team of seven had a multitude of ideas about the direction we should take. I was worried whether we’d find any way to reach a consensus to start drawing. Eventually we agreed upon a solution, and then we drew.

The first screen of our paper kiosk

And drew. The idea (a basic menu with customizable options on a new screen) became more solid as we drew, and we began cutting, drawing, taping and gluing with fervor. Before I knew it time was up for the design phase, and it was time to test our prototype.

Proof in the Pudding

Now we became The Paper Borg: a collective team acting as the computer for users from another team. Each member of our design team manned a different area of the prototype, moving the screens and buttons as the user interacted with our simulated kiosk by pointing and speaking. It was fast-paced and tiring but the process now seemed less complicated than I had thought. We were already seeing results.

These user tests were immediately effective in two ways:

  1. We discovered that we hadn’t thought of everything.
  2. We very visibly received real time feedback about what worked or did not work for our “potential customers”.

Amazing! And even better, changes could be made on the spot. We simply asked the user to step away while we drew a few pages, added buttons or changed some wording. Paper prototyping had instantaneous results, with the ineffective and effective demonstrated immediately. I was hooked.

Paper Prototypes 4evah?

Does this mean I will paper prototype for every project going forward? No. Some sites don’t need it, and some are too far into development for it to add value. However, when planning out a complex application from scratch, paper prototyping is much faster and exponentially more cost-efficient than doing an electronic prototype. Better than that, it also gets the whole team (not just the developer) involved. Everyone gets a say and everyone sees (and hears) the real-time results; by the end, my whole team was on the same page, so to speak, about our design. Your team can be there too.

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