The unreasonable effectiveness of paper prototypes

The unreasonable effectiveness of paper prototypes

I love paper prototyping. It’s easy, it’s fluid, it’s creative and it’s even fun. Some of my best memories of software development are from times that I was huddled around a table with my team sketching ideas.

If you’ve never made a paper prototype before, don’t worry, it’s really easy. Just take out a pen and paper and start drawing.

Here are some paper prototypes that I made for my app Best Baby. I’ve put them next to the final screens.

They’re so happy

I used paper prototypes to design the information architecture, user-flows and user interactions. I even used my paper prototypes for some cheap and cheerful usability testing. I just asked a few friends and family to tap on the paper as if it was a real app.

Paper prototypes helped me make a better product. I was able to get more feedback more quickly from more people. This meant I got to do more iterations of my design in less time. Look how much the baby growth chart evolved.

They’re so happy

They’re great for teams

When you start paper prototyping with your team you unleash an amazing creative energy. You’ll notice that people who aren’t normally comfortable with “design” will suddenly start diving in with ideas.

They’re so happy

Don’t worry if you can’t draw, I can’t either. But looking rough is a major advantage for paper prototypes. The technical term for looking rough is “low fidelity” and low fidelity designs are good because they:

  • Don’t intimidate non-designers.
  • Encourage honesty. No-one will spare your feelings if they disagree with something you only spent 5 minutes drawing.
  • Avoid bike shedding over look and feel (branding, colours, typography, spacing, and images).
  • Are easy to throw away when you move on to the next iteration.

And remember, it doesn’t matter if your design looks rough as long as the final product looks good. You can always make pretty marketing images later. Take a look at a page of design next to a marketing image from my app Megan Nielsen Patterns.

They’re so happy

They’re good for usability testing

You can even use paper prototypes for usability testing. Just ask your test subjects to use a little imagination and pretend it’s a real app. Then you just pretend to be the device and swap out the paper when they navigate.

They’re so happy

You’ll feel a bit silly at first, but it can be fun.

It’s worth the effort too. Catching usability issues early makes them trivially easy to fix. Too many teams leave usability testing until after they finish the build when it’s hard to make changes. Or worse still, they just skip usability testing altogether and make horrible products. (I’m looking at you LinkedIn)

The best part is that it really doesn’t take many usability tests to catch most issues. According to the Nielsen Norman Group you catch 80% issues with the first 5 people.

But they’re bad for product validation

I hate it when people try to say that one tool is the best for everything. I love hammering things, but I wouldn’t use a hammer to change a light bulb. That would be nutty.

As much as I love paper prototypes, using them as a Minimum Viable Product is nutty.

If you’re doing something like Lean Startup and you need to test the viability of your product then you need to see the gut level reaction of potential customers. Paper prototypes don’t give you a gut reaction, there is just too much imagination involved. Sometimes you need to see an idea to understand how good or bad it is.

They’re so happy

Where to start

To start you just need some paper, stationary and scissors.

I’ve also found it really helpful to print out some templates of common screen sizes. Here is a link to some Free Printable Templates

They’re so happy

If you want to look like a real pro, you can even use apps like POP to take photos of your drawings and show them on a real device complete with navigation.

They’re so happy

The conclusion

For such a simple technique, paper prototypes are unreasonably effective. If you haven’t tried them before, I’d like to encourage you to give it a go. They’re simple, fun and can hugely improve your product development process.

Have fun.