In the high tech world of digital design, sometimes the best method is still pen and paper.
To this day, paper prototypes continue to be not only viable, but also widely used. In this article we’ll talk about when to use them, why they can help, and how to make one to suit your own needs.
What Is Paper Prototyping?
As you might have guessed, paper prototyping is sketching screenshots on paper as substitutes for digital representations. What you might not have guess, there are actually different levels of complexity.
The most basic paper prototypes are sketches of each screen. In a demonstration or usability test, the sketches are switched according to user actions.
However, due to the popularity of prototyping on paper, several advanced tools are available to facilitate the process. You can use stencils to quickly and accurately recreate buttons and icons, and even mock phone cases to better depict how the product form will look.
A step above these are paper prototyping kits, which still cost significantly less than design software. These include pre-made sheets, templates, and tools to make paper prototyping even easier, and step up the realism a little. In fact, UXPin got its start making paper prototyping kits, and business was good enough to launch our digital app.
At the most advanced stage, you can upload photos of your paper sketches into digital prototyping software, and add actual interactions.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Obviously, paper prototyping is not a complete substitute for digital prototyping. It does, however, have some advantages its higher-fidelity counterpart does not. Let’s review the paper prototyping advantages and disadvantages as we described in The Ultimate Guide to Prototyping.
- Rapid iteration — No one wants to throw out a digital prototype that took hours to make, but few shed tears over a 5-minute sketch. Prototyping on paper lets you create — and throw away — multiple versions without wasting time.
- Inexpensive — Paper is of course cheap, and even additional tools and kits won’t break the bank.
- Increased creativity — The freedom of pencil and paper facilitates experimentation and new ideas more than software, which is limited by their features and the designer’s familiarity.
- Team-building — Don’t underestimate the effects of fun arts and crafts in a business environment. Drawing, cutting, and pasting together can build team unity and raise spirits.
- Less learning curve — Everyone can sketch ideas, which makes paper prototyping a great way to get other departments like marketing, development, or even stakeholders involved.
- Automatic documentation — Paper prototypes are, themselves, a tangible document. Notes can be written directly on them for future iterations, and they can be left in full view as a reminder of what they taught.
Photo Credit: Fairhead Creative
- No gut reactions — So much of UX design comes from the user’s gut reactions on using the product. However, there’s just no way to replicate the experience of using a digital product on paper, no matter how detailed it is.
- Inaccurate feedback — Paper prototypes require a great deal of imagination, and there’s a lot lost when imagining what a product will be like. What the users are thinking may be different than what you are, but the feedback doesn’t reflect this.
- Extra steps — Paper prototyping is often the end in itself, begging the question “is this necessary?” Considering how streamlined the usability of digital prototyping apps are, it might be quicker to build digital lo-fi prototypes with software than to spend time with paper and later move to the software anyway. Of course, as mentioned before, apps like ours allow you to integrate photos of paper sketches, so it doesn’t have to be a waste.
When to Paper Prototype
Jake Knapp of Google Ventures is starkly against paper prototyping, but even he admits it’s useful for early-stage conceptualizing.
With its drawbacks in mind, you can understand paper prototypes’ limitations in testing high-fidelity graphics, usability, and gut reactions. Even elements like navigation and information architecture seem out of bounds.
That said, paper prototyping is perfect for early stage conceptualizing. Its speed, ease, and simplicity, not to mention automatic documentation, make it far better suited for experimenting with new ideas than more complex digital prototypes.
Paper prototypes are ideal for:
- Brainstorming meetings and sessions
- Light usability testing early on
The farther along in the design process you get, the less effective paper prototypes become. The exception is if you want to explore a complete experimental deviation in the later stages.