The Value of Paper Prototyping

When I was working on the wireframe stage of the NCsoft West web site redesignI began by sketching the main templates out on paper.

I find the whole process of paper prototyping to be extremely valuable.

Here’s a photo of some early prototypes attached to my bulletin board (sorry for the iPhone quality):

Paper prototypes for the NCsoft West redesign
Paper prototypes for the NCsoft West redesign

Rather than sketch the whole page on a sheet of paper, I prefer to draw out the various components of the page, cut them out, and Blu-Tack them to the paper.

This makes it easy to change different elements, switch them around, etc, without having to redraw the whole page each time.

Sketching out and adding individual components in this way enabled me to quickly come up with a general template layout. I then went back to particular features about which I had more concrete ideas and drew them out in more detail.

I would revise some of these components multiple times as I tried out different layouts and features.

This process also enabled me to quickly and easily try out different page layouts in order to spot potential issues, whether they were related to usability or to the goals of the page.

Plus, it made the work feel like a craft project! Unlike Visio, it’s great fun to do, and when you spend the majority of your day staring at a computer screen it’s nice to do something more tactile.

However, I did garner a number of odd looks from passers-by who were wondering what on earth I was up to.

Creating paper prototypes in this fashion also helped the wireframe review process. I could stand in front of the cork board with my web designer while we discussed a template and unlike on a computer screen, no matter how long the page was we could see it all.

If we had new ideas or changes, it took no time to replace the areas in question with new ones.

Another really helpful feature of paper prototypes — as long as you have them visibly attached to your wall — is that you get to look at them every day.

I found this to be invaluable for letting the wireframe ‘sink in’ so that I could view it and review it multiple times a day and make sure that I was happy with it.

This level of visibility also enabled my team to have many opportunities to view the wireframes, understand them, and provide feedback. This would never have happened to the same degree with electronic wireframes.

Paper prototypes are a terrific, low-cost way to try out design ideas, share (and test) them with your colleagues, and to spend time with your design before layout and features are committed.

If you’re not using paper prototyping for your early design work I highly recommend giving it a try.