Before you start…..

Paper prototype does have its advantages over other visualization techniques. It is a carefully crafted activity that transforms all the “blah blah blah” into concrete form.

I have been the proponent of paper prototyping for many years. Though this design tool helps you to design technology-agnostic solutions (enterprise portals, dashboard, mobile apps, interactive television program, etc.) there are some aspects of this process which you want to consider before you start sketching.

1) A mature customer
User experience activities are generally driven by user experience practice managers or product managers or the CxOs of the organization who really care about product they want to design for mass consumption. A mature customer is the one who will encourage to go deeper down the fundamentals of requirements (talk about user psyche and cultural memetics), sit down with the designers in brainstorming activities (.e.g. card sorting, quick and dirty concepts, etc.) and help UE designers understand the big picture (ecosystem, processes, inputs and outputs). Its fair to assume that in practical scenarios all these tasks are divided between different team members and you rarely come across a customer who will provide you inputs at one go. The bottom-line – revealing key information to UE designers is a must. Some nuances of user information directly determine what you are going to put on the paper.

2) Technology is a magic box
We are familiar with all types of UI patterns around us. The ubiquitous widgets, controls, patterns have made us wiser in picking and applying those UI patterns in familiar situations. E.g. we will not choose art cover pattern for address book. Sometimes it does help to take out these patterns from your library, print them and take them with you.

Even its good to have data visualizations with you. iOS, Android, Windows mobile and other OS-specific UI controls will be handy too. The idea is that you can create a fusion of available patterns that justifies the user journeys. If you are that brilliant, you can even invent one :).

When you put down these patterns on a paper you are creating a technology-agnostic solution. You don’t care about whether its going to work or not (that will be done after you put things on paper, by the development team). For you, technology is a magic box. And you are the magician.

3) Time keeping & granularity
Regardless of the software development life cycles that you are participating in, paper prototypes are designed in a very fast and effective manner.
It may be good to go with a team size of at least 2 UE designers who can divide the user journey amongst themselves. What level of details you incorporate in your paper prototypes will directly determine the overall timeline of your work.

While designing the paper prototypes, keep in mind the verbiage/content/user vocabulary. Its better to draw granular details on paper – it removes abstraction, helps in exploring design options (if you want to chose from UI patterns) and makes the design believable. You are the best judge of what will go on to the paper. Aid paper prototypes with your comments, Post-it notes, etc.

It is possible to compact the paper prototyping activity in 3/4 days or a week. It depends upon how much time your customer is willing to put in this activity. For all the ideas that are emerged in these days, take a judicious call about what you want to sketch.

4) Tools of the trade
Papers, pencils (0.7mm is my preferred choice), color pencils/pens, highlighters, markers, Post-it notes, scales, cutters/scissors (to cut papers), push-pins, soft-boards (to put your paper prototypes for discussions), cello tapes, double-sided tapes, camera (to capture white boarding activities) and a scanner (for scanning the paper prototypes).

5) Beyond paper prototyping
Paper prototypes are generally throw-away prototypes. Meaning, that these prototypes will get mature over discussions and time. One should not get too much attached with these paper prototypes. Their existence and usage is limited. One has to churn many iterations of the same prototype over weeks before latching on to a concrete idea.

Involve development team from the start – they also have a say in what we design. But don’t kill your ideas on paper. Paper prototypes that survive and mature over the time are finally taken to the wireframing stage – you digitize everything that has been recorded on paper. One of the pitfalls of paper prototyping is that it does not have interactivity. Wireframe design is the next logical step once you are done with paper prototypes.

It all starts on paper…..

During my design school days (8 yrs ago) when I was working on interaction design projects, paper prototyping helped me a lot in giving the concrete shapes to my abstract ideas. Paper prototyping cleared a lot of ambiguity. I was able to demonstrate how the digital product would look like and how it will behave.

Since then, I have been an ardent follower and practitioner of paper prototyping. I have seen that some interaction designers have an inclination to skip this step and jump directly to tools like Axure, iRise, Visio, etc. The interaction design students too have tendency to disregard the power of paper prototyping and the possibilities that it opens up.

Paper prototype helps you to give concrete form to the user task flows. It is a starting point of everything related to your digital product design. A social app, an iPad app, a desktop widget, enterprise applications or dashboard – everything can be designed on paper.

I was designing an astrology portal four years ago. The product manager did not have any clue of what design process I followed. I did exhaustive sessions with his development team to arrive at the information architecture. When the first sketches (paper prototypes) of the portal started to emerge, the manager got curious. Subsequent discussions on the paper prototype ensured that all the “requirements” had been addressed and we finalized the user journeys. Only after that visual design mockups were produced. The development team harnessed the utility of paper prototypes and saved a lot of development cost, in this process.

Known web entities too champion for the need of prototyping (some root for paper prototyping & some for iterative prototyping). 37signals recommends to prototype fast and often. I have worked as a consultant to eBay and eBay gives thumbs up for paper prototyping. So does AT&T.

Whenever in doubt, go back to paper. It will help you a lot. Just take out the paper and pencil, sketch it out. If you are convinced, you will convince others about the next ground breaking product. And paper prototype will help you to just do that.