4 Things I learned about Paper Prototyping

In the last few weeks, I had the pleasure of being able to user test with paper prototypes. Paper prototypes allows you to quickly iterate and test new changes with users and sometimes even make new changes on the spot.

Some people argue that paper prototypes are a waste of time since they take so long to make but I did find value in presenting my user testers with paper since they were less focused on the technology and more on the content. They can, however, get tricky with the endless stacks of papers, cutouts, and markings. Here are some of the things I learned about paper prototyping

Index Cards Make Great Mobile Screens


If you are like me and you wince at the sight of wonky lines and spend far too much times making the outline of the screen acceptable, index cards will be your best friends while paper prototyping. They are, after all, approximately the size of a phone screen and will save you the stress that comes with making outlines. This way, you can focus on the content itself and save the pixel tweaking for later.

Index cards are also very versatile in shape and since they are paper, you can cut, fold, and tape as you please to form what you need or to fix any mistakes that was previously made. Your screens can be as long as you need them to be or you can even fold them and have these screens "expand" if needed.

Buttons Need To Look Like Buttons

This piece of advice came from Kate Rutter who graciously pointed out that even though paper prototypes resembles screens, they, well, only resemble them and are not actually screens. Your user testers will see your paper prototype as a piece of paper and not really imagine it as a screen which means that you may need to be less subtle and more direct in your designs.

For example, as flat designs have become increasingly popular, they have also become more and more abstract. A button may just be two lines that span across the horizon and multiple buttons may be stacked upon each other. Now, on actual screens with proper pixels, your users will be able to understand what those are but when translating that onto paper, some of that meaning gets lost. It is best to then exaggerate things and make buttons look like buttons (i.e. draw a rectangle/square, add shading, etc.).



As mentioned above, user testers--especially first time testers--have a hard time imaging the piece of a paper as a screen and so what you can do to help ground the user testers is to walk them through a little bit before asking them to begin. 

This can take shape in many forms but some of the things you can do are:

  1. Take out your phone and place it near the index cards so that your users can see the physical relationship between the two. I found that this highlights the physical similarities which helps ground the user.
  2. You should also state that this paper prototype is meant to test mobile phone screens.
  3. Create a paper cut out of the phone and place that around the index card. This also helps ground the user but since this is a physical object that they can always see, this removes some of that mental load they were carrying and now they can focus solely on the content. 

Be Prepared & Know the Task Flow


It's easy to get lost in the excitement and clutter of paper but if you are not well prepared and know the task flow well, you will find yourself stumbling through the test. And when you take too long to get the next screen in front of the user, you will end up breaking the illusion of the paper prototype. Therefore, you should be prepared and know what screens come next and what the user task flow of that is.

I found it helpful to just tape all of my screens in order onto a large piece of paper. This helps me keep organized and stay organized during and after the testing.

Irene Ti