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Monica Zaczynski

Monica Zaczynski

Akendi Alumnus

Paper Prototyping and Unconstructed Thought

During my years in design school we were encouraged (and actually required) to always begin our work by sketching – away from our computers, away from structure and grids – on a blank piece of paper with a pencil. To be clear, I haven’t ever claimed to be the greatest artist, and amongst many great illustrators in my classes presenting sketch concepts was always an intimidating practice.

It initially felt like needless torture because I knew I could put together my thoughts more clearly for an audience on the computer than I could with my lack-luster scribbles, but nonetheless I had to present paper sketches anyways.

The Real Benefits of Brainstorming on Paper

Documenting all the ideas

You may come back to them. Get ALL the ideas out even if they don’t make complete sense. All ideas have value if not just to acknowledge they eventually don’t work. Who knows! an idea that doesn’t work may inspire a new direction.

Its About Communicating, not Being an Illustrator

You may be self-conscious about your illustration skills at first but while you’re discussing your work you’ll quickly realize that your drawings are really just speaking tools. If the audience can understand your idea while you’re explaining it then your drawings have done their job.

It’s not About a Complete Working Idea

You don’t have to have everything worked out. This is where you can mix and match different approaches to try and create an entirely new approach to the problem you’re trying to address. You can get feedback on even the smallest of interactions.

Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft, has said that you first need to get the right design before you move on to getting the design right. I think sketching on paper allows you to not over think, not spend too much on needless visual refinement and focus on the concepts.

To relate this to paper prototyping, I’ll first provide a definition: A paper prototype is a sketch — a quick visualisation of your idea or interaction. Unlike visual concept sketching – a paper prototype doesn’t always have to look like the final visual design. The reason we paper prototype is to assess the idea or the interaction, not the sketch itself.

To be clear, this is not an opportunity for team members to design solutions that can be voted on by the design team. What we really want to do with our prototype is quickly get ideas down and review or test them with users. This is because paper prototyping isn’t just about designing ideas and solutions — it’s about iterating them.

Let’s get started!

Here’s what you need:

  • Paper (scrap, construction, post-its, whatever…)
  • Tape or glue
  • Drawing tools (pencil crayons, pens, markers etc..)

And what you need to get rid of:

  • Worry about drawing skill inadequacies
  • Worry about judgment
  • Your bad attitude about paper prototyping being a waste of time
  • Thoughts that you could produce something more effective on a computer

That’s it. I’ve seen other sites offer cutouts of common interaction elements or encouraging photocopying… anything that works. Its not supposed to be structured. You just need to start and get things on paper so you can find out which ideas don’t work, and refine the ones that do.

Having a diverse group (not just the design team) can help contribute a range of ideas and perspectives. Once everyone gets into the exercise, it’s easy to get over lack of artistic ability and you quickly realize how little it really matters. It’s the idea that matters.

And here’s the best part; testing with paper prototypes – a.k.a. WITHOUT expensive software, or wasted time and dollars spent on design and development professionals – has been shown to be just as effective as high-fidelity prototypes at finding usability issues. This means tons of savings in development costs just by getting a group of people together for an afternoon of drawing.

Not only is paper prototyping a fun and interactive way to collaborate and get on the same page as your team with a project, its saves you money in the long run. How can you argue with that?

Monica Zaczynski

Monica Zaczynski

Akendi Alumnus


Thanks for this enthusiastic article about “prototyping”. This is a nice description of a bottom-up design approach. But the way you talk about prototyping is really a pure creative process : the artist is in front of his canvas ready to develop his own language. Something you did not talk about is the starting point : design start from an “issue” (in HCI, not in Visual Arts), or a group of requirements. Looking at the big picture, the process of Human-centred design, prototyping is coming right after the analysis of the context of use, and from that, the definition of functional and UX requirements. The activity of prototyping is directly grounded in those requirements. Do you things that the real challenge of prototyping is to provide many ideas around one of many stated “problems” or “issues”?

“Its about communicating, not being an illustrator.”
+10 to this.

Printed this article and handed to a couple of folks in the Marketing dept.
Sometimes people lose sight of what’s important and focus on the unnecessary.

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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.