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July 21, 2015

The Importance of Paper Prototyping in the Creative Process

Last summer I helped my sweet grandma clean out her two-car garage. Items were precariously stacked from wall to wall, and only a small path allowed for traveling around the perimeter.  Gram hadn’t been able to pull her car in since she moved in ten years ago. Her garage was the one exception to her normally tidy home, but it was getting so bad that she didn’t know where to start. So my husband and I planned a day to help. We found a mountain of Christmas supplies, furniture from many decades, and my Star Wars/Power Rangers fan fiction that I wrote in 4th grade, painstakingly hidden from my sisters and mother. I found sports awards, certificates for minor achievements, and a time capsule where I predicted that in 2010 gas would be up to $1.25 (I wish!). Why, you ask, am I including this story on a blog about paper prototyping?

Because then I found my art journal. Filled to the brim with images, quotes, thumbnails, and sketches, it chronicled many projects from watercolors of local architecture to mixed media self-portraits. In high school I spent all my free electives in art class. I loved the freedom of working with different supplies and techniques to solve visual problems. As I flipped through the journal, I saw how my entries evolved from detailed sketches to quick thumbnails. Although it was a hard lesson for me, thumbnails represented a roadblock that once I overcame, improved the quality of my work more than any technical skill that year.

BackToSchoolI clearly remember the day my high school art teacher introduced us to thumbnails. I remember this mostly because I pestered him with questions of how they possibly could be important. We were using all these amazing techniques and developing new skills, and now he wanted us to go back to small simple scribbles? Why, would anyone in their right mind use these tiny things and how could they be useful at all? Having made up my mind, I decided against using them, dismissing them as a waste of time.

Later that year, I was given a very detailed project and I jumped right in.  Although my technical skill was good, the composition of the piece was poor. I realized this halfway through, but by then it was too late. I tried and tried to salvage it to no avail. The whole thing had to be scrapped. So I started anew, again without thumbnails, and hours into the project I realized that again the composition wasn’t working. I knew I couldn’t turn it in and asked for an extension. At this point my teacher was suspicious and asked to see my thumbnail sketches, to which I couldn’t produce. He granted the extension under the condition that he saw the thumbnails before I began.

So still begrudgingly, I completed the thumbnails. I did three and showed them to him. He shook his head and prompted me to do more. I sighed and got back to work, feeling as if I were being punished. So for the next few minutes I sketched. After working through a series of 20 or so it started to click. I could produce them so quickly. I began to see this small sketch as a tool to plan and explore without consequence. This was a way to test my ideas before I got in the middle of something that would take hours to rework. My third try on the assignment took less time to complete and I got the composition right that time. The more I drew and practiced with thumbnails, the better I got at planning the composition of the piece.

Paper prototypes are like thumbnails.

In its broadest sense, paper prototyping can be considered a method of brainstorming, designing, creating, testing, and communicating user interfaces. Paper prototyping is a variation of usability testing where representative users perform realistic tasks by interacting with a paper version of the interface that is manipulated by a person “playing computer,” who doesn’t explain how the interface is intended to work. 1 A few of paper prototyping’s advantages include:

  • Provides substantial user feedback early in the development, before you’ve invested in implementation
  • Promotes rapid iterative development. You can change things as you go or between user tests
  • Does not require any technical skills, so a multidisciplinary team can work together
  • Can be faster than other prototyping tools for many situations
  • Encourages different types of feedback as people respond differently to rough sketches on paper than they do to designs on a computer

The technique of paper prototyping is platform independent and is often used for apps, handheld devices, websites, software, and even hardware. Anything that has a human-computer interaction is a potential candidate for paper prototyping.


When I learned about paper prototypes a few years ago during my doctoral classwork at the University of Baltimore, I felt the same initial reservations towards them as I felt towards thumbnails. I can do all these amazing things, why would I spend that time with sticky notes and drawings when I could be using my skills to make a more sophisticated prototype? Why aren’t we starting with Axure, or some other tool or platform to create something more interactive? And then it hit me. Whether for art class or designing interactions, planning and testing ideas and concepts goes a long way. Working through problems before beginning the development or even the technical prototypes will save countless hours and has the potential to improve the overall design and user experience.

Paper prototypes are like thumbnails.

If you would like to learn more about paper prototyping and how it can help you with your design strategy, join me for “How to Conduct a Usability Test with Paper Prototyping” helt at Betamore on August 4, from 5:30-8pm. Register Here

Jenny Owens ScD, is a higher education and user experience professional who leverages the power of data to help people make good decisions.


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