Counterpoint: Elaborate Paper Prototyping Is Not Cool

Scott Kiekbusch
Apr 8, 2019 · 4 min read

Have you seen this video making the rounds on design social media?

Oooh! Aaah! Paper prototypes so cool 🤩

And some of the responses…

LinkedIn going wild for the paper prototypes 🤪

FWIW my favorite comment is, “Pure UX!” I have no clue what that even means, but keep up the good work, Ivan.

I have another take. Unless the goal of the prototype was to show off someone’s exceptional arts & crafts skills, this is not cool, awesome, brilliant, or sweet. And it’s definitely not a “fun and effective way of prototyping.” This type of navel-gazing is a big waste of time and the kind of thing that gives designers bad reputations among our peers in business/product and technology circles.

“… So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Why do we prototype?

Good designers create prototypes with a purpose in mind (and it’s almost never to show off how well they can use scissors & glue sticks). We build prototypes to test a hypothesis—to learn something about our product and our users.

What can be learned by watching a user interact with the paper prototype pictured above? If you watch closely, you’ll see that the user isn’t manipulating content where the screen would be; they’re sliding a strip of paper to the right of the “screen.” They’re not even holding the device.

Sure, the gimmick with the heart icon spinning is pretty nifty, but is it an accurate representation of how someone would actually use this app? Not to mention, how long did it take to build & perfect that little spin mechanic? How long would it have taken if it were built with code?

Why paper prototypes are (usually*) a bad option

In addition to our primary intention of testing a hypothesis, when creating a prototype, the goal should be to build it as quickly as possible in order to effectively conduct the test. The more time we take to create the prototype, the less willing we are to throw it away or make changes to it. It’s a natural cognitive bias known as irrational escalation (closely related to sunk cost fallacy).

“…the justification of increased investment of money, time, lives, etc. in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment (‘sunk cost’) despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, beginning immediately, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.”

Using tools like Sketch, Framer, Studio, and InVision, digital prototypes can often be built very quickly depending on the hypothesis being tested. UI kits can be downloaded and interfaces of varying fidelities can be quickly pulled together just by dragging & dropping them onto artboards. These prototypes can then be exported to the actual devices for which they’re being designed, allowing users to manipulate the interface in a more natural & realistic manner which will improve the accuracy of testing results.

As an added benefit and time-saver some modern design tools can output code that can be used after prototyping—integrating it into the codebase of the production application.

Are you really saving time by arts & crafting a complex representation of user interactions with pieces of paper, and having people pretend to interact with it? Are you really learning about how they may understand the layout and manipulate the UI?

* When paper makes sense

Before moving to digital design & coding tools, I almost always start by sketching concepts. Lately, I’ve taken to drawing with the Apple Pencil on my iPad using the Notability app, but paper and whiteboards work great too. On a basic level, these drawings are very early low-fidelity paper prototypes. They can be shown to stakeholders and users who are savvy enough to understand that the drawings represent content and interfaces that will become interactive digital applications (fair warning: not everyone is able to make the mental leap between an early sketch and a polished digital interface; your results may vary). Directional feedback about content, layout, and user flows can be derived from the sketches even though they’re static images.

During a usability session when demonstrating/testing a digital prototype, paper (or whiteboards, or iPad sketching apps) can come in handy as well. Most usability participants & stakeholders aren’t experienced using digital design software. Sketching together with users or stakeholders to co-create alternate concepts is another effective use of paper prototyping.

Prototyping basics

I understand why the paper prototype video is getting a lot of social media attention. It features a clever and gimmicky arts & crafts project that looks like a prototype. But don’t be fooled; it’s bad design. I’ll leave you with three prototyping rules of thumb as a gift for reading to the end:

  1. Determine what you’re trying to learn first—build the prototype to inform your hypothesis
  2. Be wary of commitment. Treat your prototypes like speed dates, not spouses
  3. If you’ve spent more time tweaking & perfecting your prototype than actually testing it, something’s wrong

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great…

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great products; it’s a mindset that can enhance your career, your business, even your life.

Scott Kiekbusch

Written by

Digital product design & strategy expert. Team builder. Stoic. Keynote speaker. Co-Author of The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision http://amzn.to/2Epfb3U

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great products; it’s a mindset that can enhance your career, your business, even your life.