Many pages in the book are devoted to arguments for justifying paper prototyping and validating the approach. I find it hard to believe anyone would need all of that ammunition to justify such a common-sense approach. The author had me convinced in a very few pages that paper prototyping is one of the most useful tools available to UX professionals. Paper prototyping is a simple technique that lets you quickly communicate your user interface design ideas, test designs early and economically, and iteratively refine your designs—even during a usability test.
The book comprises four principal parts:
- Part I: Introduction to Paper Prototyping
- Part II: Process: Conducting a Usability Study with a Paper Prototype
- Part III: Deciding Whether to Use Paper
- Part IV: Broadening the Focus
Part I largely fulfills its objective, in providing a good introduction to paper prototyping. Once I’d read the author’s description of paper prototyping, I was eager to get to practical information about creating paper prototypes. However, Chapter 1 awkwardly mixes its introduction to paper prototyping with an introduction to the book; the presence of an entire chapter of case studies dilutes the practicality of Part I; and, inexplicably, the chapter “Preparing the Prototype” is buried in Part II, which is about usability testing, rather than appearing in Part I, where the focus is on paper prototyping.
Part II provides a basic reference on usability testing, covering everything in chronological order from planning and task design to facilitating, conducting, and observing tests of paper prototypes and capturing, prioritizing, and communicating test results.
I would have liked the author to relegate all of her justifications for paper prototyping and case studies to the back of the book, keeping them strictly separate from the practical information in Parts I and II.
Part III takes a very analytical approach to describing what kinds of usability issues paper prototyping is and is not good at revealing and examining whether paper prototyping produces valid results or introduces bias. It also addresses the political issues that arise when an organization is considering doing paper prototyping. Finally, it covers what circumstances are conducive to using paper prototyping on a project and those that are not.
Part IV describes several user-centered design projects, but could have more appropriately been titled “Paper Prototyping in Practice” if it had included all of the case studies and war stories that appeared earlier in the book along with its examples of user-centered design.
Finally, the book includes an extensive list of references and a detailed index.
If, like me, you prefer reading books that are concise, well-organized references on practical techniques, you’ll feel ambivalent about this book. While many sections of the book are organized for easy reference, with bulleted lists, tables, and step-by-step instructions, not all are.
This book contains all of the information you’d need to create and test a paper prototype, but some of that information is presented in a narrative style that makes the book more difficult to use as a reference. That said, the author’s storytelling style is engaging and easy to digest, and much of the information is chunked for easy skimming.
Most of the content in this book is great, but Part IV seems not to be wholly relevant to the topic of paper prototyping, and there are a few other sections of the book that could have been improved by some trimming.
What Is Paper Prototyping?
Here is Carolyn Snyder’s definition of paper prototyping:
“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.”
Paper prototyping provides many benefits. According to Snyder, paper prototyping
- “is fast and inexpensive”
- “provides substantive user feedback early in the development process—before you’ve invested effort in implementation
- promotes rapid iterative [design] …
- facilitates communication within the development team and between the development team and customers
- does not require any technical skills …
- encourages creativity in the product development process”
- “imposes relatively few constraints on a design”
- “gets users and other stakeholders involved early in the process”
Snyder says, “In paper prototyping, you first create a realistic set of tasks and then build the prototype to support them, which forces you to visualize the entire process of what users will be doing. … It’s really walking through the tasks that allows us to see an interface from a user’s perspective. The paper prototype simply makes it possible for this to happen earlier in the development process, when it’s less painful to make changes.”
The way people respond to unfinished designs that are hand drawn on paper also provides some advantages, according to Snyder, because paper prototypes are “less intimidating than a computer,” encourage “a more creative response from reviewers,” and discourage “nitpicky feedback, because it’s obvious that you haven’t specified the look yet.” While, as Snyder points out, “A polished-looking prototype can encourage low-level feedback about the visual aspects of the design. When something appears to be finished, minor flaws stand out and will catch the user’s attention.”
“Because paper prototypes … let you see the strengths and weaknesses of a design early on, …” says Snyder, “they facilitate the kind of quantum design leaps that lead to greatly improved usability. … Paper prototyping facilitates the process of incorporating many people’s ideas into a design, and usually that’s a good thing.”
Creating a Paper Prototype
In Chapter 4, “Making a Paper Prototype,” Snyder provides excellent, detailed information about crafting a paper prototype, including a list of the office supplies that she uses. She creates a poster-board background that underlies all of the prototype pieces and represents an operating system or application on a computer screen or other digital display. Snyder gives many practical tips for prototyping interface widgets, representing users’ choices, and simulating interaction.
Describing a technique she learned from Jared Spool called incredibly intelligent Help, Snyder says, “When users get stuck, the facilitator prompts them to ask a question about what’s confusing them. One of the product team members …[playing the role of the Help system] gives a terse answer. … If the users are still confused, they can ask another question and the Help system will provide a bit more detail…. The purpose of incredibly intelligent Help is to find the piece of information that makes the light bulb go on in the user’s head…. Write down the questions users ask and the explanations given. After the test, see whether the information users needed can be incorporated directly into the interface … or, if that is not practical, …[include it in the Help].”
Planning a Usability Study With a Paper Prototype
Throughout Part II of the book, Snyder delves deeply into the fine points of usability testing with paper prototypes, providing many practical tips. In Chapter 5, “Planning a Usability Study with a Paper Prototype,” Snyder provides an overview of her usability process, as follows:
- Hold a kickoff meeting.
- Determine the goals of and plan the usability study.
- Define user profiles and recruit characteristic users for the study.
- Create realistic tasks users will perform during usability tests.
- Create the prototype pieces users need to perform those tasks.
- Before testing begins, have the team do walkthroughs of the testing process.
- Conduct usability tests, recording the usability issues that were discovered during each test.
- Refine the prototype following each test.
- Hold a debriefing meeting, during which the team prioritizes unresolved usability issues.
- Determine solutions for those issues or log issues for later resolution.
- Communicate the results of the study to the broader organization.
Snyder states that “all usability problems have one root cause: The development team didn’t know something that turned out to be important. This ignorance might be about what users needed, how they would interpret a term, how they would behave, or any other sort of missing information or incorrect assumption. Until you start doing usability testing, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
In discussing risk management, Snyder says, “The real value of paper prototyping comes from its ability to point out problems early in the development process, while it’s still easy to avoid them. Therefore, you should design your usability tests around whatever aspects of the user experience you are most worried about…. … Paper prototyping is an excellent tool for risk management, because it helps you clarify what you do and don’t know about how well your interface will work, and it can help the team make important decisions. … At the kickoff meeting, ask everyone … what things they’re concerned about and/or would like to know more about.” The kickoff meeting provides an opportunity for discussing business risks, new features, what important design decisions remain unresolved, what features of a product have elicited the most negative feedback, and “what tasks are critically important to users.”
Snyder offers this advice about scheduling tests: “It’s important to leave time between tests to review what you’ve learned and make changes to the prototype.”
According to Snyder, good user profiles “consist of no more than a handful of factors, …distinguish between requirements and nice-to-haves, and …mention characteristics to screen out.” “Testing with five to eight users will provide enough data for you to see the main patterns, provided that you use roughly the same set of tasks …and the users are from the same profile.”