Power to the Paper (Prototype)


Power to the Paper (Prototype)

Jun 20, 2007By Michael Stoner

You may be asking yourself, “Who has time for that?!” And it’s a good question. It’s not unusual for site production to require all the time allotted and sometimes more. But building a large, complex website doesn’t mean that usability testing methods also need to be large and complicated. If you’re short on time and money but still in need of actionable feedback from website visitors the solution is simple—paper prototypes.

Sketch it, wireframe it, design it
In a nutshell, paper prototypes are simple, printed representations of the website interface you’d like to test. Depending on how far along the process of defining the information architecture or designing the interface you are—the paper prototypes could be hand drawn sketches, quickly constructed wireframes, or even print‐outs of fully designed interface mockups.

The actual format the prototypes take is less important than the end goal, which is to validate our ideas with the people that matter most—your visitors.

Quick, not dirty
If the project is a website, sketch the layout and navigation of a few key pages and get some feedback from visitors. Testing pools with as few as five people can provide meaningful feedback. And the testing environment doesn’t have to be high‐tech‐it can be as simple as three people sitting at a table-the visitor, the moderator and the note taker.

Find a quiet space and run the visitor through a simple usability protocol that asks him to find important content, evaluate essential features, or interact with key tools.

Did he find the most important content easily? Are your website features interesting and engaging? Are the fancy tools you’re about to ask IT to build easily understood? If so, great. If not, it’s time to revise. Detailed feedback this early in the process is enormously valuable—and it’s a whole lot easier to erase a pencil drawing than to rearchitect, rewrite and redesign an entire website once it’s launched.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

With each round of feedback and revision, you’ll get closer to the right solution. As the information architecture and interface evolve, it makes sense for the paper prototypes to become more polished. If you started with a rough sketch of the interface and have collected a few rounds of feedback, you should now be asking for visitor input on print‐outs of fully designed mockups.

With each stage of review you’ll become more aware of what’s working, what’s in need of revision, and what needs to be thrown away.

Obviously there are more intense and detailed testing methods available. We and our clients have had great success with MORAE testing, which allows us to track user eye movements and mouse clicks to more thoroughly understand visitor response to our sites in progress. But when time (and money) are short, why not go back to the basics? Paper prototyping can ensure that you have the critical visitor feedback you need and in the course of just a few weeks, you can be confident that you’re on the road to success.

  • Michael Stoner

    Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?