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Paper prototyping is a very powerful tool early on in a new product build as it helps you to iron out ux and rapidly iterate.

However if you're working on an existing product and want to test small feature changes, adding fields to a form for example, or changing the layout of features should you consider paper prototyping as an option and if so how? Are there better methods of testing/building iteration...

FYI: This is inside a startup using lean-startup and user testing experiments each week

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There isn't a right way to do prototyping. People feel most comfortable with a range from paper prototypes to high fidelity Photoshop mockups. It all depends on the person doing them and their skills and preferences.

My usual method is to:

  1. Always start with paper / whiteboard sketches regardless of whether it's a new product or an iteration on an existing one. I find that it gives me the freedom to not think about the tool, and so it lets me focus on the problem.
  2. Once I think there is a winner idea, I move it to interactive wireframes, which I also use for initial user testing.
  3. Build the interface in whatever makes the most sense for the project and do more user testing.
  4. Iterate between stages until done.

You will find a lot of variation between people. Just try a few different things, and settle on what works best for you rather than try to copy the way that person x or person y does it.

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The goal is to get feedback as quickly and accurately as possible.

Paper prototyping is a great tool for rapid feedback - but it's not necessarily always the fastest way.

Choose the fastest way.

Some examples:

  • If I don't have any existing interface, I'll just jump to paper prototyping. That's going to be faster than building something.

  • I've got a build web app in a vaguely sane dev setup. I want to test how a new font choice and header layout effects usage. Adding in some CSS on a dev branch of the app is almost certainly going to be faster than mocking up the existing app on paper

  • I've got a built web app and I want to try out a new style of interaction on a page. That involves some serious dev time to do, but mocking up the existing app on paper would be a bit of a pain. I might do a bit of both and print out a few pages from the existing app and then paper prototype the new interaction on top of those to provide context.

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The very first step is to sketch your idea on a sheet of paper. If you consider yourself to be a bad artist - don’t let that stop you. A paper prototype isn’t about art, it’s about presenting the idea in a simplified way.

Take a sketchbook and a pen and try to put your idea on paper. To make it more visual, you can use a sketchbooks with phones templates on every page, or download and print such templates. This allows you to get a clear view of how the app will look on the device screen.

It is important to sketch all the screens of the app to get a clear structure. If your product includes many screens - present them on a single page, and add the connections.

A pen-and-paper sketch is just a draft for an interactive prototype. So, at this stage, you should pay more attention to key items and their placement and not to the detailed design. The UI of the future app or website is born right now.

Besides the pictures, you can sketch additional information that will be helpful for the project. Describe your buyer personas - the potential clients who will pay to use your product. Describe the possible user journey through the application, their steps and their impressions. And remember, you aren’t writing a novel, so don’t aim for perfection in your writing. A paper prototype is just a raw visualization of your thoughts.

Why are paper prototypes good?

Firstly, you can make them anytime, anywhere. Traveling on a train, walking the dog, watching the morning show - an idea can hit you unexpectedly. If you have a notepad and a pen, you are fully equipped for your first prototype. If not, check for other available material. Maybe you can grab several napkins from the nearest KFC.

Secondly, you don’t need any background in programming or design to know how to make a paper prototype. An understanding of your future product is enough.

Thirdly, prototypes cost you almost nothing. You don’t need expensive devices and prototyping tools to sketch the first model of your app. You won’t have to pay anyone for making the prototype for you. Yes, it will take you some time, but believe me, you would spend much more time explaining what you actually to a developer.

With a bit of creativity, your paper prototype can become interactive.

After the first paper prototype is ready, you can start showing it to other people. The visual presentation of your idea might be quite helpful for finding like-minded people, who will potentially join your team.

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