Home > Human Factors Methodology > Paper prototyping – 2D and 3D

Paper prototyping – 2D and 3D

What is it

Paper prototyping is a classic method for usability testing, specifically in the early stages of the product development process. Jakob Nielsen described the method in his blog as one of the fastest and cheapest rapid prototyping methods in the design process. All it needs is an idea for the conceptual interface design, paper, scissors, and glue. The conceptual design of an interface is sketched on paper. The paper sketches are shown to a user who is then asked to fulfil a task on the interface. The user then e.g., presses a button and in consequence the designer (playing the “computer) changes the picture in front of the user. Users can interact with the paper interface as they would do with a real product. It is an easy method to compare different conceptual designs without worrying about the implementation. Paper prototypes should be simple and should not include a finalised colour concept or high quality graphics as that is not what a paper prototype helps to evaluate. At best it is simply a sketch. The following characteristics of an interface can be evaluated with a paper prototype:

  • General Concept
  • Understandability
  • Navigation
  • Information Architecture
  • Functional Requirements (test if complete to fulfil the task)

How does it work in general

The video shows how a paper prototype and interaction with it look like. Different menus, tool tips and pop-ups, all that can be designed. Remember to think about which tasks you want to evaluate and how they can be achieved in the interface. What interactions does the user need to make? For each interaction an according change in the paper needs to be prepared. Users might take different interactions then expected. So prepare paper prototype “reactions” for unexpected interactions as well. That could be a site with “lorem ipsum” or just a blank page with “under construction”. Those preparations help to let the user explore the interface and helps you to see where users have difficulties in getting along with the interface. Are the actions might want to take to fulfil the task clearly presented in the interface? Does the user get apropriate feedback for each interaction he/she does on the interface?

The advantage of a paper prototype is that it can be easy redesigned. In the next iteration you could, e.g., try a different concept or rename a menu and see if that supports the user to better fulfil the task. You do not need many users for a usability test. According to Jakob Nielsen about 85% of usability faults can be found with about 5 users (“Why you need to test with 5 users”).

If you want to read more about paper prototyping, Carolyn Snyder wrote a book about it.

Paper prototypes in 3D

I recently came over an article were paper prototyping is applied to a 3D design. The article from Säde et al. (1998) is quite old, but because of the 3D paper prototype I thought of it worth explaining herein. They used a paper prototype to test a design for a drink can refund machine. The prototype was build out of foamcore cardboard, glued together with a glue pistol. The interface was represented by coloured print-outs. Lights in the interface were represented as coloured paper attached to the panel. To design 3D paper prototypes it is way to look at industrial designers. Here is another example for a 3D paper prototype of a toaster (yes, a toaster):

Last but not least you find some tools for paper prototypes on the bottom of this website. More information of how to to design 3D paper prototypes with cardboard can be found on this website.

Other Sources:

Säde, S., Nieminen, M., and Riihiaho, S. (1998). “Testing usability with 3D paper prototypes – Case Halton System”

Jakob Nielsen (2003). “Paper Prototyping: Getting User Data Before You Code”. (online) https://www.nngroup.com/articles/paper-prototyping/

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