Paper Prototype User Testing

September 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

A heavily underutilized tool in the UI development and testing toolset is the paper prototype user test.  Paper prototype tests have literally saved me and the companies I have worked for hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars.  The test itself is really simple.  Like all other forms of user testing, the most difficult step is getting the testers to show up and do the test.

A paper prototype test is just like an on-screen user test, except instead of using a computer, mouse and keyboard, the user looks at mockups, uses their finger as a mouse pointer, and uses their mouth to type.  The test administrator plays the role of “computer” and presents the appropriate mockups in front of the user, depending on where they “click” with their finger.  These tests are phenomenally effective at testing navigation and design on real users.  In my experience paper prototype tests are just as good as on-screen tests as catching areas in need of improvement with the added benefit of being able to improve on and test new designs throughout test day.  The process allows you to quickly and cheaply iterate on designs and test them without ever touching code or expending development resources.

The book Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces is the definitive resource on paper prototyping but it is several hundred pages and honestly it is overkill. If you have read Don’t Make Me Think (and if you haven’t, read it today) and you are comfortable conducting on-screen users tests, you can absolutely conduct a paper prototype user test.

This past summer we worked through a massive consumer facing redesign of the Liftopia website and paper prototypes played a significant role.  After the internal product team iterated on the designs and got them as good as we thought we could, we put up signs around our building calling for testers, printed out our mockups (complete with dropdown menus), taped out a “monitor” area on our conference table and went to town.

I was able to jump into Fireworks halfway through the test at lunch, make several modifications that after the first few testers was glaringly necessary, then reprint and test the modifications on the afternoon testers.  By the end of the day we had our mockups fully tested and could confidently move them on to implementation.

If you have any experiences with paper prototype user testing I would love to hear them.  Fire away in the comments.

user test flyer

User Test Flyer

paper prototype user test

Paper Prototype User Test


§ 2 Responses to Paper Prototype User Testing

  • martin says:

    Hi Rob, very interesting post.

    How did you conduct the actual testing? The approach I’m thinking about is to print off paper copies the JPEGs our designer has done in Photoshop and ask testers questions like ‘How would you search for X’ then get them to mark with a pen where they would click.

    What did you do?


    • Rob Webb says:

      Hi Martin – to run the test you play the role of “computer” and show the user the screens they navigate to. The user uses their finger as a mouse and “clicks” around. You frame scenarios and observe usage just like in a normal on-screen user test, but play the role of computer at the same time. It works incredibly well.

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