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What is Paper Prototyping?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Paper prototyping is a process that is sometimes used to develop, design, and test various aspects of a computer program or user interface (UI) within a program that is being developed. The basic process involves the creation of a paper version of the UI and program on multiple pages and cards of paper that can be used to represent how the actual program will run with a user. This is typically done while a program is still in the early stages of development, allowing the designers to quickly develop and test different ideas without extensive artwork creation or programming. Paper prototyping can then be used with a tester to demonstrate how the UI might actually function with a user on a computer.

As a design practice, paper prototyping has been used in various ways for many years and in a variety of applications. Conceptually it is similar to the creation of thumbnails or a mockup for a piece of artwork before the final artwork is developed in advertising. When used with software development, however, it allows developers to create and test various aspects of a program without actually performing any programming. A company can save a great deal of money and time by using paper prototyping before testing software while it is still in development.

Paper prototyping usually consists of using sheets of paper, note cards, and similar objects to create a paper representation of what a program’s UI will look like. Different windows that might be opened can be represented by separate sheets of paper and cards, each displaying the images and options a user will be provided with while navigating the system. Changing options through paper prototyping is as simple as writing and drawing on a new sheet of paper or making changes on an existing sheet. This is much simpler than making changes to a program within the code being created for that program.

Testing of a UI for a program can be performed using paper prototyping as well. This is often done by having several people in a room together, with one person acting as the virtual computer while the tester sits on the opposite side of a small table. The user is given no instructions but is allowed to interact with the paper prototype manually, using his or her hand and fingers to represent the cursor that would navigate the actual program.

As the tester interacts with the prototype, the person acting as virtual computer demonstrates how the computer would act if the actual program was being used. The person will change pages and bring up new sheets of paper and cards to represent how the actual system would work. This allows paper prototyping to gauge how users will actually interact with a UI and then make changes as necessary while software is still in the early stages of development.

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