Lars Damgaard
strategic user experience designer
December 26th 2012

Don’t use software for user experience design

When using a computer to build prototypes for user experience design, you are bound to loose yourself in a world of details. At least I often do.

Even though I use tools that are designed for rapid prototyping (whether it’s Axure, Fireworks or simply html, css and javascript) such tools still make me think about all the possible details. How is this or that box going to fit into the grid. And what kind of grid will I be using by the way? Do I want continuous scrolling, “more” buttons or classic pagination on my lists? Or do I like this shade of gray better than that shade of grey for my boxes. Do I like rounded corners on my buttons or not. Do I want dots or arrows on my carousel and so on. I just can’t help it.

Obviously, these are fair considerations if you make them at the right time, but if you start your user experience design process by firing up your preferred wireframing software, chances are that you will indulge yourself in details instead of thinking about the basic concept. Which is really what you should be doing in the early phases of any design process.

Use paper prototypes and throw them out

In my view, what you should do instead is find yourself a pen and a stack of paper. With this, I refer to a practice that user experience designers either hate or love: sketching. The people who love it are usually also the people who are really good at it, but that’s besides the point for now. The main argument I want to make is that paper prototypes are easy to make, easy to critique and easy to throw away again and that this way of working is an important way of increasing the quality of user experience design.

Paper keeps you in the mood for critique

It’s not just good because of the multiple explorations and iterations it allows you to do in short time, though that’s a good thing too. More importantly, working this way means that you won’t become too emotionally attached to your mockups. This is important because it makes it so much easier for you and your team to critique ideas and loop through strengths and weaknesses in different concepts.  If you have spent a whole week adding more and more details to your wireframes using design software and even did this as your point of departure, you will be more likely to stick with your ideas, even the bad ones, simply because you get too attached to it. In my view, using pen and paper and having other people see your ideas from the beginning is a really good way of keeping yourself open for critique.

Pitfall I: Failing to create the illusion

However, one major methodological and practical weakness when using paper prototypes is the extent to which your pen and paper design does (or doesn’t) look like the real thing. When you hear people talk about sketching, they often say that you don’t have to good at drawing, but that’s not entirely true. You should be able to depict your idea visually in a way that can be interpreted by yourself and others as an interface of some kind. If you cannot do that at all, then paper prototyping is definitely not for you. But if you can do that, my guess is that you will find it pretty rewarding and as with most other aspects of life: the more you do it, the more confident you will become doing it.

Of course your drawing capabilities influence the effectiveness of your paper prototype, but sometimes it helps to stage the whole thing a little. You can either draw on home- or readymade templates or you can do what I did on a recent project: make black cardboard frames to simulate an iPad and an iPhone. It sounds silly, but it actually really supports the illusion you are trying to create. If you want to do early user testing, this is probably a good idea too.

Pitfall II: Early consensus is bad and too easily acquired

Another weakness is the extent to which your paper prototypes include (or don’t include) enough detail to make decisions about the conceptual direction. If you make your paper prototypes too abstract, my experience is that you, your team and your stakeholders will arrive at a point of consensus too early. Everyone can agree on an abstract drawing of a box (website) with some lines (text content) and a placeholder (image) and early agreement is not always what we want, simply because the best idea is not very often the first one.

On the other hand, if you get to the point where you want to make them very detailed and you start refining your paper prototypes over and over again, you might be doing something that could be done better digitally, which brings me to the last section of this post.

Getting fidelity right: when to move on to software

To sum it up, paper prototypes are great tools that allow you to explore and iterate quickly, stay emotionally detached from your work which keeps you more open towards critique.

Obviously paper prototypes are not and should never be design deliverables. When it comes to meticulous refinement, actual graphic design, functional specifications or advanced interaction design you probably want to put your paper prototypes aside for a while, wake up your computer and start refining your ideas in your favorite piece of design software, which usually means taking your prototype to the next level of refinement and fidelity, which usually also means overcoming the paper prototyping pitfalls described above.

Thanks for reading.

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