Paper prototyping and “truthiness” of design

Recently on TechCrunch one of their bloggers/contributors was asked by a Stanford HCI class student to try out his “paper protoype” of an iPhone app. The TC guy posted a terse critical assessment of that encounter, questioning the value of soliciting feedback from random strangers for a paper prototype. The comments are certainly worth a read, especially the intense scorn and invective from HCI & UX professionals/researchers blasting the TC fellow. Wow, such heated passion!

Gotta admit it’s been amusing surveying what resulted from that event. My thoughts on this seemingly mild, but potentially watershed moment:

* I was quite surprised and admittedly excited that a popular method of prototyping UIs was mentioned on TechCrunch at all. Instead of simply geeking out over obscure techie details, the post actually showed what it’s like to engage with a paper prototype and hopefully educated millions! (OK, at least a few thousand ;-)

* And now people see firsthand what the core problem with paper prototyping is: it’s a highly drafty, sketchy, incomplete way of exploring ideas in a very rough manner, clearly unsuitable for showing random strangers without proper context. Yes, paper prototyping (PP) is ONE method, but only to very constrained limits of value extremely early in the design process. And even then, it should only be used amongst designers/researchers internally as part of their toolkit at the studio/office for sussing out issues and opportunities. It’s really a very crude, primitive sketching tool of sorts, not a primary evaluation tool for specific, tactical design decisions. The fact is PP was invented by a usability engineer, not a designer who understands that levels of articulation and fidelity equate to the level of feedback fidelity. Want actionable feedback? Show something hi-fi. (and TC folks are used to seeing fully coded up, hackathon-type of demos you an actually click and try) PP at best is for very lightweight, hi-level concept “feedback”–if that. Illustrating detailed application interactions requires way more than sketches on paper. You gotta at least do pixel mockups and get some behaviors animated…And in the form factor of a phone, in this case!

* The fact is, a design has to be experienced in its true, intended form to be truly helpful for feedback gathering, at every level: visual, interaction, and information design. To really grok the “truthiness” of what is trying to be communicated and how it is meant to be encountered, requires super hi-fidelity/accurate rendering, as near as possible to the final product. That’s why industrial designers build life-size prototypes and models, to fully dimensionalize the stimuli for feedback, away from the drafty flatland of paper sketches. Sketches are a necessary first step, as I always advocate, but its insufficient for illustrating more complex aspects/behaviors, and getting valuable actionable feedback from non-designers.

* And as I’ve said before, any data gathered must be taken with several grains of salt. It is all input to be debated and prioritized per project goals and the designer’s judgment, expertise & background , with the team together.

* Given the resulting firestorm–thru no fault of his own, of course– the Stanford HCI student may have learned a bigger lesson in all this, than he had ever expected! Truly a teachable moment.

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