Clients often believe that you have to have a polished interface to show to users before you can get good feedback. Nothing is further from the truth. The most valuable feedback happens before you’ve even touched a computer.
Paper prototyping is a great way to lay your ideas out on a page and see if they hang together. Nobody’s judging artistic skills. Instead, the prototype gives a common understanding to everyone on the team.
And the same goes for usability test participants. Your paper prototype is an ideal test of whether your idea is simple enough to capture users’ attention and whether it’s complex enough to support their key tasks.
If there’s a problem, it’s fast and simple to change a paper mockup. Sure, some coding whiz or photoshop diva could probably knock out the change about as quickly but that’s hard to do half way through a usability session. And keeping things in sketched paper format means that participants have no qualms about picking up a pen and making changes to what they see on the page.
Strangely as soon as the product makes it into the digital realm the team start getting overly attached to what they’ve built and unwilling to make changes. Participants start seeing the interface as “finished” even if it’s just a print-out of a Balsamiq mock-up and so the type of feedback you get starts to change as well.
Check out this video of a very early usability test for a client project. The team had only been together for four days, and we wanted to get early feedback on whether our high level concepts were even viable.
Some things to watch for:
- Even though the interface is low fidelity, it’s still important to treat your participant with the normal high level of respect.
- We have a moderator and a “computer.” The computer is primarily responsible for changing the paper screens that the participant sees. If the necessary interface doesn’t exist, the “computer” makes it on the fly. In some studies I will even put down an egg timer sketch to show the participant that the computer is “working.”
- Each task that the participant performs is written down on a slip of paper. That way, the participant can refer back to what the task was if they get sidetracked at any point.
- The participant was asked to think out loud (narrate their actions) and read the tasks out loud so that 1) we knew they’d interpreted the task the way we intended and 2) observers knew where we were in the flow.
- There were several observers, but they were relegated to the edge of the room and were asked not to interrupt during the session. Instead, their job was to write observations (user quotes and actions, problem areas, NOT solutions) on post-it notes for an affinity diagram afterwards.
- The whistling noise you can hear is the air conditioning. I duct taped a cheap video camera to the suspended ceiling in order to capture the video. You probably won’t need video of your own sessions, because the timeframe in which that video would be useful is so small.
- This video only shows part of the session. It lasted less than 20 minutes and the participant was thanked profusely and rewarded with a Starbucks gift card for her time.
- I spoke too much. I didn’t speak very much but it was still more than necessary. I asked one question because it was pertinent to a design decision that we needed to make, but it’s possible I should have even saved that until after we were done. As a general rule, the more the moderator speaks, the less likely they are to encourage spontaneous comments from the participant.
I say more about this particular interface in the slides for Fast, Easy Usability Tricks, a presentation I gave at GOTO Copenhagen in May 2012. Paper prototyping is an essential part of my One week to a User Centered Design methodology.