If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that paper rules. Paper houses the scribed words of history, brings joy through art, and helps us document our life experiences. While many people believe that paper is falling to the wayside due to the digital revolution, paper is still as relevant now as it was centuries ago. Think about it. The physical presence of one piece of paper is enough to qualify a human being. A birth certificate, a diploma, a resume, a marriage license, a letter of recommendation. The list goes on. It’s amazing how this material can stimulate creativity or rigidity – just by how we envision its purpose.

After observing how the modern workplace functions, I believe that corporate America still runs on documentation, print outs, and handwritten meeting notes. While technology has definitely facilitated the speed at which we can write and share, some tasks simply just demand a pen and paper. As a designer and content creator, most of my responsibilities require some form of manual notation. Whether it be writing down key dates for our next press release or sketching the potential layout for our next quote card graphic – I need to quickly ideate and document those nagging thoughts in the back of my head. This is exactly why my desk has a cup full of diverse writing utensils and at least three different types of notepads.

“When I see a white piece of paper, I feel I’ve got to draw. And drawing, for me, is the beginning of everything.”
– Ellsworth Kelly

When I look at fellow designers, I often find myself in awe of those who specialize in UX/UI. Their process is distinctly marked by walls covered in colorful post-it groupings. Often working in strange areas like an empty hallway or the floor, their journey to designing the perfect experience remains unbothered by external stimuli. The juxtaposition between their intense focus and flexible approach to workplaces makes me jealous. This is obvious as I click “like” on another person’s LinkedIn post.

This week, I explored why UX designers were so infatuated with paper – even though they design for the digital space. What I found was what I like to call “a revised approach to an old process.” So let’s talk about it…

During my undergrad, some of my professors preached that sketching and prototyping with paper was the only way you could guarantee a good product. My classmates (and I, admittedly) scoffed at this farty method and much preferred newfangled way of just going straight to Adobe CC and figuring things out along the journey. While this approach was good for some assignments – especially those we procrastinated on – when it came to projects like packaging, those who didn’t go to the paper first failed miserably.

Without mocking it up in paper first, it was hard to get proportions just right and people often didn’t know how to interact with the final product. Sometimes a piece would fall off, other times a person didn’t know how to use a certain feature, and even more egregious was when text couldn’t be read or when elements were cut off.

Source: http://babich.biz/the-magic-of-paper-prototyping/

The same standards hold true when a UX Designer is trying to create the next cool mobile app. We might think of the digital space as somewhat intangible because we cannot simply pick an item up and turn it around, but we do have a hefty level of interaction with it. Various buttons, clicks, motions, and intuitive design features help us navigate through digital experiences in ways that make sense. But to get there, you need a prototype that can mimic those features before you invest into something that might not work at all.

Paper prototyping for UX helps designers present something that their users can interact with for test runs. By assigning tasks and seeing how people engage with the features before them allows the design team to contextualize what they’ve done great with or what they might need to work on. These prototypes can be very intricate – mimicking movement, device size, and features. While it is wonderful to have a prototype that is physical to help the feedback process, there are some pretty hefty cons.

“Sketching is like dancing. It’s process as much as product. You can turn your head off and just sort of dissolve into the now. Doing a giant, super thought-out painting is the opposite of that.”
– Molly Crabapple

The first is that paper prototyping takes a long time to develop due to the number of screens and the time it takes to cut out, place, and adhere elements. The second downfall is that there isn’t a way to document the process unless you take video, photos, or somehow manage to keep all the pieces. In a business with high churn, when new designers take over a project it could be hard to pick up the task at hand with little to no digital history. The third downfall is that it is not shareable at a large scale. If you want to test these designs a stakeholder must be in office – which makes it difficult, especially if you are creating for an over-seas client.

Digital prototyping tools like Sketch, Adobe XD, and Invision are often used in the later medium or high fidelity mockups; but in today’s business place, it is very common for low fidelity mockups to be just simple sketches that are then developed digitally. Clients, especially internal ones, expect results quickly and the faster you get to the digital state – the better it looks to them. Non-designers often have trouble understanding mockups or don’t want to waste time going through that “testing” period. Also, unlike paper prototypes, a team can work collaboratively on the project and share at a global scale. While going straight to digital might not be the best way to iterate and test, there is definitely something to be said about the convenience and conservation of resources.

Will paper continue to guide us into the future or will it flop as the need to produce with speed and enhanced sharing becomes paramount? Only time will tell, but one thing always holds true: design in a way that challenges you. Try different methodologies, new and unfamiliar tools, the result may surprise you.

Need some inspiration to get you paper prototyping? Check out this site to get started.

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