What does a sheet of paper and an expensive, fancy computer lab have in common? Paper evokes tradition, while computers evoke innovation—in fact, we often perceive cutting-edge computers as a replacement for old-fashioned paper. But as incompatible as they might appear, both paper and computers can be used to develop inventive yet functional usability designs.

At its core, the term “usability” refers to how easily users can use a product or system and whether it meets the needs and requirements of its users, and “usability testing” is a technique for evaluating and measuring interactions between real human users and interfaces to improve usability. In an increasingly technological and competitive world, usability and usability testing have never been more integral to the success of a project. The usability of a website can potentially attract users or drive them away, boost sales, and increase company efficiency. Though important, usability testing doesn’t have to be an expensive, laborious process. It can begin with as little as some pieces of paper.

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A paper sketch of RexDB, Prometheus’s open-source data management platform

Paper is the embodiment of everything that early user testing should be: low-resolution, quick, cheap, interactive, and user-centered. Prototyping in paper takes a fraction of the time necessary for creating a prototype by writing HTML or using a graphics editor such as Illustrator or OmniGraffle. Because it doesn’t require a large time investment, working on paper prevents over-commitment to any particular design, opening up the possibility of other ideas and boosting creativity. In a similar vein, paper prototypes invite more honest and comprehensive feedback from team members due to paper prototypes’ less polished appearance, in contrast to the more finished appearance of digital prototypes.

Not only that, the simplicity of paper prototyping makes it possible to thoroughly test new features and gain user feedback before actually implementing them. During consultations between team members and clients, the examination of paper drawings can answer questions such as “Does this seem useful?” and “Would this help you with the problem we talked about?” These deceptively simple questions serve as the very foundation of usability and must be answered before any further testing can occur. Surprisingly, drawings on sheets of paper can even model many of the simple tasks that make up user interactions. For example, there’s little difference between clicking on a link to get from one webpage to another and moving from one piece of paper to another. Sketches of an internal business operations management system.

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Sketches of an internal business operations management system.

As convenient and versatile as it can be, paper prototyping does come with some disadvantages. Some, such as Jake Knapp of Google Ventures, criticize the use of paper prototypes in usability testing because it doesn’t emulate the true user experience, especially when the product being tested is intended for a wide audience. They argue that test users are likely to react to the novelty of the paper prototype rather than interacting with it as intently as they would on a computer. Similarly, paper cannot model more complex user interactions such as zooming, scrolling, and other gestures and thus cannot uncover all kinds of usability problems. Other critics claim that paper prototypes provide a false sense of productivity since it’s easy to fill a lot of paper up without producing any actual code. These possible shortcomings suggest that it may be time to move on from paper to more complicated forms of media once an idea is ready for refinement. After paper prototyping, a possible next step in usability design is the use of digital mock-up tools that emulate the user experience more closely than paper while remaining inexpensive, such as Illustrator, Photoshop, and Omnigraffle.

Consider the last website you visited. Was it visually pleasing and easy to navigate? Were you able to find what you were looking for? Would you return to it later? Chances are good that your website got its start on mere sheets of paper!

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