Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces
When I heard that Carolyn Snyder was writing a book on paper prototyping, I knew it would be well worth reading. It’s not just that she’s an expert in the field; she’s also the kind of competent, down-to-earth person I’d expect to be full of good advice. She doesn’t disappoint. The conversational tone and generous helping of war stories, case studies, practical advice, and helpful templates make this book seem more like an approachable, expert colleague than a dry professional text.
New and experienced practitioners will take different things from the book, but there’s content here for both. If you’re not sure whether testing with a paper prototype is for you, or if you’re sure but you need to sell someone else on the concept, the first few chapters are full of arguments and examples illustrating the value of this technique. If you’ve never used the technique, this book contains pretty much everything you need to give it a try, including a solid overview of general usability testing methods. If you’ve done a fair amount of paper prototype testing, you may want to skip a few of the chapters, but the rest of the book is full of useful tips that could only come from many years of experience.
The book is exhaustive, covering everything from recruiting users (there’s even a sample informed consent form you can download) to designing tasks, facilitating sessions, and understanding how various sources of bias may influence the results. The author even includes tips on supplies to have on hand and ways to render challenging widgets (such as expandable tree controls) in paper, pen, and the ubiquitous removable tape. The book is so full of great information that novices may, as the author says, learn just enough to be dangerous. Though no book can substitute for experience when it comes to designing, conducting, and interpreting a test, the book provides plenty of pointers to help practitioners avoid common problems, such as leading users, trying to test prototypes too early (before you have on-screen text and widgets), and expecting users to be designers.
One facet of the book I particularly appreciated was the author’s emphasis on the political ramifications of testing prototypes; this "real world" aspect is something I often find missing in usability and design books. Snyder demonstrates that testing is politically useful because it can show development team members that there really is a problem with their design. She goes on to include valuable cautionary tales, too, such as the problem of the stakeholder who observes a single session and assumes the results are representative of a whole set.
The one thing that bothered me about this book was the underlying assumption that prototyping is a design tool. In recent years, those of us who are in the business of making software and hardware easier to use have gotten better about distinguishing design methods (how you know what to sketch in the first place) from evaluative methods (which tell you whether you sketched it right). Although testing a prototype is a great way to evaluate its usability, spending a small amount of up-front time on ethnographic research, personas, and scenarios is a better and faster way to ensure the product’s usefulness. That distinction seems to be lacking in this volume; even though Snyder mentions once or twice that prototyping is not a substitute for design, the title and most of the text seem to argue otherwise. For example, a table on pages 100-101 describes a project timeline and suggests a mere three hours to talk about users and their needs, then shows the team diving straight into the prototype design. On page 128, one of the test questions is whether users even care about a certain kind of function the team has included in the prototype. Although a test can help uncover requirement problems, it’s an inefficient tool for doing so; this kind of requirement should be well understood before design and prototyping begin. Chances are that many experienced professionals can filter the book’s content with this in mind, but I am concerned that the lack of emphasis on the distinction between design and evaluation could be a trap for the unwary.
Despite that, Carolyn Snyder has put together not only a terrific guide to paper prototyping, but also a solid introduction to basic usability testing principles. It’s enjoyable enough to read from cover to cover and detailed enough to serve as a useful reference later on. This is one that will stay on my bookshelf, and I recommend you add it to yours.
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About the Author
Kim Goodwin is VP & General Manager of Cooper, www.cooper.com.
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