Every semester before my students begin working on their digital projects, usually infographics or video presentations depending on the class, I ask them to build a paper prototype first to test their initial idea. And every semester they look at me like I’m a crazy person. Well I might be crazy, but not because I encourage paper prototyping.
Paper prototyping is a type of usability testing where the interface is first created on paper (typically by hand) and then tested on users who are asked to interact with the prototype and perform realistic tasks. This is a tool often used by web and game designers, but can also be very useful for much smaller scale projects such as infographics. Over the years I have found three benefits for making my students use paper prototypes.
This is one of my top priorities as a writing teacher. Audience awareness drives every choice a good writer makes and can elevate writing from workaday to outstanding. I have read beautifully written pieces with no understanding of audience or context that fell flat. However, many of my students struggle with this rhetorical concept. I have found usability testing in general and paper prototyping in specific helpful in my quest to develop greater audience awareness. I love it when my students transcend the idea that I am their audience to a much more sophisticated understanding of the purpose and intended audience of their work.
One of the tools I work the hardest to give my students is process. Every assignment involves an iterative process of thinking, learning, writing, and discussing (not always in that order) to explore a particular question or challenge. I try to teach my students that time is their friend when it comes to writing and learning. Paper prototyping forces you to slow down as you handcraft each element. It is a sloppy mixture of prewriting and early draft. There is nothing pretty about a paper prototype (or you are doing it wrong!) but it helps you see the possibilities of your vision and gives you the chance to test its potential at a point in the process when it is easy to make changes. With both paper prototypes and writing, there are elements that will never make the final draft, but those ideas are never really wasted if they are part of the process – stepping stones to a better final version.
Mistakes Make Great Teachers
By the time my students reach me they are often perfectionists. Mistakes stress them out. I sympathize with that feeling. There is nothing worse than struggling for hours to create a project using a new program only to run into a major problem near the end or discovering that you should have organized everything in a different way only after you reach the point of no return. Paper prototypes can’t head off every problem, but they can quickly highlight many. It is a lot easier to abandon an idea when all you have done is sketch a few shapes on a piece of paper or post-it note. I encourage my students to put each section or chunk of information on a separate piece of paper, notecard, or post-it so the arrangement can be easily changed or individual pieces swapped out. This process has the added benefit of highlighting when they try to add too much information to an infographic or presentation slide.
I incorporate an usability unit in my professional writing class, but like to use paper prototyping with all my classes, because I find it is a valuable learning experience for all writers and learners. Do you use paper prototypes or usability testing in your classroom?