Paper Prototyping: The fast and easy way to design and refine user interface
Welcome to PaperPrototyping!

Do you spend a lot of time during the design process wondering what users really need? Do you hate those endless meetings where you argue how the interface should work? Have you ever developed something that later had to be completely redesigned?

Paper Prototyping can help. Written by a usability engineer with a long and successful paper prototyping history, this book is a practical, how-to guide that will prepare you to create and test paper prototypes of all kinds of user interfaces. You'll see how to simulate various kinds of interface elements and interactions. You'll learn about the practical aspects of paper prototyping, such as deciding when the technique is appropriate, scheduling the activities, and handling the skepticism of others in your organization. Numerous case studies and images throughout the book show you real world examples of paper prototyping at work.

Paper prototyping empowers you to develop products that are more useful, intuitive, efficient, and pleasing:

Save time and money — solve key problems before implementation begins
Get user feedback early — use it to focus the development process
Communicate better involve development team members from a variety of disciplines
Be more creative experiment with many ideas before committing to one

Want more information? See the detailed Table of Contents below.

Praise for Paper Prototyping

Carolyn Snyder has written a wonderful book with all the practical information you need to make paper prototypes and get cost-effective usability data about your user interface designs. Any mid-sized design project will probably get an ROI of several thousand percent from following the advice in this book.

--from the foreword by Jakob Nielsen, Principal,
Nielsen Norman Group

Paper prototyping is a critical skill for HCI practitioners and a key method for gathering requirements, building strong conceptual models, and eliminating embarrassing design gaffes. Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces is the definitive source for understanding this simple, but powerful technique. It integrates the disparate literature on paper prototyping with a wealth of consulting experience. You'll learn something from every page and enjoy the insights of a colleague I view as THE paper prototyping guru.  If you ever plan to do paper prototyping, buy this book and read it from cover to cover! 

--Chauncey E. Wilson, HCI Architect

Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces is a "must have" for anyone doing design or usability for software or for the web. From her extensive experience with paper prototyping, Carolyn Snyder gives us detailed and very practical advice with many examples in a breezy style that makes it all easy to follow.

--Ginny Redish, Redish & Associates, Inc.

Paper prototyping is an essential technique for user-centered design. Up until now, practitioners have had to learn many of the details of how to make paper prototyping work by trial and error. This book plugs a big hole in the literature: finally, people new to the technique will have a manual to answer the many questions that everyone has when they get started. In addition to solid, practical advice about how to create a paper prototype, this book also presents detailed information about how to prepare for, conduct, and interpret the results of this type of testing. Carolyn Snyder has done a masterful job of assembling the collected wisdom and the variety of perspectives from many people in the field. This book will go on my short list of recommended usability texts.

--Mary Beth Rettger, The MathWorks, Inc.

Detailed Table of Contents


These first four chapters provide an introduction to the what, why, and how of paper prototyping – what it is, what it does for companies, why it’s useful, and how to prototype various interface widgets.

Chapter 1 - Introduction

This chapter starts with a definition of paper prototyping and how it is used, including several pictures of a development team preparing a paper prototype and conducting a usability test. Overviews are provided of the benefits of paper prototyping, its history, and its relationship to usability. The audience for this book is described – readers are involved in the design, implementation, or support of user interfaces. This book does not assume prior experience in programming, interface design, or usability testing.

Chapter 2 - Case Studies

This chapter contains case studies of paper prototypes for five different types of interfaces. These case studies show that paper prototype usability studies reveal more than just typical “usability issues” like confusing terminology (although there are plenty of those), but also potentially more serious issues such as missing or incorrect functional requirements. Also described are two paper prototypes dating back to the early 1970s.

Chapter 3 - Thinking About Prototyping

This chapter explores two main topics, 1) how a prototyping method supports (or interferes with) the process of creating an interface and 2) the effects of paper prototyping on the people involved in producing, testing, and refining a design. The discussion starts with the activities involved (designing, rendering, and coding) in creating the “look” and “feel” aspects of an interface. Paper prototyping’s effect on creativity is discussed, as well as its benefits as a tool for enhancing communication.

Chapter 4 - Making a Paper Prototype

This chapter addresses the widget-level “how to” of paper prototyping, illustrating how to create or simulate a variety of graphical user interface controls. First, the materials used in paper prototyping are described, including some less common but very handy supplies like removable tape. The purpose of a background is explained, with examples for different types of interfaces. Many common interface widgets are illustrated, and simulation of interaction (tooltips, scrolling, etc.) is covered. This chapter also explains how to include hardware, documentation, and even human actors into a paper prototype usability test.


The chapters in this section describe the process of using a paper prototype to conduct usability tests. This is all the “how-to” material, and it assumes you’ve made a decision to try paper prototyping on a real project. If you’re still debating whether paper prototyping is an appropriate technique for your interface and circumstances, read Part III first.

Chapter 5 - Planning a Usability Study with a Paper Prototype

This chapter describes the process of conducting a usability study (a series of usability tests) using a paper prototype:

  • An overview of the activities
  • People to involve
  • The kickoff meeting, which includes a discussion of risks/concerns about the interface
  • User profiles (including several examples)
  • User recruitment
  • Scheduling

Chapter 6 - Task Design

Good tasks are essential to a successful usability test. This chapter describes the characteristics of a good usability task. It outlines a 7-step process for creating tasks using the template provided on the Downloads page. Several examples of real tasks are provided.

Chapter 7 - Preparing the Prototype

This chapter provides more detail about the process of creating a paper prototype:

  • An overview of the process (listing the components needed, dividing up the work, holding periodic walkthroughs
  • Whether to prototype your existing application or a new design
  • When to use screen shots vs. hand-drawn versions.
  • Greeking and other forms of simplification –what they are, and when it is appropriate to use them.
  • How much to prototype (anticipating possible user paths and errors)
  • Tips for organizing the prototypes
  • Walkthroughs of usability tasks using the paper prototype

Chapter 8 - Introduction to Usability Test Facilitation

This chapter is intended for those with little experience in usability testing who want to learn the basics of test facilitation (for any type of interface):

  • The legal and ethical responsibilities of the test facilitator, including the use of an informed consent form
  • The three facilitator roles of flight attendant, sportscaster, and scientist and how these roles guide the trade-off decisions that facilitators must make during every usability test
  • Co-discovery (two-user) testing – its pros and cons, and why co-discovery is especially useful in paper prototyping
  • Common testing challenges, including getting users unstuck and dealing with a nervous user
  • Tips for new facilitators

Chapter 9 - Usability Testing with a Paper Prototype

This chapter focuses on the specifics of testing a paper prototype: The test facility, including seating of the users, Computer, facilitator, and observers

  • Reasons to videotape paper prototype tests (or not), and tips for doing so
  • How to prepare users for the experience of testing a paper prototype
  • How the “Computer” behaves during the usability test
  • Differences in facilitating a paper prototype test (for instance, assuring users that it’s OK to write on the prototype). This chapter includes sample checklists and scripts for conducting paper prototype tests that you’ll find in the Downloads section
  • Modifying the paper prototype, both during and between usability tests

Chapter 10 - Observers

Because paper prototyping makes use of a human Computer, it is an inherently social activity. This chapter explains why it’s useful to have observers in the room, and addresses the concerns people often have about this method.

  • Benefits of In-Room Observers
  • Concerns about In-Room Observers
  • Rules for in-room observers, and how to explain them to people
  • Preparing users for in-room observers
  • How observers and users interact, including several examples of the kinds of questions to avoid

Chapter 11 - Data: Capturing, Prioritizing, and Communicating

The best-run usability test is useless if no one retains the lessons learned from it. This chapter explains how the observers should take notes during a usability test, and what to do with the information afterward.

  • What observers should look for and write down (includes examples of test notes)
  • The differences among observations, inferences, and opinions
  • Whether to type notes or write them by hand
  • The affinity diagram method of prioritizing usability test issues
  • Why success rates and statistics are often not useful in paper prototype usability studies
  • Methods of communicating and documenting the results


Like any technique, paper prototyping works well in some situations but may not provide sufficient value in others. These three chapters provide an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of paper prototyping, the political issues you may face when introducing the technique into your organization, and factors that can argue for or against the use of paper prototypes in real-world project situations.

Chapter 12 - What Paper Is (and Isn’t) Good For

This chapter examines the type of interface problems that paper prototypes are likely and unlikely to find. It does so by examining the dimensions of a prototype, how various methods of prototyping have strengths in different dimensions, and how to select an appropriate method based on what your questions are.

  • Why the term “low-fidelity prototype” can be misleading
  • The four dimensions of a prototype (breadth, depth, look, and interaction), and why only three of them are useful in comparing prototyping methods
  • Comparison of four methods of prototyping for an e-commerce site (working HTML prototype, slide show, paper prototype, and DENIM)
  • Which prototype dimensions are important based on the questions you have about your interface
  • What types of problems paper prototypes will likely find, may find, and probably won’t find
  • Finding problems through inspection
  • The kinds of problems that usability testing won’t find

Chapter 13 The Politics of Paper Prototyping

The real challenge in paper prototyping often lies in convincing others to try it. Even people who recognize that paper prototyping is useful often have concerns about it, which tend to fall into four categories: validity, bias, professionalism, and resouces. The material in this chapter provides a framework for addressing these concerns.

  • Overview of research studies that examine paper prototyping’s validity as a technique for finding real problems
  • Case studies that describe the use of paper prototyping on real projects
  • The many sources of bias in usability testing, including users, tasks, test setting, the test facilitator, observers, analysis and reporting, and (last but not least) the paper prototype itself
  • A qualitative analysis technique for examining which source(s) of bias are affecting the results
  • Professionalism – what programmers are afraid of, and how to alleviate these fears
  • Resource constraints – how to estimate whether paper prototyping will introduce additional work or save you work
  • A technique called the efficiency ratio for weighing the benefit of a paper prototype (or any other kind of prototype) against the effort needed to create it
  • Tips for dealing with skeptics

Chapter 14 - When to Use Paper

Although paper prototyping is a useful technique, in some circumstances its benefits are more compelling than in others. This chapter first describes several “war stories” that illustrate the things that can go awry in computer-based usability testing. Looking at the underlying causes of these war stories gives rise to a checklist of factors to help predict how vulnerable a project is to particular kinds of risks.

  • People and logistics (composition of the development team, location of the users, rescheduling costs)
  • The development context (stability of the technology, coordinating usability testing and development, and the test environment)
  • Tasks, data and test scenarios (control of content, reset procedures, installation/configuration tasks, real-world consequences, and user-defined tasks)
  • Timing and scope of development
  • Hybrid (paper + software) testing


Most of this book focuses on the specifics of paper prototyping. But paper prototyping fits within the larger context of user-centered design, which also includes techniques like usage scenarios, contextual inquiry, participatory design, etc. Although the techniques themselves can be sophisticated, they share an innate simplicity: They help product teams understand users.

Chapter 15 - Examples of User-Centered Design

Paper prototyping is just one means of user-centered design. This chapter looks at three additional case studies, not just of paper prototyping, but how paper prototyping was used as one activity within a larger context of product development.

  • The MathWorks: In developing MATLAB 6, the development team first conducted contextual interviews (with the help of some studies who received course credit for their efforts) to better understand the problems the tool was intended to solve. They then created and tested paper prototypes, followed by additional usability testing of a working version. Also described are “usability nights,” a technique for getting informal usability feedback from a group of customers.
  • IBM: Storyboards are used during the early stages of the project to capture various kinds of information about users and their work. The team then creates rough paper prototypes, following them up with PowerPoint presentations and “mid-fi” prototypes.
  • Dictaphone: In creating a handheld microphone for physicians, the development team first created usage scenarios to help them understand how various proposed features would benefit users. The earliest microphone models were created using wood blocks and stickers, which helped the development team explore different ways of laying out the controls. The team then progressed to Fome-Cor mockups and then true 3D foam models. Each step of the way, the team gained new insights about the design, before going to the expense and risk of producing a working microphone.

Chapter 16 - Final Thoughts

Some of the author’s own unanswered questions about paper prototyping.

About the Author

Carolyn Snyder is an internationally recognized usability consultant with 10 years of experience in usability and another 10 as a software engineer and project manager. She has taught usability testing and paper prototyping to development teams at dozens of companies. For more information about Carolyn and the services offered by her company, visit

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Morgan Kaufmann

... definitive source for understanding this simple, but powerful technique. It integrates the disparate literature on paper prototyping with a wealth of consulting experience ...
 --Chauncey E. Wilson, HCI Architect