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User testing intranets with paper prototypes

Monday, December 06, 2004  

The first time I saw paper prototyping, I was sold. Using simple freehand sketches, the application development firm brought clarity to a complex inventory system. The prototypes revealed the need for new features we hadn't even considered. And it gave us confidence that the end product would be user friendly before a single line of code was written.

What is paper prototyping?

Paper prototyping is a kind of usability testing where users interact with a paper version of the interface. View samples of paper prototypes.

Why use paper prototyping instead of HTML prototyping?

  • It's fast and cheap, so you're more likely to use it often.
  • Changes can be made on the fly during a test. The system needs a "Print this page" feature? Draw it in.
  • Users feel more comfortable criticizing something that looks unfinished
  • The earlier you test, the bigger the usability improvements you can make

How is paper prototyping done?

  • Sketch out the core pages of the intranet or application. Include each interface element on the screen.
  • See if users get it. Do they understand the purpose of the site, how it's organized, the names of things, and so on?
  • Now sketch all pages related to the feature you're testing.
  • Ask users to complete tasks by interacting with the paper interface, as if it were actually on screen.
  • Don't provide how-to assistance. Don't ask for their opinions. Just watch them try to complete the tasks.
  • After each test, make changes to the paper prototype to address the usability problems you noticed.
  • If you're only changing parts of an existing interface, you can print out existing screens and make small changes to them. Or you can take screenshots and alter them digitally.

Paper prototyping helps you discover how users will see your intranet's interface. It can also help you generate system requirements. It's fast and it's cheap. Try it for designing your next new intranet application.

Further reading:

About the Author

I'm Chris McGrath, an intranet consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been working on intranets since 1997, and on plain ol' web sites for even longer. I run One Intranets, the firm that co-created ThoughtFarmer -- an enterprise collaboration platform for Windows-based intranets.