Prototype making? Paper Prototyping for Functional Website Development

Tired of confusing Web sites that seem to lead nowhere? Old-fashioned paper prototyping may be a low-tech solution, but it's still the best way to craft a smooth, well-functioning Web site.

Have you ever checked out a new Web site and found it impossible to navigate?

Confusing layout and garish colors are problems all too common in Web site design. So common, in fact, that it’s sparked the development of usability engineering as an important new science in Web site development.

But while this field has spawned many hi-tech usability methods, paper prototyping still ranks as one of the best ways to create a smooth, effective site. Developers would do well revisiting this old- fashioned science, says Paul Helinski, writing in Web Techniques Magazine [].

Paper prototyping is exactly what it sounds like. The developer starts with a prototype, users test the site, the developer observes, and finally makes note of the errors found. “To determine whether the preliminary site map will actually work, the developer must define the navigation paths on paper, says Helinski. He advises developers to literally sketch the home page and subsequent links exactly as they will appear on the screen, including navigational button bars and text in a realistic, scrolling fashion. He suggests drawing the scroll bars and hiding areas that won’t fit in the top 640×480 pixel of a normal display.

There are some definite advantages to using paper prototypes:

1. Catch mistakes early: Pen and paper give you an easy way to point out and correct problems early. Used in the “concept” stage, it allows you to conduct tests before actually developing the interface. This means the cost of fixes drops dramatically. “The cost of making changes or fixing a mistake rises tenfold on the day you write the first line of code,” notes Jared Spool in Web Techniques.

2.) Low cost: “Paper prototyping is a low-tech design strategy that allows for quick iterative designs of interfaces,” says Helinski. The only tools necessary: paper, pencil, and, of course, a good imagination.

3.) Teamwork: By forcing different developers to work closely together from the outset, building the prototype often brings team members quickly up to speed. Paper prototyping is so easy, it puts everyone on equal footing and encourages everyone to pitch in.

4.) Presentation aid: Paper prototypes are easier than an overhead projector and less complicated than Power Point.

Paper prototyping can require a lot of up-front work and manpower, especially in the beginning. But its drawback are minor, compared to the advantages. Follow-up versions can be put together easily with the help of photocopies of frequently used screens.

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