Paper Prototyping Usability Tests for Website Design

Paper Prototyping

If you are only testing usability AFTER your site has been developed, you are only looking for validation, not actual usability. But how can you test a website that has not even been written in a line of code so far?

Paper prototyping includes a mockup of the user interface using paper, and sometimes cardboard (for PDA, phone and other three dimensional interfaces). The user is able to arrange topics, articles, and other critical elements of your website in a way that makes sense to them. Using a paper prototype, you and your team can often “walk-through” your design concept and how well it will work with actual users and tasks.

The paper prototype is a “low-fidelity” model of your website. Because no one could possibly mistake it for the real thing, you are likely to get a wealth of feedback about what process might work better or what labels and functions make more sense to the user. Nielsen Norman offers a $68 DVD on Paper Prototyping.

Paper Prototyping
Image source: Nielson Norman Group

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In an article called Paper Protoyping by Shawn Medero of, he writes:

A paper usability-testing session works much like any other usability-testing session. Begin by selecting a range of testers who represent your expected audience. Have scenarios ready for the user to perform. Document the testing sessions with video to review the users’ emotional state when using your mocked-up interface. Debrief users afterward to measure interface recall. With paper, you can also:

  • Allow users to mock up ideas they think would solve a problem.
  • Mark on the prototype where a user attempted to “click” or otherwise interact with the interface.
  • Ask users to draw what they expect to happen next.
  • Keep going even if you don’t have access to a testing lab or if computers, networks, or high-tech prototypes don’t work as expected.

While it’s valuable to measure the success of your interface via time-based benchmarks, the emphasis should be on getting your focus group to be creative.

If you’d like to read about a real-world experience, check out Carolyn Snyder’s article on a six-day session using paper prototypes with clients and end-users.


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