Paper Prototyping as a Creative Catalyst

I think we can all agree that Disney Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, doesn’t merely tug at your heartstrings. Rather it grabs hold with a death grip and shakes them with a vigor that would make the Grinch weep, even prior to his heart enlargement. If you’ve not seen it yet, prepare your “It’s dusty in here” and “I got something in my eye” crying cover stories and go.

As you shed tears for Bing Bong (and you will) think of one simple fact… At one point, this story sucked.

These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.
These are the prototype figures I use for games. These have been knights, museum guards, venture capitalists, and more.

It was likely long ago, back in the early pitches and storyboarding phases. However, as Pixar Animation President Ed Catmull states “I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’” He adds “We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere“.

One key takeaway here is that we, as innovators, must start our creative idea somewhere, tell the story, and figure out how to get it “from suck to not-suck”. In fact, the faster we do this, the better. We don’t want to spend needless hours putting all kinds of sheen, gloss, and functionality into that first prototype because we will likely fail and need to pivot. That is why we need to prototype on paper.

I’ve prototyped a few games just as a means to get an idea down, get it moderately functional, and to give the game idea some quick playtesting. I do not want to spend time or money in making beautiful, final quality game pieces because there are still many aspects that will need developing, balancing, or discarding. In order to prototype quickly, I keep a large stack of 3 by 5 notecards nearby (along with shiny glass beads, sparkly sticker books, and a plethora of dice). These become my makeshift game pieces. The best part is, they aren’t limited to prototyping games. A notecard could represent an app’s splash screen, an email template, or whatever you are innovating. There is always a way.

One quick note: Paper prototyping is a method, a way of making your ideas tangible in a quick, low-cost manner so that your innovative hypothesis can be validated. It does not HAVE to be paper, but whatever material you use should have the same inexpensive and recyclable nature.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why you should prototype of paper early, and often.

Notecards! A prototyper's canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.
Notecards! A prototyper’s canvas. These could be login screens, user profiles, or cupcake configurations.

YOU CAN PROTOTYPE CHEAP

Notecards can be bought for several on the dollar. This definitely beats the time and effort that would go into developing a digital or physical first version of your innovation. Imagine spending resources to have a first iteration of your innovation built, only to put it in front of some customers and find out that your solution needs some big time overhauling. Instead, if you had paper prototyped that primary version, you might be out a couple dollars. That’s a pretty decent Return on Investment for all the learning you can do with a first prototype.

YOU CAN PROTOTYPE FAST

There you are, sitting with a target customer, showing them your idea. You watch them interact with your prototype and you notice a huge flaw that needs to be addressed. If you’ve built a more elaborate prototype, this pivot can be costly and put a huge delay in your deliverable timelines. All those items in your kanban or development pipeline now have to sit and wait for this first one to be addressed. If you prototyped on paper (and remembered to bring notecards and pencils to your focus group) you can mock up the new screen or feature within seconds! Remember that you are just telling your innovation’s story  so these don’t have to be marketable graphics. They just need to be enough for the customer to see how it works and for you to watch them “interact”.  Plus this reduces your iteration time to something very minimal.

YOU CAN BE DARING

When you aren’t worried about cost of developing a prototype, and you aren’t worried about the time it takes to pivot and persevere into iteration two and beyond, then you can be as adventurous with your prototype as you want to be. You aren’t risking a ton of resources so put those ugly ideas out there! Be disruptive, do things the way no one in your industry does them. If your “out-there” idea crashes and burns, all you are out is a handful of notecards.

YOU CAN PUT THE FLOW IN THE CUSTOMER’S HANDS SOONER

This "paper prototyped" game card could represent your target customer's profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.
This “paper prototyped” game card could represent your target customer’s profile or maybe a feature within your innovation. You can quickly and easily make changes.

The best time to learn about your solution’s fit with your customers is when they are holding it in their hands. When your prototype only lives internally, it will always appear perfect. You need to kick it out of the nest and see if your idea can fly on its own. The faster you can do this, the less time you spend on bad ideas. Even if you don’t have it all figured out yet, get your core mechanics on paper and start asking your customers to look at it. It opens up new idea avenues for you to explore and it helps paint a better picture of what jobs the customer needs your innovation to do. We can all work on understanding our customer better, because they are always changing. Opportunities to learn and grow are valuable, especially when your innovation is in the very formative stages of its lifespan.

Later, we’ll go into some methods on “how” to prototype with paper… but for now, grab your notecards and start iterating!

Challenge

  • For this challenge, you will need 10 notecards.
  • Take 6 notecards and prototype the flow your customer will experience with your prototype.
  • Show it to someone and have them “pretend” its the real deal.
  • Iterate right then and there on any pain points they experience. Use your remaining 4 notecards for any additional or replacement steps in the flow.
  • Identify places you need to pivot and persevere and use more notecards to craft the next version!

___________

What materials do you use to prototype with? I’d love to see what is in your bag of tricks down in the comment section.

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