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How Good Does Your Web Site Look On Paper

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troy janisch

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User since: 08 Jul 2002

Articles written: 17

The best way to improve the effectiveness of your company's web site is to let your site's users lend you a hand (quite literally) through the process of paper prototyping.

Paper prototyping is a fast, low-cost method of testing web site designs. It involves creating rough sketches of a web site design and inviting some of your users to take the design for a test drive using their pen, instead of a mouse, to complete important tasks.

As users explore the site on paper, they are asked to describe their experience aloud to a facilitator who explains the tasks to be completed. Although a typical paper prototyping session takes less than an hour of a user's time, the amount of time it saves your company can be invaluable.

Usability Guru Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., of the Nielson Norman Group advocates paper prototyping in a 32-minute instructional DVD offered by the company. "Users really get into the spirit of the test, even if the user interface only exists on a piece of paper. There is a suspension of disbelief. People really focus on doing their test tasks," Nielsen said. "Paper prototyping does work."

Paper prototyping is ideal for identifying some common "high-level" problems that afflict web sites:

  • Navigation/Flow

    Paper prototyping is an ideal method for testing the navigation and flow of a web site. Users can help you determine whether organization of the web site is intuitive and whether the terminology used in the navigation makes sense.

  • Content

    Paper prototypes are a good way to test the effectiveness of content within the site. You can identify whether the content and writing style used within the site is appropriate. Users often help identify content this is missing, unclear, or unnecessary.

  • Layout

    Hand-drawn designs allow users to provide a wide range of feedback. They can help you determine if pages contain too little or too much information, and whether the general layout of the page is effective.

  • Functionality/Interactivity

    By providing users with simulations of interactivity in the site, you can determine whether proposed functions will be utilized and valued by users. For example, it can help determine whether a "do it yourself" planning tool will be used by site visitors.

It only takes 6-8 customers using a paper prototype to identify prevent more than 80 percent of these kinds of high level problems that occur within web sites. Since the goal of paper prototyping is to achieve the most effective, customer-friendly site, it's not surprising that sites employing paper prototypes earn a higher user satisfaction rating.

However, customers aren't the only ones who benefit. Companies using paper prototypes can implement sites more efficiently, allowing them to complete projects faster at a lower cost.

Carolyn Snyder author of 'Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces' said that virtually every web site or software development project will benefit from paper prototyping. "For much of its history, paper prototyping has been a tool clenched firmly in the hand of the academic researcher or usability specialist. Like any useful tool, though, its greatest potential can be reached by placing it in the hands of the nonspecialist along with instructions for its proper use."

Troy Janisch is president and founder of Icon Interactive™, an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by email at

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