Why you should always start with paper


Doug Baker, Strategy Director, London

Paper is a romantic thing.

The phone number from the night before. The song lyrics jotted on the back of an envelope. Getting lost in a hardback book. But like all romantic things, it can feel a little out of place in the modern, hi-tech workplace. Open plan offices with row upon row of flat, gleaming screens. Companies proudly announcing that they’re going paperless. Paper is just a bit too messy for this modern business world.

So though it may seem rather counterintuitive, dull, archaic paper should be at the heart of your digital innovation process. Why? Because it allows companies to embrace Paper Prototyping.

Paper prototyping is an innovation process by which teams concept and test interactive products, tools and services. From focused experiences like a new shopping list feature on a grocery website to an industry disrupting service. All without ever writing a line of code.

It represents a huge cultural shift for large, traditional companies. From linear work flows and high fidelity presentations, to iterative testing and learning often with rough and ready versions of a product or service.

Digital experiences and creative innovation can deliver step change performance or even disrupt a whole industry like Uber. But the trade-off is that they are very hard to deliver well.

Creating an effective TV advert was, and is still, difficult. Requiring insight into your target audience, a strong brand, a creative spark, great art direction and script, and finally a well planned media strategy.

All of that is still true for digital creativity, but we now have two additional layers to consider:


We can research, hypothesise (ok, guess) and plan. But if you’re delivering something new to market, there is little certainty about how people will use it or react.


We create things that are used and participated in, rather than consumed, meaning more inter-connected dependencies and considerations. When a problem reaches a certain level of complexity, we need better methods of exploring and sharing ideas. And that’s where paper prototyping comes in.

In a nutshell, paper prototyping is a method of ‘exploratory design’. Whereby you help gather thoughts and information on a solution by just getting on and designing ideas.

A team uses Post-it notes, Sharpies and big bits of paper to sketch out what potential solutions could look like. These paper prototypes are then used to provoke discussion, highlight potential advantages and flaws, and help run basic research.

It fits into a wider philosophy that the best way to create effective solutions to difficult problems is not a linear one, but rather an iterative one that involves collaborative thinking, rapid prototyping and regular testing.

start-with-paper-2Six steps to paper prototyping fun

1 – Start with the problem

As with all things worth doing in business, start with a really clear brief. What is the problem(s) you’re trying to solve? Focus on the consumer problem, even if it’s one they don’t know they have yet, not on your problems.

2 – Get your team together

The people you get involved don’t need to be able to code or even draw well. More important is a comfort with workshop environments (collaborative, good listeners) and bringing a useful perspective, whether that’s technical, creative, business or consumer understanding.

3 – Lock yourselves away

You can split it over half days, but get out of the office, turn off phones. It will be worth the time spent.

4 – Prototype, share, repeat

Split into smaller teams and work up very rough prototypes of your potential solutions. Get back together to share and discuss. Identify similar solutions, prioritise the most promising and repeat the process.

5 – Select for testing

The best (or a small selection of the best) potential solutions are then chosen to test with consumers. This may seem really early to test, but the rapid prototype philosophy says get feedback early and get it often. The opinions of highly paid managers and designers with pointedly confusing haricuts are useful, but not necessarily representative of your future user base! Either use the paper prototypes themselves, or even knock together a prototype using PowerPoint.

6 – Iterate

So you’ve got ideas and consumer feedback and it hasn’t taken a week. Now it’s time to create another rough prototype based on what you’ve learnt.

Reasons why paper prototyping is great

Doing is the best kind of thinking

When faced with a complex problem with lots of things to consider, the best way to tease them out is to come up with specific solutions.


You will generate a lot of ideas in a short space of time, which can help avoid becoming too focused on one solution too quickly.


Typically a prototype means handing over to the experts. But as no coding or design skills are required at this stage, you are able to get more opinions involved on a level playing field.

Not attached to specific solutions

Once an idea looks nice, people tend to look for incremental changes, not question its fundamental viability. Having things in a rougher form make it easier for people to discard something that isn’t working.

Forces you to think about experiences, not pages

There is a risk with more formal design methods that you end up thinking about elements of a design – this approach helps you to think holistically.

Open thinking

Paper prototyping isn’t limited by the available fonts, widgets and buttons. You can just focus on getting your idea down.

It’s exciting

Making things with your hands isn’t just useful, it’s fun. It can energise a team behind a project.


Paper prototyping is a brilliant way to run the early phases of an innovation project. It is also an easy way to introduce a modern, iterative approach to innovation more suited to today’s media and technology landscape.

And why stop at paper? Paper prototypes are great for flat design, but other materials can be used to prototype 3D design. The first Google Glass prototype took 5 minutes to make, was made using a coat hanger and clay, and produced a vital design observation that ended up in the final product.

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