Paper Prototyping: Get your project off to a quick start

Product planning, development, testing and support teams living the ‘do more, with less’ lifestyle have been compelled to rethink their tactics. Delivering business value with reduced budgets, longer project lists, shorter timelines and yoga-like flexibility requires a quicker more nimble approach to delivering solutions.

Planning · Last updated 10/16/09

Tags: Best Practices, Design, Planning, Project Management, Quality, Visual


Business realities driving process change

Businesses facing the realities of a competitive marketplace are turning to technical solutions for business challenges. The elusive goal of driving business advantage via technology is increasingly important in tough economic times. Businesses looking to increase sales are investing in online marketing, lead generation, capture and conversion, product information distribution, business partner integration, customer relationship management and improving the quality and frequency of customer interactions by leveraging technology. Companies are seeking to gain an advantage with cost-conscious, focused technology investments.

Product planning, development, testing and support teams living the ‘do more, with less’ lifestyle are rethinking their tactics. Delivering business value with tight budgets, long project lists and shorter timelines requires yoga-like flexibility that is translating into quicker, more nimble approaches.

While the acronyms change, the mission remains the same

Technology teams are responding by adjusting planning, management and delivery methodologies. The days of long, large Waterfall/RUP/MSF projects, in which each step is designed, planned and documented prior to the start of coding, seem to be behind us. The methodology buzzwords du jour are agile and scrum.

While the acronyms may have changed, to resonate a flexible and responsive mantra, the challenge for a delivery team largely remains the same. It usually comes down to these basic steps:

• Identify the ask – Discuss the high level goals/objectives and define the must-have’s

• Get to the details – Collaborate on requirements essential to moving ahead

• Turn the ask into action – Illustrate the tasks/effort/timelines that will make the project a success

• On time/On target delivery - Deliver a solution meeting the customer need as quickly as possible

Getting out of the gate quickly is more important now than ever

An early understanding of the client ‘ask’ is essential to project success. If the endeavor to understand a client’s product vision is a science then it must be a social science. Each client expresses their needs in different ways, some talk about the desired outcome ‘I would like a report like this’, others discuss business objectives ‘increase sales, improve customer communication’ while other emphasize colors, styles and screen designs. Being able to communicate with your clients is essential and paper design can be a quick and easy way to jump-start the process.

Paper prototyping, is that really all it is

The principle of paper prototyping and design is as simple as it sounds, armed only with your writing utensil of choice and a pad of paper, start gathering and mind mapping, what the client is asking for. Paper prototyping is the most cost effective medium for converting the customer vision into solution ideas.

Open discussion is the key to understanding a client’s vision. Turning the casual conversation into high level goals, ‘must have’ requirements, points of integration, business workflows, business entity relationships and screen flows is what paper prototyping is all about.

While a good old fashioned bullet point list is a great start, it may not be the best way to communicate with some of your clients. In this case, a picture is surely ‘worth a thousand words’ and more likely many hours of resource time. Illustrating ideas via screen/process flows and entity relationship diagrams should be used whenever possible because there is nothing like ‘seeing the big picture’ on paper to get a team aligned.

The flexibility and efficiency benefit of paper design is best shown by the ability to iterate. I don’t know anyone that hits the bulls-eye on their first shot every time. By embracing the fallibility and encouraging multiple solution options you can mix and match the most positive qualities of each. A collaboration of ideas, with the opportunity to iterate, prioritizing and improving along the way will deliver a positive outcome.

Paper design is a great tool for capturing and confirming a client’s thoughts. It lets your client assess your understanding, provide feedback and offer course corrections before additional effort (translation: budget) is spent.

Try it you might like it

Iterating on paper allows ideas to be conveyed quickly, design elements can be defined, edited, marked-up and multiple versions can be explored/evaluated with the next evolution of the product vision just a page away.

This dynamic and interactive approach, whether it be via whiteboard or notepad is a rapid and cost effective way to develop a solution design. Following this process early, clarifies the product vision, accelerates the team understanding and enables clearer task definition and more accurate estimates in the planning process.

The next time you are in a project kick off meeting break out a notepad, start a conversation and capture the vision on paper.

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