You wouldn’t expect mobile developers to spend a lot of time using pen and paper. Shouldn’t we be on the cutting edge, using lasers and cyborgs to speed up our design?

We are on the cutting edge. But sometimes that just means we’re using scissors.

That’s because paper-based prototyping is an important part of our design process. Paper-based prototyping is just what it sounds like: designing mockups of mobile apps using paper and pencil. Designing this way has real advantages over designing on the computer, with the perennial favorites “time and money” at the top of the list.

How can designing on paper possibly be state-of-the-art? Let me explain.

  • It’s fast and easy. With mobile interfaces becoming more sophisticated, there’s often no time to build refined prototypes of every permutation of every screen in your interface. Working on paper allows you to create mockups in a matter of seconds.
  • It’s cheap. No complex UI modeling software is required; no labor hours are spent coding or working in Photoshop. All you need are paper, pencils, and ideas.
  • It’s focused. Working on paper keeps everyone – developers, designers, and clients – focused on functionality, not looks. When you’re working on Post-Its, it’s impossible to get distracted by your app’s “look and feel.”
  • It encourages collaboration. Try gathering 10 people around a laptop to brainstorm. Hmm. Now gather 10 people around a table, show them your drawings, given them some paper and sticky notes … and watch the ideas start flying.
  • It stimulates creativity. If you were designing a logo, you wouldn’t start in Photoshop. You’d probably start by sketching, evolving various ideas naturally before you commit them to pixels. Prototyping on paper opens creative doors in the same way.
  • It encourages robust usability testing. Sometimes, a UI isn’t tested thoroughly because it’s just painful to design over and over. When you work on paper, you’re not hung up on time invested in creating tons of PSD documents. Revision is fast and painless.
  • It gives insight into usability. Watching people interact with your drawings is totally different than emailing them a PSD file and getting back their notes. You can actually watch their minds work – see how your design fits or blocks their expectations.
  • It’s nonthreatening. Using paper is great with clients. It takes development out of the realm of geeks and into their hands. They can add, delete, or reorder screens, for example, just by moving pieces of paper around.
  • It’s fun. There’s something tactile and satisfying about working with paper. It appeals to nearly everyone. And if you really want to bring out the kid in your coworkers, arm them with scissors and glue-sticks. In this case, a childlike approach to work is a good thing.


Paper prototyping can’t identify every UI issue. And sometimes you have to get into the development phase to really see how your interface is going to fly.

But in many situations, working on paper is a great way to enable low-cost, highly creative design.

1 reply
  1. pete markiewicz
    pete markiewicz says:

    Great article on using paper! If you check my recent article on “sustainable web design” (, it shows there is an environmental benefit as well – paper is not automatically “worse” than the web, and the web is less green than many think. An emphasis on paper prototypes forms one of the key features of a “sustainable web design” strategy. Good stuff!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *