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.

Application development is a hot field. The explosion in mobile devices has turned a monolithic process dominated by a few big players into something everyone seems to be doing.

And you could do it too, right?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Even if you’re a crackerjack website developer, your skills – and tolerance for frustration – won’t necessarily translate into app development. There are a few things that make this process distinctive, and not a good fit for everyone.

  • Complexity. Even a simple app has multiple components, and each one has to interact with the other smoothly and successfully. That makes the development process taxing. You need to be able to keep a lot of information running in your brain simultaneously, and be able to see how changes in a small part of your app might have a big affect on other areas. It’s kind of like playing a game of chess nonstop for weeks on end. You can never really relax while it’s going on, lest you forget something critical.
  • Coding time. Think of a seemingly simple application – Slickplan, for example. Guess how many screens you’d have to code for that site. Now multiply that by 10. If you’re interested in app development, you need to be ready for a massive amount of work, even for very streamlined sites. The number of PSDs I have to build for a single app always surprises me, even though I should know better by now.
  • Awareness. You also can’t get caught up in your own development process and block out the rest of the world. Chances are, the success of your app will depend heavily on how well it reflects current usability standards and the way that other, even dissimilar apps are being designed. So you can’t ever stick your head in the sand. You have to know how your users expect their screen to behave. And what they expect today is likely very different from what they expected six months ago.
  • A never-ending story. You may be used to designing websites and purging them from your brain the day they go live. It doesn’t work that way with apps. Instead, expect a never-ending process of debugging and incremental improvement. And don’t be surprised when your users come back at you with an insane number of ideas and suggestions – everything from basic stuff you can’t believe you missed, to sophisticated ideas that knock your socks off.

You can get frustrated with that, or you can sit back and realize how amazing it is that your users care enough to click that little “feedback” button and tell you what they think. If you think you can do the latter – and do it with a smile on your face – you just might be ready for the world of application development.