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.

iphone4There’s a big shift in how people are shopping these days. “Let me Google that and see where I can buy it,” or “let me find a discount on Coupon Sherpa” are showing up in everyday conversation.

And people are searching for these things on their smart phones. If you want a chance at capturing these potential customers, you need to cater to their on-the-go search habits. That means you need a mobile website or application for your company — or both.

If you’re wondering about the difference, a mobile website is a condensed version of your site, optimized for viewing on a smart phone. The content and navigation are simplified and the images are minimized.

A mobile application is a self-contained program that runs on a smart phone. For example, Starbucks offers an app that lets users find a store using GPS. Chipotle has an app that lets you build, order, and pay for a burrito right on your phone.

If you haven’t thought about what kind of mobile presence your business needs, it might be time. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • Who’s your audience? Are they new customers, who might need to find you using search? Are they loyal customers who might appreciate a special app?
  • What are your goals? Sites and apps can have radically different purposes. Are you trying to build brand awareness? Provide information? Encourage a call or a purchase?
  • What functionality do you need? Based on your goal, what functionality is required? For example, do you need to track and store a user’s GPS info? Does the app need to be usable if there’s no Wi-Fi or network signal? Does it need to run heavy animation?
  • What device do you want to run on? iPhone? Android? Blackberry? Unfortunately, each platform has a unique language and process for pushing out applications, and its own internet browser. That means a site can look great on an iPhone but awful on a Blackberry. On the other hand, a site that works well on all platforms may need to have a generic look and feel.
  • What’s your budget? As always, you may need to balance your goals and budget. Maybe there’s a strong business case for moving your company into the mobile space – so it’s worth it to stretch your budget. Or maybe mobile access isn’t critical for your business. In that case, scaling back on both budget and goals makes sense.

As with everything in business, there’s no cookie-cutter solution. Mobile apps and sites have awesome potential — but you want to think about what’s right for your business before you take action.