Pen and Paper Still Have a Place in Design

Mockup Tools

Mockup tools like Balsamiq and others are standard with Experience Design professionals. They’re simple, fast, and I don’t use them.
These tools do offer an almost real-time template from which to design an app, a website, or common software interfaces. They are frequently used to communicate ideas in the course of client work. But let me share a (true) story:

We had with a client who asked us to design interfaces for two apps. The project manager was a big Balsamiq user, and for the first app, she used Balsamiq to rough out the design. The three stakeholders participated in the design process, and my PM translated their ideas to a projector in real-time. When the group had consensus on what it wanted in the design, Balsamiq showed its value as a great visualization tool. The software is easy to use, and I am a big fan of the low-fi (low fidelity) text and resizing options it provides. After about an hour of getting what the stakeholders wanted for their first app, we broke for lunch.


When we resumed our talks for the second app, I ran the meeting and used only plain white copy paper and colored pencils to facilitate the process. Interestingly, all three of our stakeholders became much more animated during this discussion. Instead of looking for what they wanted in the menu of Balsamiq design elements, they were forced to draw it. Two of them traced their phones on their papers and actually used their hands on the paper to simulate a real app experience, poking at the paper “screen” just as they would on their phones. We also got deeper into the functionality of what they wanted, piling two or three sheets of paper on top of one another to create simple flows. In the end, this session was 3-4 times more creative than the one using Balsamiq.

While my PM was amazed at the difference, she first attributed the creativity of the client to the previous session with Balsamiq warming up the room. But after some time using the analog process herself, she too found the creative process more effective. And while she continues to use Balsamiq for follow-up meetings and proofs, she is now using pencil and paper in initial client meetings.
I’ll take the human mind over a template any day, especially when the minds in the room happen to be creative.

Go Deep

Great products require you to go deep on user research.

We recently worked with a digital client who had more than 12,000 competitors in the world of apps. Twelve thousand competitors!

This company approached us thinking they could beat the market by creating a better interface for their users; and to some degree, they were right. But of much greater use to them was how we conducted research, ultimately leading us to a novel, undiscovered design in their space.

We begin by hitting the books. Literally.

We use online databases and every library we can find to come up with awesome psychographic, demographic, and ethnographic data. We then collate this into a readable framework that often gives us special insight into the market we are studying. And we go deep to find it. This isn’t Wikipedia work or the surface knowledge you can get from typing something into Google; this is study led by thesis papers and psychiatric journals and industry-specific publications: work done by fellow anthropologists, psychiatrists, and scientists.

And then we do something that maybe the Mad Men of the sixties did, but no one seems to be doing today – we get out of the building and observe the user. We test our customer’s products. We test competitive products. And we watch people perform activities using NO product, to form a baseline of interaction, expectation, and discovery based not on what we think they do, but what they actually do.

All said, our in-house study comprises about 40% of our time, whereas the outside work, observing and interacting with real users, comprises 60% of our time. This is old-school-work; away from the computer; no phone, no web – just one researcher and one user.

By observing the user one-on-one, and over and over again, we discovered several user actions that were undertaken by ALL users that NONE of these competitors had ever seen. None. The builders/owners of those apps had never left their desks, and it showed, and now they are scrambling to catch up to the strides our client has made in the space.

Get out of the building. Study your user. Be an anthropologist. Great product requires it.