Paper prototyping: Knowing your medium

Expanding some on the previous paper prototyping post, this one focuses a bit more on getting the most out of the first advice, which is to playtest early and often.

Obviously the more you know about the materials and tools you are working with before you rapidly prototype your idea, the better your intended result will be and the less time you will waste iterating. Sometimes you may only know certain things through experience, though you can prepare for most situations by reading up and doing a little research about what can be done beforehand. So I am writing this up in hopes it would be part of a practical guide that is helpful.

Fragility is a good start, as knowing the limits and constraints is important too. The materials you work with are susceptible to break. You may be reusing old cardboard boxes which have been sitting in the rain at some point or you purposely stained paper in coffee for use in the project. Or you may purposely be creating a prototype that should withstand splashing or spilling. There are many ways to work with this, though you may have to think on if you really can work with such materials in a short time, or if such materials are worth the effort.

Let’s take the example of a prototype that’s meant to somewhat withstand liquids in some way. Will it at least survive long enough to show off the proof-of-concept? If that’s the case then you should document the results in photos and video so you may show it again in future. Perhaps you should consider another material altogether, one which can actually withstand splashing/spilling? Or there could perhaps be a fixative that you can use to seal the prototype to prevent water damage. In any case you should remember fragility in construction. Moving away from liquids though, certain constructions are still susceptible to break open if used or under stress over a longer period of time. As seen in the photo below, I saw that placing the viewing hole at the top of a card box made it more fragile to open. In subsequent constructions, I resized the hole and placed it closer to the bottom.

Properties of the material are good to consider. How thick is it? Is it possible to bend and shape? Considering the amount of time there is to prototype, how easily can the material be cut into so the prototype can be made? What way is the grain/flute going?

In the above photo you see the most common type of cardboard you can get a hold of. It is highly likely you will get c-flute corrugated cardboard. Notice the middle one has a slightly smaller corrugation, which usually serves a better purpose in cushioning products on the inside of the box. It also has better crush resistance. I am assuming it’s a b-flute really, since the letters only denote when that type of flute was invented. Though if we really need to be technically correct I should stop calling it cardboard and use the term corrugated fiberboard. The bottom right image shows that middle piece also has a tapered edge, as it was taken from the lid of the cardboard box. It is a common practice to have tapered edges to prevent being able to rip the material easily.

If you are unsure about what can be done with a certain material, do a much quicker prototype to find out if it’s even feasible to use. Like to see if you can use a certain glue when putting cardstock, plastic and string together? Make a tester with how you intend to piece them together and see after a half hour if it works. Be sure to check out to see what glue is recommended between two materials. I typically carry four types at least when I make my first attempts: paper glue, universal glue, super glue and the common type used in glue guns. Masking tape also helps things stick to other things otherwise.

When creating these prototypes you want to think about what it’s purpose is. This you can decide with longevity in mind. The longer you want your prototype to last, the more high-fidelity you want to go and the more time you will spend constructing it. In the next post I would show a few documented examples that I have explored and found interesting (as it would be impractical to attempt covering all situations and what to do).


The paper prototyping series

Part I – Paper prototyping

Part II – Knowing your medium

Part III – Repurposing or following purpose

Part IV – Differences in the purpose approaches

Part V – Reinforcements and affordances

Part VI – Final thoughts on construction

Part VII – Chair epilogue

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