Why you should learn how to sketch on paper

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Paper prototyping is becoming a lost art. While it’s a helpful way to conceptualize an idea, many designers do not do it because of the time commitment. At the same time, a lot of the articles show beautiful pictures and amazing tools that you can use for this process. In fact, I think I might order one of those cool stencils after I write this.

However, I think that many of these articles are trying to shore up paper prototyping’s weaknesses rather than catering towards its’ strengths. There’s another strength that sketching on paper (the first step of paper prototyping) has: it’s a quick way to communicate ideas in a live setting.

Imagine that you’re in a meeting with a number of important stakeholders: a VP here, a Branch Chief there. They’re talking about your existing design and one of them suggests an alternative to what’s on screen. But, as you find out, they are having a hard time describing how it would look visually.

As the lead designer for this project, you know you can jump in here and help. What do you do?

  1. Jump to the whiteboard and begin sketching.

This tends to be the default answer for many people. However, it may sometimes not be you: it may be a facilitator like a Scrum master. What happens next is an exercise in design-by-committee: slowly, people begin to draw out all of the design elements, and during this process, someone points out something else they might want to change.

Or, if you’re not that unfortunate, you might sketch several versions of it out on a whiteboard, which you then have to take pictures of and then upload to your computer to refer to.

2. Take down their suggestions and work at it after the meeting

This tends to be the default answer for many others. After all, it’s better not to make mistakes with the design. But if this meeting has that many important stakeholders, then maybe it meets only once a month.

Sure, you can send an e-mail after the meeting with your design, but at best, you’ll start a long e-mail chain with feedback. At worst? “Hey, we have some questions about your design, can we schedule another meeting?”

3. Make live changes to the high-fidelity prototype.

If you’re a coding/design whiz, maybe you’re tempted to do this. You probably shouldn’t. It is a bad idea for one reason: “What if someone likes it?” Suddenly, you’ve given your stakeholders a high-fidelity version of a design in their head, and it becomes that much harder to convince them to go with an alternative design.

It is the right level of fidelity

Paper sketching is definitely a low-fidelity prototype, and that’s perfectly fine for this scenario. If you’re doing this live, they’re not expecting you to suddenly conjure a perfect draft out of thin air. Someone is literally describing something in their mind that you’re trying to understand: if perfect communication was possible, games like Charades wouldn’t exist.

It provides an open avenue for feedback

With the whiteboard scenario, it is providing the impression (unconsciously) that this is a design by committee. Someone is usually standing up while everyone’s sitting, anyone can speak up, and whoever’s drawing it will make changes based on what is said. You’d be surprised how many people had actual feedback but because of the group dynamic didn’t feel compelled to talk.

On the other hand, with paper sketching, it’s explicitly a design by you. You are spending time drawing this out, and so any feedback is directed at you. As such, more people may feel comfortable talking to you about what they want.

It provides laser focus on the interaction at hand

When I first started doing paper sketching at meetings, I used to use a stack of Post-It notes for my sketches. I’ve found that I needed a little bit more space than that, but I still was able to get my points across with Post-It’s.

As soon as someone goes to the whiteboard, the temptation is to draw the entire interface as it exists. As a a result, people may be tempted to talk about other things they see instead of the interaction you’re trying to draw.

On the other hand, depending on the size of the paper, you don’t have to spend that much time drawing out the whole thing: simply draw out the type of interaction you care about to make sure they stay focused on what your’e discussing.

5 Sketched solutions by me, 3 by others at my meeting

It allows other people to draw what they’re thinking

An executive may be hesitant to jump into a wireframing software like Axure to make changes. They’re usually less hesitant to draw what they’re thinking on pen and paper.

(Bonus) Wireframing software supports sketches

A lot of wireframing software allows you to take an image and add interactivity. If you’re worried about wasted effort, you can take a sketch (assuming it’s not too messy) and make it interactive.

It takes a little bit of effort.

Not a lot, but a little. You have to have pencil and paper on hand, but also prepare a basic outline ( i.e. if you’re talking about a certain table, you have to draw out the outline of the table) for something. If it’s taking you a lot of time, simplify. I’ve gotten my point across with two rectangles, some text, and some arrows.

It’s not suitable for all meeting types

This is really hard to do in remote meetings, and if the conference is big enough you may have to do a compromise between paper and whiteboard (I like those Giant Post-its).

Next time you’re in a meeting and you run into that scenario, try to see if paper sketching can work for you (practice beforehand obviously). It might just be the tool that you’re looking for.

Top writer in UX Design. UX, Data Visualization and Data Science. Author of Data Persuasion: https://tinyurl.com/rndb9bw. Substack: dataanddesign.substack.com

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