Early Adopter: Is the Future of User Experience Design Made of Paper and Polish?

What has Poland done for you lately?

Not much for me either.

But thanks to Marcin Treder, Kamil Zieba and Wictor Mazur, Poland can now add user experience (UX) design tools to its list of exports.

The three designers, who met at their day jobs working for one of Poland’s biggest e-commerce sites, founded UXPin–the quietly-famous Web site prototyping kit made of specially printed paper and sticky notes, beautifully bundled inside its own portable folder.

That description may not send everyone’s hands to their wallets, but over one thousand UXPin kits have shipped in the last three months, and many have been picked up by leading UX and graphic designers all over the world, including folks at BlackBerry, Google, Playboy, Sony Pictures and Yahoo.

And beginning Monday, fans of analog-first UX design can UXPin-up their iPhone app ideas with a new, mobile prototyping kit.

Thus, the prototyping solution they developed for their own jobs has mushroomed into a side business for Treder and his co-founders.

“We were really the original users we were designing for,” Treder said.

The team needed to rapidly prototype changes to their site’s price comparison pages and test the changes quickly.

After abandoning collaborative wire-framing software as either too slow or too technical for lay people to operate, they began printing wire-frame pieces and mixing them with Post-it-type notes to mock up designs.

“There was a lack of sophisticated tools,” said Treder. “We really needed to iterate quickly. With paper, everyone understands it, and everyone sits around a table, prototyping together.”

The paper kit fits with the digital to analog aesthetic that products like DODOCase and Penultimate have ridden to popularity.

UXPin blurs the line between the physical, tactile world and the other one we can only click through.

So, is this lo-fi direction for prototyping high-tech design a real movement, or just a fetish for the sort of folks that carry giant black sketchbooks wrapped in big rubber bands?

“Why spend 24 hours making a first mock-up in Photoshop when 90 percent of it may change the next day?,” Treder asked.

He thinks there are certain, undeniable benefits to prototyping Web designs on paper first.

He added that working with software alone also eliminates critical team bonding, and that paper prototyping not only gets you to the needed insights faster, but teaches the team members how to communicate and collaborate with each other during the very first stages of design.

Treder noted: “There is a lot of talk about communication problems between development and UX teams. Building a physical prototype together can really help with that.”

His argument is, in a sense, that paper can become a common language in the often nebulous design process.

It all sounded a little like grown-up make-believe, Treder argued that paper can also engage the user in the design more than software can.

“Everyone can move a sticky note.” he said. “Paper prototyping is like a physical version of sketching–but sketching has significant flaws. It’s not possible to move a line of pencil on the paper, or take it to another paper. With UXPin, this is possible.”

I captured a little Skype video of our conversation with Treder, and convinced him to give a little preview of the new mobile UXPin kit.


(Early Adopter is a new column on early-stage start-ups and ideas that will be written weekly by Drake Martinet.)

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