Case study: Paper prototypes as a tool in public procurement

In order to get the right product you need to let the people who will use the product tell you what they really want. Actually, even better, you need to let those people build the product. This is exactly what we did when we ran a set of paper prototyping co-design workshops together with Trondheim Municipality.

Paper prototypes are simplified representation of a future product. They are preferably created by those who will use the product. Paper prototypes are efficient tools for conveying the needs of the users. As the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Paper prototypes are visual and physical. Prototypes in general don’t need to be made of paper. But all types of prototypes (software or paper or physical) have to be visual and are normally made by hands. People mostly use paper for early low-fidelity prototypes, but it is possible to use Lego building blocks, plaster, 3D printing, or any other material that you can cut, form, paint and manipulate to create a prototype. Paper prototypes work as tools that help people without technical expertise express their requirements for a technical product. Paper prototypes can be created and thrown away, in this way also supporting iterative processes. In addition, since they are easily made and thrown away they can be used to test hypotheses in a low-cost way. For resources on paper prototyping see this page.

Figure 1: Erlend together with a number of workshop participants adding information to the Balsamiq tool.

Public procurement can be challenging, especially in areas where innovations happen fast. In many cases you will save time and effort by using modern co-design methods to collect feedback and requirements from your users. Paper prototyping is one such method. Typical users are highly experienced practitioners who normally don’t have any advanced knowledge of software development. These users are nevertheless perfectly capable of expressing their needs by creating or giving feedback on paper prototypes. During autumn 2013 we worked together with such a group at Trondheim Municipality to specify the functionality of a new tool: an information dashboard for incoming alarms and calls. This tool is planned to be developed for Trondheim’s new alarm center, Helsevakta. Helsevakta will be a modern alarm center to open in 2017. It will be the main hub for all incoming emergency alarms and calls from Trondheim’s inhabitants. Our goal was to specify the user interface for the information dashboard.

The work started by identifying and selecting a group of users. Helsevakta will be a new organization, unifying a number of existing organizational units. So we decided to include members from each of the existing units in the co-design group. This was important to give a sense of ownership of the new product. A plan for a series of workshops was then worked out together with the group. Initial discussions were focused on the functionality in a number of existing tools. The group discussed the limitations of these existing tools, and identified how they would address those limitations. In the next phase the group envisioned a new product and used paper prototyping to create paper-based user interfaces for the tool. In parallel to this, one of us used a computer-based prototyping tool called Balsamiq to clean up and draw the prototypes. The Balsamiq prototypes worked as a summary of the discussions. We also used our own knowledge of ICT and software engineering to come up with suggestions that could help the group.

Figure 2: One of the paper prototypes created for a mobile device.

After each session we would work with the paper prototypes, clean them up and document them in Balsamiq, and send them back to the group for comments. This process turned out to be very beneficial to the group. They could suddenly see how the future product and its user interface should look like in details, with buttons and text fields etc. We simulated the workflow of handling incoming alarms by creating consecutive screens to illustrate how the interaction with the real product might feel like. We used icons and links and widgets. The end result was good enough to create the experience of interacting with the real product, but not as refined as the final product would look like. Figure 2 shows an example of one of these prototypes for a mobile client.

We presented the results during a large gathering of alarm center personnel in Skistua just outside Trondheim. The presentation was done mainly by Erlend and Marius. An intro by two representatives from the paper prototyping group was given as a sign of ownership of the product by the group who created it. We had a long discussion session where the audience commented and suggested further improvements. The results were then used as part of the documentation that was released during the procurement process.

Figure 3: Marius and Erlend presenting the results at Helsevakta strategy meeting at Skistua.

Paper prototypes are powerful tools. The discussion at Skistua was interesting because the audience could really understand what the future product was going to be even before it was implemented. This is an effect you can never achieve using requirement specification documents. Only visual paper prototypes can give the feeling.

Public procurement can be challenging, especially in areas where innovations happen fast. Paper prototyping can provide tremendous benefits.

This work is supported by the EU projects OPTET and FARSEEING. The team involved from SINTEF included Nils Brede Moen, Marius Mikalsen, Erlend Stav, Kristine Holbø, Thomas Vilarinho and Babak Farshchian.

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