I'm taking a class, Prototyping Methods, that covers the full range from paper to foamcore to digital, what the benefits are, etc. A usability expert from a big web site guest lectured and talked about the importance of prototyping new site features. I was surprised/shocked/fascinated that they often prototype site features and enhancements using sheets of paper with basic sketches. Every week they bring in users, sit them down at a desk and proceed to show them their new site upgrades hand drawn on plain printer paper.
The results are great with subjects really getting into it, using their pen as a mouse to tap on links, fill in text boxes and such. Every time a subject "clicks" on a link the "computer" (a research assistant) hands the subject a new sheet of paper representing the new page they're on. This is a great, simple and inexpensive way to get quick and valuable feedback.
Apparently this is fairly common in UI research but it was new to me (I am a student after all). This got me thinking about how simple prototyping can be for companies, regardless of what they sell. Often companies, especially ones with stylists, designers and big-time engineers, think of prototyping as blowing out fancy clay models, fully-functional sites and the like. Taking a prototype this far causes a couple of problems - 1) It's not easy to make rapid, iterative changes as you gain feedback from users and 2) People fall in love with them and start envisioning the blown-out prototype as a final product, or at least close to final.
But, if you're creating something down and dirty, you can avoid these problems and get debate and improvements on the idea going faster.
It's amazing how little down-and-dirty prototyping is used by a lot of companies, whether for a product, service or site. If a major web site uses sheets of paper to get feedback, certainly consumer durables companies can figure out how to throw something together to get discussion going. You just have to use your imagination and ask your users to do the same. Then the next time a user says, "I wish it had a button here" you can take a minute to make adjustments and turn back to them asking, "You mean like this?"