26 June 2009

Prototyping software tools that work

The Blogosphere is full of posts over what is the best prototyping tool. This fight over Axure, Flash, Dreamweaver, PowerPoint, etc., is misplaced and looks at prototyping as something that is purely a single concrete one size its all activity, or at least one tool fits all. This is misplaced for two reasons. First, this discussion disempowers the designer, product manager, developer who wants to use software tools already at their disposal. Secondly, ignores the fact that prototypes are sometimes created extremely rapidly (like in an hour) or more thoroughly (in a month). The two prototypes on the opposite of these extremes have far different tool requirements. Therefore, it is far better to think of prototyping toolsets.
A prototyper should have many tools just like a mechanic has a toolbox. Otherwise the prototype who knows just one tool is not very effective. Like to the hammer every problem looks like a nail, a designer who knows just one prototyping tool offers just one type of solution when many many more are possible. If you look for a different perspective mainly what are the specific prototyping needs, some surprising prototyping tools emerge.

Prototyping tools can usually do some kinds prototyping better than other kinds. Furthermore, you may also prefer to use a certain tool simply because you know it's special features better than another tool.

General Availability
A prototyping tool that is not generally available to the design team makes the team reliant on a chosen few with access. If the resulting file format is also unreadable outside the prototyping tool then access to the prototype is further limited. In some organizations this is a good thing; but when you want to maximize the knowledge of your design team having a prototyping tool set hat empowers people is important.

Interaction styles & Functionality
Tools support certain platforms, interaction styles and functionalities. These actually limit what types of prototypes you can create. For example, if the widget set in your prototyping tool does not support spinners, then spinners will not appear so easily on your prototype. Moreover, the more sophisticated the UX widget set and the interaction capabilities the more conservative and less innovative your prototype will be. Conservative because you are cornered into the widget set and interactive capabilities of the tool.

Design Team Talents
If a design team loves one product, making the switch over to another product robs them of their talent they already have. Of course that can be counterbalanced if there are long term advantages in adding the prototyping to the prototyping toolset.

Deliverable formats
How a prototype will be used is also essential. If the resulting prototype will be a paper prototype. For example, choosing a tool which can print out designs and portions of designs easily would be a factor.

Tools review
There are many different dimensions to look at since prototyping involves multiple dimensions (fidelity, audience, style, etc.) However as one handy table (I can make more if they are helpful, here is a grouping of prototyping tools and what they are most appropriate for. (I will update this table based on user comments.) The table is more or less an overview of a possible look on similar tools. For your personal organization, it might be helpful to list all the tools you know and list for each: advantages, disadvantages, etc.

Methods Tools
Static wireframe PowerPoint, Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, Visio, OmniGraffle, HTML editors, Word
Storyboard PowerPoint, or other presentation software, Acrobat, Excel
Paper Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, Visio, OmniGraffle, HTML editors
Wizard of Oz WebEx or other video conferencing software or synchronous sharing tools.
Digital partial interactive Excel, PowerPoint, HTML Editors, Acrobat, Visio, OmniGraffle, Axure
Digital fully interactive Flash, Dreamweaver and other HTML Editors, Visual Studio, Director, Axure


Greg Jorgensen said...

Maybe not exactly on topic, but I would like to see prototyping tools communicate the cost of features in some way. Some prototyping tools make it too easy for customers to add features that have big cost and complexity implications. When it's just as easy to drag a popup menu out as a static text label the customer can go crazy. Too many times I've seen design and prototyping efforts turn into "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."

Jonathan said...

Hi Greg,

It is not on topic, but definitely an important issue. There are times for the Dream House, namely early in the project definition phase, but after that it is only disruptive. But when do you stop, if there is no guidance to say when do you prototype what? Effective Prototyping means to prototype for the moment where the software development is.

Anonymous said...

Recently there is a new prototyping tool named "ForeUI", I guess you may be interested.

naveen sethia said...

Nice article...
Just an idea for new prototyping software or web application.. which allow users to create, share, and search new UI ideas and mock-ups. For instance user can search an UI object/style/pattern.. reuse/modify the prototype and make available for others to use. I have also used Balsamiq Mockups.. it's pretty good as well.

Beth said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Greg.

Prototyping tools are made to match specific process requirements. It would be futile for a company to stick to just one equipment or software when developing different products. Different industries should make use of emerging technologies to gain a good market advantage.

In industries like engineering and architecture, businesses invest in laser scanning services in creating 3d cad models that they can use for prototyping. Advanced equipments like Faro arm (for sale in some states) helps in inspecting the product. They also come with software that can be used to manage the data gathered.

The list of emerging technologies could be endless on any given industry. I really hope that companies would adopt such changes to widen their perspective on product development. Thanks