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What Tools Do You Use for UI Prototyping? 88

AccUser asks: "There are many articles discussing methods of UI prototyping. Having been involved in the design and implementation of a number of commercial applications (both desktop and embedded), I know the value of producing early prototypes of the UI. In the past I have used visual programming tools, such as Visual Basic, but there is always that request: 'Can't you just complete the prototype and release it?' One project I was involved with, the UI prototype employed hand drawn graphics (including hand written text labels, etc) in order to be explicit about the fact that it was a prototype. What I would like to know is what tools and techniques do you use for UI prototyping, and how do you manage your client's expectations?"
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What Tools Do You Use for UI Prototyping?

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  • Qt designer (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dcapel ( 913969 ) on Saturday November 19, 2005 @10:25PM (#14073278) Homepage
    If you are OSS, or want to buy a Qt license, Qt designer is very good for prototyping -- you can even make it functionally quickly with some pyqt, then write it in whatever language you want later.
    • X-Code (Score:3, Informative)

      by MBCook ( 132727 )
      On the Mac side, X-Code is fantastic. Not only do you get to lay out the components but you can even connect many of the simple actions with drag and drop. This means that checking one box that should enable and disable other fields can work in just a few seconds. The button that is supposed to make the drawer slide out? That is trivial to do. You get a working demo that looks exactly like the final thing will. It is just like using Visual Basic but better because you get a "real language" (sorry, I don't l
  • wxPython (Score:2, Interesting)

    You should try using wxPython []. Python is terrific for fast prototyping. Hell, I'm still using the prototypes I've developed.
  • My suggestion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PunkOfLinux ( 870955 ) <> on Saturday November 19, 2005 @10:32PM (#14073295) Homepage
    I like to use pen and paper, personally. Pen and paper is good for anything, it seems.
    • Cut and paste is more fun this way. Especially if you like to eat the paste.
    • I second this.

      My UI prototype tools of choice has always been:


      You may want to use recycled paper, or if you want to go for an environment clean solution, use Inkscape (Free Vector Based Drawing Program, available for Linux, Apple, and even the arch enemy windows).

      Using a vector program rather then a raster program enables you to make shapes quickly (rectangles, circles, ...) and select them later to move to another position or change the shape.
    • Glad others think like me. When I start a new project, I always get a cheap one-dollar spiral notebook to keep interface sketches, weird code highlights, etc.

      Also, if my game ever becomes popular, how much will that notebook cost? ;-)
    • I'm a big fan of light trace paper for layering - very useful if you want to test templates with dynamic elements.

      Usually I'm trying to test a workflow rather than code. In those circumstances code gets in the way for establishing how the job SHOULD be done. It also helps develop a functional specification up front before you have such a huge investment in code that making changes when something obviously doesn't work like it should is a make or break decision.

  • Whiteboard planning out the dev side, Visio for anything we hand the customer. That way they don't get any illusions there might be some prototype they can slam into production - even if I've got the HTML looking right on my part.
  • by akh ( 240886 )
    I use Dia all the time for interface. It's great for trying out different variations. Since the graphic primitives are so, well, primitive, it's easy to focus on usability instead of eye candy. Visio might also be usable for this.
    • I use Dia all the time for interface.

      For another low fidelity mockup tool, try inkscape []. Mockups and prototypes are two different animals. There is no interactivity with mockups unless they are talked though by a facilitator with the relevant stakeholders. This is called a paper prototype. A real prototype is an actual application that can be executed. It is usually somewhat limited in capability and tends to have nothing designed in it for scalability, security, portability, performance, etc. As stated

  • by GoofyBoy ( 44399 ) on Saturday November 19, 2005 @10:48PM (#14073350) Journal

    "how do you manage your client's expectations?"

    A good solid "NO!" with lots of eye contact.
  • by dtfinch ( 661405 ) * on Saturday November 19, 2005 @10:50PM (#14073358) Journal
    They call that RAD.
  • A laptop running either RealBasic, O'Basic or Visual Basic, hooked to a large TV. One person on the laptop, but the whole team working on the idea. Notebook and markers, laser pointer, pizza, and (if your team is disciplined enough) beer. The UI builds itself.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 19, 2005 @10:56PM (#14073383)
    Make unfinished items on your prototype have a funny font or a strange color. When the client asks you to fix it, say that it looks bad because it isn't finished. Generally, people who aren't programmers have no idea that writing an application is any harder than changing the font on a button, or that changing the font on a button is trivial. If your mockup uses Comic Sans with random alignment, they can evaluate it while realizing that it is not actually near completion.
    • by tm2b ( 42473 )
      I think this is actually an excellent idea. It makes a lot of sense for elements that aren't finished to be immediately recognizable as such by the end user.
      • I think this is actually an excellent idea. It makes a lot of sense for elements that aren't finished to be immediately recognizable as such by the end user.

        For example, the Windows logo has been doing that for some of us for years. :-P
    • by mykdavies ( 1369 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @10:28AM (#14075224)
      If you're using Swing, have a look at Napkin [] -- it gives you a great 'sketch-style' look-and feel. As the author says 'the idea is to try to develop a look and feel that can be used in Java applications that looks informal and provisional, yet be fully functional for development. Often when people see a GUI mock-up, or a complete GUI without full functionality, they assume that the code behind it is working. While this can be used to sleazy advantage, it can also convince people who ought to know better (like your managers) that you are already done when you have just barely begun, or when only parts are complete.'
      • Often when people see a GUI mock-up, or a complete GUI without full functionality, they assume that the code behind it is working.

        Not often. Every time!

        Never use the real GUI to demo a prototype or even to demo a GUI mock-up. Your customer will assume that those screens are complete. When you come back to demo the screen in its comleted state, they will not be impressed because they've seen it already, and they'll wonder what you've been doing for the last couple of weeks. Nothing you say to the contr

      • For web prototyping, there's DENIM [] from Berkeley. It produces functional web pages from sketches. Another Java app.
      • If you use Qt, simply use the fugly SGI style.
  • Flash. No seriously, give it a shot
  • Microsoft Sparkle. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Dewb ( 4591 )
    No, seriously. teractive_designer/default.aspx []

    Prototype in XAML and then hook the prototype UI directly into your back-end code.

    Of course, judgment is suspended until it actually ships, but the demos at PDC were very promising.
  • What I use.. (Score:2, Informative)

    by aldragon ( 782143 )
    Glade + Pygtk + Python
  • by TheSkepticalOptimist ( 898384 ) on Saturday November 19, 2005 @11:13PM (#14073448)
    I mean, lots of people need multi step procedures and seek approval inbetween each step, so developing UI goes from paper to prototype to working model finally to release.

    This is mostly why many software/web products take months or years to develop.

    Best way to prototype? Dive right in and code up working UI.

    After developing UI for software for the last 10 years, I can safetly say that I can work up a working "prototype" just as quickly as I can do the release version. I have written my own Windows based GUI controls which make it easier and quicker to implement then your basic Win32 or MFC ones. This way, I can actually start working on the release software while getting feedback from people directly using the UI.

    Whether its software or web design, UI really needs to be experienced and interacted with in order to determine is efficiency or practicality. Drawing up static images of a website or application is all nice, but its a waste of time. What do you do while waiting for management to approve your pretty pictures. Sure things might look all nice, but when they finally get the release product, they may not understand why some control doesn't do what the picture suggested it would do.

    It takes me anywhere from a few hours to a few days to get a functional UI up and running and while management is playing around with it and deciding what they like and don't like, I am continuing to develop the UI further, all in an effort to get to the release product quickly. In this way, by the time management decides what it is they finally want, its already done.

    In any regard, I find it best to work up prototypes in the development environment you would use to create the final product, that is, just start working on the final product right from the start. Using any kind of thrid party tools or procedures is just a good way to waste time and money.
    • by elemental23 ( 322479 ) on Saturday November 19, 2005 @11:27PM (#14073488) Homepage Journal
      How do you do your usability testing then? Don't tell me you code up a UI for every testing iteration.

      I'm not making any assumptions about you but, sadly, the answer most open source developers seem to have is some variant of "Who needs usability testing?".

      I'm in the early stages of a small project and spent a good part of the day today making a functional prototype for the web application/service I'm working on. As I code, I've got two iterations of paper prototypes sitting next to me as well as the notes taken during the user testing I did last week. I've found this process to be extremely valuable, as the feedback I got in the initial rounds of testing will save me a lot of time in the long run, not to mention ensure that the UI is intuitive and easy to use.
      • the answer most open source developers seem to have is some variant of "Who needs usability testing?".

        Probably true. What strikes me is that most OSS projects don't even collect use-cases, so their concept of who their audience is and what their habits are likely to be becomes unhinged. And of course there is no plain-language, functional basis for actually testing the UI or cerating the docs, etc. Check out the Help section, and you see what... entries arranged by the contents of the pulldown menu or by t
        • What strikes me is that most OSS projects don't even collect use-cases, so their concept of who their audience is and what their habits are likely to be becomes unhinged.

          In the stereotypical open source project, the developer is the audience. For those few projects that cater to the needs of others, I agree that more rigorous methodologies are appropriate.

        • This is very, very true, and, incidentally, the one area where most Microsoft bashers underestimate the giant.

          Microsoft caught an incredibly lucky break some 25 years ago that allowed them to grow and become huge. However, they are not that big today because of that one incident. The reason they are as big as they are today is that they, around '92 or '93, realized that usability is tremendously important. Sure, that wasn't an original thought. In fact, that was what Apple had been doing all the time, and a

          • Excel used to have competitors, like 1-2-3 and Quattro Pro. In the early nineties they were about as good as Excel (or possibly better?). But when Microsoft decided that usability was what counted, they crushed their competitors who considered that less important (or simply didn't have the resources to keep up in the arms race).

            Yes but they did this by having a head-start in the Windows 95 environment, the replacement for their monopoly product. OTOH Wordperfect Suite (incl. Quattro) has been advancing and
  • Paper and Pencil (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jrockway ( 229604 ) * <> on Saturday November 19, 2005 @11:13PM (#14073453) Homepage Journal
    I draw out a UI before writing a line of code. Depending on the problem at hand, I then draw (again by hand), implementation details like class hierarchies, interfaces, callbacks, etc.

    When you're sitting in front of a computer, it's too easy to just start writing code. When you lose your train of thought, though, you'll end up throwing it all away because you won't know how it works. If you go to your local coffee shop with a notebook and a pencil, and start prototyping, you'll have a good plan on paper. It will be much easier to implement from a fixed plan that's written down than from some idea that you have. It will also be easier to come in the next day and start where you left off, rather than going off on some other tangent because you forgot your idea that seemed good yesterday.

    My usual successful development strategy is this:

    1) plan UI, interactions, structure, etc. on paper.
    2) design reusable modules to do the grunt work.
    3) write the documentation and unit tests for said modules. This is where you get the chance to play test your modules before you've committed to an interface. The SYNOPSIS section of your documentation (where you show example use of your module), is a great place to experiment with how your code is going to work and interact with other pieces of code. Once you know what the interface is going to look like, document the methods. Then write unit tests for them. If your interface is no good, you'll know by now, and you won't have wasted any time writing code that you're just going to trash.
    4) go home and relax. you don't have to think about your code anymore because "perldoc My::Module" is going to tell you everything you need to know when you come in tomorrow morning.
    5) write the actual code
    6) move on to the next piece, knowing you have a well-designed, documented, tested module to build on!

    I'll throw in a link to a module I developed like this. It's not particularly good in the sense of using amazing algorithms or being incredibly useful, but the documentation and tests are decent. -1.01/lib/File/ []

    Note that every interaction the module has with the outside world has at least a little blurb to refresh my memory about what happens. That's the important part. (It's an added bonus if some random person on the Internet can understand how your code works too ;)
    • Re:Paper and Pencil (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Bastian ( 66383 )
      So true. A carpenter doesn't design furniture with a hammer and saw in hand, because without a plan for what he's doing the pieces won't fit together quite right and the finished product will end up looking shoddy.

      It's the same story for software development.
    • Agreed! With the help of a scanner, the hand drawn diagram can become the first draft of the design document as well.
  • I... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Jeff DeMaagd ( 2015 ) on Saturday November 19, 2005 @11:25PM (#14073483) Homepage Journal
    use chalk on cave walls, you insensitive clod!
  • Photoshop + Whiteboard + Paper + Pen + Thinking

    That's my usual combo. Sometimes I'll throw together some PHP if I want to test out some usability stuff.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The company I work for has done very well doing very basic prototypes in web pages with PHP with a MySQL backend. That really gives the customer a chance to review the basic system quickly. Then we convert the interface to a GUI one using the GTK libraries from PHP. For a few of the more important projects we've then converted the PHP to C.

    This gives our company the opportunity to have MBA's with a little HTML and PHP programming training talk to the customers initially. Then guys that are a little bet
  • Since most of my prototyping is for web applications, I quickly found that HTML as a prototype is just as time consuming as actual coding. The temptation to include prototype pages that would actually appear to do something would only stetch out the time it would take to produce something that could satisfy a client.

    Then I switched to Visio and was able to crank out diagrams of a robust website quickly, and still include all the subtitles and annotations that you want. I could template pages easily enough,

    • I chose Visio as it was easily available in our office, no doubt there's an equivalent that would do just as well.

      I believe the leading FOSS application would be Kivio (although Dia and OOo Draw work well for many people). I think there are one or two others.
  • MVC (Score:4, Informative)

    by Blnky ( 35330 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @01:49AM (#14073892)
    This is an an excellent reason to develop with the Model-View-Controller [] paradigm. You can develop the UI to be as complete as you want. It becomes reasonable to turn the prototype into the final product. However, that doesn't mean you can release it right away since the interface is only the view. You still have to develop the other two parts of the architecture. It is good for the customer because you can say yes to their request. It is also good for you since this separation has kept you from accidentally polluting the the rest of the code with the UI prototype/non-prototype. Also you can use separate languages for each part of the MVC architecture. Use a language that suits itself to the UI and then change to something else that better fits the controller and likewise the model.
    • Python, PyObjC and Interface Builder are great for that. Interface Builder strongly encourages MVC architecture. The GUI stuff all gets done in IB and Python. The model and controller you can write mostly in Python, with maybe some auto-wrapped ObjC code where it counts. I personally like to write back end objects first, then make a GUI to drive them. That way you're absolutely sure that your GUI code doesn't pollute your back end stuff, and all of it is reusable.
    • MVC-Holub. (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "MVC is OK for implimenting little things such as buttons, but it fails miserably as an application-level architecture because MVC requires the controller to know way too much about how the model-level objects are implimented. Too much data is flowing around in the system for the system to be maintainable."*

      *"Holub on Patterns: page 15"
    • This is an an excellent reason to develop with the Model-View-Controller paradigm. You can develop the UI to be as complete as you want. It becomes reasonable to turn the prototype into the final product. However, that doesn't mean you can release it right away since the interface is only the view.

      Unfortunately non-developer clients often don't understand (and sometimes won't accept) that the view is not the whole product. They see the only thing they really grasp, the interface, is complete, and the nat

  • There is a freeware or shareware that is java based I believe, I found it about a year ago, I've tried it and now I can't find it anymore. It allows you to hand-draw boxes and ui elements and connect them to each other to make a working UI prototype. Anyone knows what I'm talking about?
  • Glade (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Heretik ( 93983 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @03:11AM (#14074121)
    Libglade is the greatest thing ever.
    • Libglade is the greatest thing ever.

      Spoken like a man(?) who has never used Interface Builder in OS X. I've worked with VB, VC++, GTK+(Glade), QT(forget the app name), but Xcode and Interface Builder on OS X is by far the easiest and fastest tools available (that I've used) for prototyping GUIs and software development in general.
  • Check out DENIM (Score:4, Informative)

    by noblethrasher ( 546363 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @03:21AM (#14074151)
    Surprised no one has mentioned DENIM, it's a free (as in juice) UI design tool that basically combines the advantages of a traditional whiteboard (it uses a drawing tablet for the primary interface) and something like the VB6 IDE. Check it out at []
  • by rnd() ( 118781 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @03:51AM (#14074221) Homepage
    I've used PowerPoint (and Impress) to do UI mock-ups,.. The nice thing is that it's clearly not actual web/software widgets that are being used, so nobody really expects the final version to look exactly like the powerpoint version. Also, it is easy for anyone to change or update the document. I turn off the snap to grid feature which greatly improves the usability of PowerPoint, and build any standard widgets by grouping boxes and text as needed.

    I'm still optimistic that a better tool may exist, but I've had good results with this approach when discussing UI design issues.
  • The best way... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Da VinMan ( 7669 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @04:19AM (#14074296) to use paper. Use a piece of paper and pencil or pieces of construction paper that are then labeled by hand, arranged on a surface, and then affixed with tape when it's done. It's a very hands-on way to do it and users are immediately comfortable with it and not intimidated. Or just use a dry erase whiteboard. That works pretty well too.

    When your users can comfortably pretend to use the application by talking through the drawings/cutouts, THEN you put it into your functional specification document in a couple different ways:

    1. take a picture and paste the pic
    2. "transcribe" the prototype into MS Access or the VB form designer or whatever (with NO functionality) and paste a screen shot of that into the document

    And that's it. Try it. Your users will thank you.

  • Pen and paper sketches, then some quick Photoshop mockups which eventually morph into a look which gets hacked up for a DHTML prototype.
  • But maybe you meant to say GUI.


  • Someone else made a deliberately lo-fi, rough draft theme based on paper & pencil. For the background, picture white paper with blue horizontal lines. Instead of straight lines, picture a freehand line drawn in pencil. A messy, obviously handwritten font would also help.

    I can't remember where I saw this; I haven't used it, but I thought I'd bookmarked it.
  • by rewinn ( 647614 ) on Sunday November 20, 2005 @11:22PM (#14079059) Homepage

    ... such as a Car, a Shoe, a Candy Bar or an iPod.

    Then respectfully ask "Can't you just complete this prototype and release it?"

    Some will get it. Some won't.

  • The very first prototype of a UI should be on paper. You draw the interface, menus, dialog boxes, etc. You can even user test a paper interface, ideally with one person "playing computer" (i.e., bringing up dialog boxes when the user "clicks" on the buttons), one person providing directions to the participant, and one person making notes.

    Some types of interfaces require more finesse than others when using paper, but even if the interface includes animated elements, you can still learn a lot from the paper v
  • Microsoft Excel (Score:3, Interesting)

    by justdev ( 721467 ) on Monday November 21, 2005 @03:47PM (#14084192) Homepage
    In the past, I have used Microsoft Excel to do UI prototyping. It has some features which can be used to convey the design:-
    - Cell Comments: To mention any special logic etc on a particular field on the screen.
    - Can show drop downs, buttons.
    - Use multiple sheets and make the hyperlink work to navigate between sheets.
    - Can use colors to mark changes to some sections to existing UIs.
  • If you haven't looked into XUL it's well worth the effort. With XUL (i.e. the Mozilla App Platform) there's a real possibility you could respond "Ok" to a request to implement the prototype.

    Or you could do what a consulting firm did to, er, for my employer. Buy some Macs, and spend a lot of time using Photoshop etc. to create bitmap images that look like a GUI. Then spend a lot of time making PDF files from the images, showing a UI that looks nothing like a computer GUI, but that in the end will bear som
  • I tend to use my piss on snowy days.
  • Anyone use vector graphics programs to do this?
    • I use Canvas [] to do almost all of my design and low-mid level prototyping work once I'm past the pencil and paper stage. Canvas is sort of a jack of all trades graphics program that is a cross between Illustrator, Photoshop, and light version of InDesign. Not as capable than any of them individually, but tightly and smoothly integrated. Imports and exports a very wide variety of file formats.
      For semi-interactive prototypes, I can output my work in a PDF which can have links so people can click on button

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