Prototyping: getting the user experience right, bit by bit
DIY development has an unfortunate reputation for poor user interface design; a reputation that goes back to the dark days of Visual Basic. That was the era of Windows Forms, of text boxes, radio buttons, and an endless array of buttons, when applications looked as though someone had thrown the contents of a design toolbox onto a screen and then stuck some code behind it.
Things are very different now. Consumerization doesn’t just mean bringing your own tablets into the workplace, it’s also about providing users with the same online experiences they get from Facebook or Twitter. If you’re building apps for your team, then you’re going to need to think about user experience as much as you think about code.
Getting user experience right is about a lot more than design, and it’s important to take time to understand many of the issues you’re going to need to address in an application – especially if you’re building an app that delivers information, or needs to take user input. Surprisingly some of the best books on user experience have nothing to do with app development, and instead they deliver universal user experience principles that work across a wide range of techniques and technologies.
One of the most useful books on user interaction is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. In deriving the rules used in comic page design and in graphical storytelling, McCloud provides guidelines for the signals and signs you need to include in your apps to make them easier to use and understand. It’s also a beautifully drawn and entertaining book in its own right
But books on UI and UX are only part of the story. Getting your app right is a lot more than just writing code. If you want to make something that’s more than today’s version of a Visual Basic form you’re going to need to add user experience tooling to your development platform. That means it’s as important for the individual or team developer to prototype their apps as it is for a full blown development team.
In the past that would have been expensive, requiring specialized wireframe tools and a whole suite of web and animation design tools – or even building a working model of an app in Flash. Those days, however, are long gone. Now user experience tools can be downloaded for free, and sit beside free development platforms for both desktop and mobile apps. A recent arrival is Infragistics’ Indigo Studio, a tool for creating application storyboards and laying out screens, and available for Mac and PC.
Storyboards are a useful tool for collaborative design. Applications can be sketched out in an interactive storyboard, so you can try your ideas out on your co-workers. There’s no need to write code, all you need to do is put together a wireframe screen, or use images to show what a screen might look like. While it’s possible to use tools like PowerPoint to create wireframes, they’re not really able to replicate the screens of a full-blown application. As Indigo Studio comes with a library of UI elements to help you layout prototypes, it’s a lot easier to use it to show what you’re trying to build.
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