Fluent Design through Early Prototyping

There’s a small problem with wireframes. They’re not good for showing the kind of interactions we now take for granted – transitions and animations on the web, in Android, iOS, and other platforms. There’s a belief that early prototyping requires a large amount of time and effort, and isn’t worth an early investment. But it’s not true!

It’s still normal to spend a significant proportion of time working in wireframes. Given that wireframes are high-level and don’t show much detail, it’s tempting to give up control and responsibility for things like transitions and other things sidelined as visual considerations. These things aren’t expressed well, and perhaps not expressed at all, in wireframes, yet they critically influence the quality of a product. Rapid prototyping early helps to bring sidelined but significant design considerations into focus.

Speaking fluent design

Fluency in a language means being able to speak it confidently and accurately. The Latin root means flow.

By design fluency, I mean using a set of skills in order to express or communicate an idea. Prototyping is a kind of fluency. It takes designers beyond the domain of grey and white boxes to consider all the elements that make up really good product design.

Designers shouldn’t be afraid of speaking fluent design. They should think thoroughly about product decisions beyond their immediate role — not for the sake of becoming some kind of power-hungry design demigod, but because it will lead to better, more carefully considered product design.

Wireframes are incomplete sentences

Wireframes, once they’ve served their purpose, are a kind of self-imposed restriction.

Mostly made out of grey and white boxes, they deliberately express the minimum. Important details — visuals, nuanced transitions, sounds — are missing. Their appearance bears little resemblance to the final thing. Responsibility for things that traditionally didn’t matter (or exist) is relinquished. Animations and transitions in particular are increasingly relevant to the mobile designer’s methods. And rather than being fanciful and superfluous visual additions to a product, they help to clarify designs and provide information about context.

Wireframes are useful in the early stages. As a designer trying to persuade stakeholders, clients, or peers, sometimes it will be in your interests to only tell half the story. They’re ideal for gauging whether a design is taking the right direction, and they’re the right medium for deciding core things, such as the overall structure and information architecture.

But spending a long time in wireframes means delaying details to a later stage in the project, or to the end, when the priority is shifted to getting designs out of the door. This leaves little time to test, finesse and perfect things which initially seemed to be less important. I think designers should move away from using wireframes as primary documentation once the design has reached a certain level of maturity.

A prototype is multiple complete sentences

Paragraphs, even.

Unlike a wireframe, a prototype is a persuasive storyteller. It can reveal the depth and range of design decisions, not just the layout, but also motion: animations and transitions. If it’s a super-high-fidelity prototype, it’s a perfect vessel for showing the visual design as well. It’s all of these things that contribute to the impression that a product is good… and useful, and engaging, and something you’d like to use.

A prototype is impressive. A good prototype can help to convince stakeholders and persuade clients. With a compelling demo, people can more easily imagine that this thing could actually exist. “Hey”, they’re thinking. “This might actually be pretty good!”

How to make a prototype in no time and with no effort

Now, it does take time and effort to make a prototype. However, good news! It used to require a lot more effort. There are tools that make prototyping much quicker and easier.

If you’re making a mobile prototype (this seems quite likely), you will want to test and show this on the actual device. This sounds like it could be a pain, but there are a few ways to do this that are quite easy.

Keynote, Apple’s presentation software, is an unlikely candidate for a prototyping tool, but surprisingly great and easy for creating prototypes with transitions that can be shown on different devices.

Keynote enables you to do a few useful, excellent things. You can make each screen in your design a slide, which can be linked together to allow you to click through the prototype. You can add customisable transitions between screens. If you want to show a panel that can slide open or closed on your iPad mockup, for example, transitions can also be added to individual elements on the screen. The design can be shown on tablet and mobile devices, and interacted with like it’s a real app. Another cool feature is that you can export the prototype as a video, which works as another effective format for demoing a design.

Overall, Keynote offers a very quick, lightweight way to prototype a design. Once you’ve learned the basics, it shouldn’t take longer than a few hours – at most – to put together a respectable clickable prototype with transitions.

Holly icon by Megan Sheehan from The Noun Project

This is a Quicktime movie exported from Keynote. This version is animated for demonstration purposes, but download the interactive original and you can click the screen to move through the prototype. It demonstrates the basic interactivity of an iPhone app. This anonymised example was used on a project at Fjord to create a master example of an app’s transitions.

Prototyping drawbacks, and perceived drawbacks

If prototyping is so great, then why do we leave it to the end, or not bother with it at all? There are multiple misconceptions about prototyping: they’re too difficult to make; they take too much time; or they’re inaccurate (and dangerous) documentation.

A prototype is a preliminary model. There should always be a disclaimer that it’s not the real thing to avoid setting up false expectations.

A prototype doesn’t have to be the main deliverable. It can be a key one that’s supported by visual and interaction specifications. And a prototype is a lightweight means of managing and reflecting changes and requirements in a project.

An actual drawback of prototyping is that to make one too early could mean being gung-ho with what you thought a client or stakeholder wanted, and delivering something inappropriate. To avoid this, communicate, iterate, and keep things simple until you’re confident that the client or other stakeholders are happy with your chosen direction.

The key throughout any design project is iteration. Designers build iterative models, starting simple and becoming increasingly sophisticated. It’s a process of iterative craft and evolution. There’s no perfect methodology, no magic recipe to follow.

What to do next

Make a prototype! It’s the perfect way to impress your friends.

It can help to advance a brilliant idea with a fraction of the effort of complete development. Sketches and wireframes are perfect early on in a project, but once they’ve served their purpose, prototypes enable the design to advance, and push thinking towards clarifying other important details including transitions.

For Keynote tutorials, Keynotopia is a great resource. Axure is standard and popular prototyping software many UX designers will already be familiar with; it’s possible to create transitions in Axure. POP is an iPhone app that allows you to design apps on paper, take photos with your phone, and turn them into interactive prototypes. Ratchet is an elegant iPhone prototyping tool aimed at web developers.

There are perhaps hundreds of different prototyping tools and methods. My final advice is not to get bogged down in (or limited by) any particular tool, but to remember you’re making quick and iterative models. Experiment and play!

Prototyping will push you and your designs to a scary place without limitations. No more grey and white boxes, just possibilities!

About the author

Rebecca Cottrell is an interaction designer at Fjord. She likes prototyping, living in London (most of the time), and unusual-looking animals.

More articles by Rebecca

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