BEST PROTOTYPING TOOLS FOR 2016

Prototyping tools have become an important part of defining web and mobile applications. The dynamic and interactive nature of today’s software makes using traditional methods to convey software (i.e. text and static images) seem almost absurd.

In the early days of wireframes and prototyping, the fear was that using them would slow the design process. The exact opposite is usually the case. Giving stakeholders the ability to “test-drive” an application, including the micro-interactions and broader functionality, gives the stakeholder a much better understanding of what you intend to build and elicits more accurate feedback. You can then quickly iterate and land on the right solution. 

Given where we are in 2016 and the state of software development, how do you choose the best prototyping tool for your needs?  Here’s a list of things to consider…

Content libraries

Whether it’s page templates, icon collections or individual widgets, reusable assets can make your life a whole lot easier. Look for a tool that provides a good starting point to help jump-start your design process, and content collections you can drag and drop into your designs as you build.  

Examples of page templates and widget libraries

Examples of page templates and widget libraries

Customizable Content

A prototyping tool shouldn’t make you build something more than once. You want to be able to save off your work, both at the page and widget level, as reusable assets. It’s even better if your customized content is available to the rest of the team, and vice versa. Global sharing of assets allows teams to maximize the work that they do.

One form of customizable content is widget libraries. These allow you save interactive pieces of content for reuse by anyone on the team. They’re a great way to not only speed the prototyping process, but they can also be used to enforce branding standards and allow for consistency. Very often a UX team is in charge of the asset library - they create well designed, reusable content which the rest of the team can drag and drop into the project. This allows business analysts to build great looking prototypes a designer would be proud of.

Saving interactive widgets and Masters is a great way to speed the prototyping process

Saving interactive widgets and Masters is a great way to speed the prototyping process

Masters are another good example of reusable, customized content. They function similarly to customized widgets, but editing the Master updates all of its instances. A top menu is a great example of where a Master would make sense. During the design process, the menu options will very likely change. If you don’t have the ability to use a Master, every change to the menu structure will require you to update every menu on every page! When a Master is used, you just update it (usually it will reside in a library) and every page it’s used on is updated with one click.  

Animation and Interactions

The best prototyping tools have dynamic actions and animations

Today’s applications are often dynamic and interactive (which is why you’re searching for the best prototyping tool). You need a tool that allows you to test that interactivity with your stakeholders.  

It’s easy to underestimate how much micro-interactions affect the experience.  From button clicks, to transitions, to state-driven changes, the way your application responds to user interaction is of paramount importance to the success or failure of your app.  

What to look for?  A broad set of actions driven by user triggers (like click, swipe, etc...) is a good place to start. Even better if you can chain a series of actions together - the animation to the right shows a simple example of linking rotation, transparency and position animations based on a user swiping left on the widget. Best if the prototyping tool allows you to create logic to drive the actions.   

Diagrams

Among other benefits, diagrams and flow charts help flush out how a process works and how it can be improved. They can help drive the creation of your prototype, so having them integrated in the process is a good idea. 

The added value of using a great prototyping tool to create your diagrams is that they can be dynamic and interactive. This can be helpful in a few ways - when walking a team through a process, or by linking individual steps or pages to working examples of them in the prototype. 

The combination of interactive diagrams + prototyping sets up a powerful dynamic that teams can use to document a process and then accurately design it.  

Collaboration

“If two men on the same job agree all the time, then one is useless. If they disagree all the time, both are useless.”
— Darryl F. Zanuck

There are two major ways you'll want to collaborate when prototyping - with your stakeholders and with others on the team. 

Stakeholders: You don't want to prototype in a bubble. Locking yourself away until you've finished your concept is nearly as bad as the waterfall development process that collaborative prototyping is there to fix. You want to use the prototype to drive the early requirements of the project - to validate that you're on the right track. You want to iterate quickly and often, reviewing your work with stakeholders and capturing their feedback. Find a tool that allows you to easily collaborate with the user base.

You Team: If your team is made of up business analysts, project managers, a product owner and UX designers, you obviously want a tool that allows all of them to collaborate on the prototype and associated requirements. The business analysts can use the prototype to drive the requirements process, the UX team can create templates and libraries that enforce consistency and branding standards, and the project/product manager can monitor progress and ensure the product vision and roadmap are being followed.  

Everyone on the team can add value to the process. Make sure the tool you choose allows real-time collaboration.

Requirements anyone?

The reality of building software is that prototyping alone isn't enough. You're going to need to marry it in some way with text-based requirements. Whether it’s traditional functional specifications or User Stories and Epics in an Agile process, you’ll need to combine them effectively with your collaborative prototyping process.

Why? Stakeholders and developers can't understand text-based requirements documents alone, which is probably what led you to prototyping.  Prototyping allows the stakeholder to experience the requirements or user stories instead of just reading them, creating real understanding. But you still need a way to efficiently capture feedback, and document those requirements as they’re created and evolve during the process.

Does the tool you’re evaluating offer the ability to have conversations? Can you clearly document your user stories and requirements? If so, can you manage them through development? These are all important questions - don’t get caught up in the shiny bells and whistles and ignore what is really the core reason you’re prototyping - documenting what needs to get built, managing the process effectively along the way, and giving development a clear picture so they can get it right.

Integrations

You already understand the value that prototyping can bring to your team - why not extend that value to everyone, including DEV and QA? Adding the ability to integrate existing ALM tools (like JIRA, Microsoft TFS or HP ALM) can give the DEV and QA teams a much better understanding of what to build or how to test.

Another benefit of a true bi-directional integration is traceability.  You want everyone looking at the same information, and an effective integration will keep all project attributes (description, priority, due date, story points, etc.) in synch .

Fidelity

Every process starts a different way - it might begin with sketches, wireframes, PowerPoint screens or even scribbles on a napkin. From there it usually settles into some form of medium to high-fidelity prototypes. The best prototyping tools will take you from low to high fidelity as fast as you want to get there.  

Your process might start out on a napkin or sketch on a wall but end up as a hi-fidelity prototype users can click and swipe.

Your process might start out on a napkin or sketch on a wall but end up as a hi-fidelity prototype users can click and swipe.

You’ll want a wide variety of features - from triggers (click, press, swipe, etc…), actions (navigation, visibility, movement, formatting, etc…) to data and logic - so limitations of the tool don’t hamper your design or creativity. You want to design around the user's needs, not around what your tool allows. Prototypes that mirror the final application you intend to build allow stakeholder to give accurate feedback, so you can iterate until you get it right.

Enterprise Grade

Beyond the sexier features, it’s easy to forget some important things your environment may demand.

The security of your data is paramount, and it needs to be able to remain safe and secure.

For some companies, particularly in the financial and healthcare space, an on-premises deployment might be a requirement, allowing for installation behind their corporate firewall.

What about reporting? The right tracking and metrics can allow you to quantify team performance, gain insight into predictability, and improve the overall process.

Take a step back and take stock of all the requirements your company will have once a buying decision is made. Is the tool your considering really enterprise grade?

Support

What level of support does the prototyping tool vendor provide? There’s a big difference between dealing with a FAQ vs. having a live customer support expert available when you inevitably have a time-sensitive question. Other resources like an online community, video training and inline chat are possible additions to the support process.

Does “the best prototyping tool” mean the same thing to everyone?

Surprisingly, for team-based prototyping I think the answer is yes more often than not. Certain activities are critical to team success, like collaboration, quick iterations, and effective requirements management. Integrating with other tools in the ecosystem may seem like a nice to have, but once you’ve experienced having all your teams connected and collaborating, you won’t know how you lived without it.  

Hopefully this article gives you food for thought. As a member of the iRise team, I think we have a pretty good tool you should include in your evaluation. Regardless, I wish you good luck in your search! If you want to include iRise, we offer world-class support to go along with your free trial. This can include a live, no-pressure demo where a prototyping expert can answer all your questions.  


Dom Infante

Dominic Infante
Dom has been with iRise since day one. From the early days when the concept of “application simulation” was invented by iRise (his name is included on five of its patents), through the development of the product vision and of the product itself. Over 17 years at iRise gives him a unique view of the platform and of the marketplace it leads. iRise is the only tool to combine best-in-class web and mobile prototyping with integrated requirements management and diagrams.