Wireframing with a desktop app? Oh come on – that’s so 2009.
Recent months have seen a slew of online web apps specifically for the creation of low-fidelity, clickable prototypes. It all started with “Balsamiq” some time ago now (complete with Comic Sans default font scandal) and has quickly progressed to an alarming array of free and affordable options.
Over at Bunnyfoot towers we’ve been giving them a spin. Here’s a quick rundown.
The overall experience feels swift and straightforward after initial bump of a UI learning curve. The key differentiator over others on test here is the ability to co-edit mockups with collaborators. Online chat is also built in, making it easy to work together to craft your dream app.
Other nice features include align guides as you draw, a comprehensive library of components and quick and easy sharing (both private and public).
The main gripe whilst editing was the lack of keyboard shortcuts (at least on a Mac), making every copy and paste a menu selection.
screen shot of the mockflow application
http://www.iplotz.com Pricing: free for 1 mockup with 5 pages. Subscription packages from $15 per month to $495 for 10 users with desktop and online access.
Phew. iPlotz is a beast. As well as wireframing, you also get an array of project management features, including to-do lists and completion status. There are also other powerful features such as version control, fine drawing tools, HTML export and annotations. It also makes a mean cappucino if you ask nicely enough!
Putting together a mockup is fairly straight-forward, once you’ve become accustomed to the (quite busy) interface. The default “sketchy” style is similar in feel to Balsamiq (see below), but a little less “play school” in feel.
Of course the trade-off with many powerful features is simplicity. The overall experience is more akin to a desktop app and takes some determined effort to feel comfortable.
Balsamiq is fairly well known in web circles, and courted controversy with it’s choice of the oft-slammed font Comic Sans as a default (although you can change this).
The overall experience is not bad: drag, drop and edit works reasonably well. You can also search for widgets and add them to your canvas with the press of an enter key, speeding up the drawing process. There are some nice human touches: there’s an inspirational design quote as the app loads.
You can export your design, but unfortunately you can’t easily share your mockups – you need the desktop version to do this.
Overall, the end result feels a little too playful for serious heavy duty projects – we’re not sure how well it would go down in the financial sector for example.
Probably the slickest of the apps on offer here, Mocking Bird has a clean look and easy to learn UI.
Like Balsamiq, you can get stuck in and create a mockup without creating an account (you get a prompt to signup on save).
There’s nothing drastically new on offer in terms of drawing tools, but they work well and there’s a comprehensive library of components to start you off.
Public sharing is also pretty straight-forward, making it easy to send out a link for user feedback. There’s no private sharing unfortunately, although the URL is sufficiently obscure.
On the downside, it’s not straightforward to create precise pixel width layouts (there’s no ruler or way to specify exact sizes) and no page masters or templates to save on copy and pasting.
So will we be throwing away Axure anytime soon? Well, the job is not entirely done — there’s a gulf between quick and dirty concept tools and full-blown, enterprise standard specifications. It also requires a client with a good understanding of the design and user research process and confidence in the value of low-fidelity, disposable prototypes. Oh, and maybe a soft-spot for Comic Sans.
screen shot of the mockingbird application
The biggest boon has got to be the ease and speed of sharing (anyone trying to upload an Axure prototype with its 1,000s of spacer gifs via a slow connection will feel our pain). It’s dead easy to get an idea online for client review and a rapid round of user feedback.
Got your own favourite, or an opinion on these apps? Have you used them on client projects? Let us know.
Well, we asked for some snow donations on Twitter and they came in in abundance! One day there was not even a hint of frost and the next, we were ankle deep in snow, working from home, but still managing to inject some Bunnyfoot fun into the day with a “usability snowman” competition across our UK offices (I hope Hong Kong don’t feel too left out!).
2 hours, some snow and a little imagination produced an outright winner from Oxford’s Usability Consultant, Nick Antram. Here’s his entry…
Here is an attempt at a usable snowman. We talked to local snowmen users and asked them what they really wanted out of their snowmen and the overwhelming response of the 2 people we spoke to was that snowmen needed to be not only big fat piles of snow that were funny to look at, but useful too!
Popular suggestions were:
To have a flashing light on the top so users could easily see the snowman in a snowstorm
Have a comfy seat to allow users to have a nice sit down after struggling through the snow
To have a nice cuppa tea (when is this not a popular suggestion?)
So we sketched some ideas:
Well ok, just one
Initial sketches of a usable snowman
Did some anthropometric analysis and fitting trials:
Scientific sketches to make sure the snowman chair is viable
Which gave us the 95th percentile of users
Then we user tested it thoroughly in blizzard like conditions **
And this is the result…
The snowmatic ergsnowchair!
Snowman Chair in its completed form
With some final user testing, we just knew it was perfect.
Nicks quest for to build an ergonomic chair
* Ergonomic principles may not have been used
** May not have been user tested thoroughly
Cob, bap, muffin, barm cake… what do you call it? Chances are it depends on your social background, where you were brought up, and a myriad of other influences over the past years. If you haven’t got a clue what I am talking about by the way they are all terms for things you might stick some cheese or a sausage in to make a snack. Other terms include ‘bread rolls’ or ‘buns’ and there are about 30 or so others in common use in the UK.
If something as innocent as baker’s doughy product has the potential for confusion, misinterpretation, class associations and heated argument (yes disputes are rife – raise the issue with your colleagues and wait for the fallback) then imagine the potential for chaos and bewilderment when communicating more complex propositions across national and international markets…. …this is where good customer research with a reach beyond the confines of London can help
Bunnyfoot has been performing customer research and customer usability testing for the last 10 years. We noticed very early on that there were distinct UK regional differences (over and above other demographic influencers) in people’s responses to the same website – and these differences have profound consequences on the websites’ ability to communicate, persuade and convert. Knowing and acting upon the geographical differences (cultural, social, language, attitudinal etc.) dramatically increases the effectiveness of the end result. This is one of the reasons why we set up 5 offices with usability labs running the length of the UK and why we encourage our clients to look beyond the myopia of London when researching with their customers (it works better if you do – simple as that).
But you don’t have to be locked to physical labs, getting out there in the field and observing what real people do in their own environments is a valuable thing to be doing that can reveal key insights. One problem with this is that it can be expensive. One way of getting there without so much cost is to perform ‘remote usability testing’. This typically relies on screen-sharing over the internet, and with recent advances in broadband penetration it is now possible to run usability tests and observe people in their own homes or places of work (with consent!!) from practically anywhere.
Beyond the UK
When your product or service reaches beyond national boundaries then geographical and cultural differences become even more pronounced. HSBC clearly know this and you will know doubt have seen some of their adverts revealing the different cultural, geographical and socio-economic meanings associated with things like colour, gestures, symbols and language.
It goes beyond this too – we have recently been working extensively across Europe, the Middle East and Asia (and a little bit in Africa) we have uncovered challenges associated with extending online communications across these regions. This includes:
the need for flexible or even completely different interfaces to cope with different languages (e.g. German = long words and phrases, Arabic and Chinese = right to left)
the fact that in some regions the preferred or only way people engage online is via mobile (Africa and Japan in particular)
display advertising and contextual advertising is far more effective than search engine marketing in some regions (e.g. Middle East) because of not just language differences but also cultural differences
‘western style’ minimalist aesthetic design doesn’t work well in China – and again this is cultural and not just because of the character sets used
We, as an agency, need to take our own advice on board to adopt local knowledge to get the best results. Bunnyfoot employs consultants from across cultures and have recently opened an office in Hong Kong to get closer to international differences. When we test abroad we use a network of quality agencies, it just brings that edge of local knowledge that makes the testing run much smoother.
For World Usability Day, Bunnyfoot have been working with sustainable charities across the country to perform free expert evaluations of their websites. The charity sector is a sector where budgets are typically tight (if non-existent) yet there is great expectation on web managers to increase donations and maximise the performance of their sites.
We’ve spent the last month working with a number of charities (gratis) to help guide improvements on their sites and we’d like to share a quick process for generating ideas for your website quickly and cheaply.
Time required: 20-30 mins What you get: Ideas for prioritizing content and page layout to maximize engagement with customers.
To provide an example we’ve used www.bunnyfoot.com to show how you can use this activity to enhance the design of your site. Remember, this is a top exercise if you have NO research budget and aren’t exactly sure how to start prioritizing content for your customer groups. This exercise is relevant for any type of site, and we find it a great starting point when thinking about initial designs and improvements.
This is a kick starter activity; it’s not a complete high performance engine and shouldn’t be used as one. This is no substitute for engaging with your customers, but rather a great starting point in helping you to create customer journeys and prioritise your site content. Use this activity as a means for generating some good ideas quickly.
1. Think about the content your customers need
2. Sketch the layout according to content priority
3. Try some detailed pages using the same method
1. Think about the content your customers need
Your customers are getting to your site, somehow. Step 1 is to think about who they are (in the case of Bunnyfoot these could be a prospective customer, an existing customer, a competitor, a job seeker, a journalist and so on). List all the potential customers and then next to each customer type ask yourself, “What are they looking for?” (to continue our example with Bunnyfoot, information needs of our customer groups could be Case studies, Contact details, Company History, Services, etc).
2. Sketch the layout according to content priority
Once you have identified the needs of each audience group, you can start to count the number of instances where customers are looking for the same content (e.g. a prospective customer, existing customer, competitor and job seeker could all be looking for more information about services; this would result in 4 counts). Once you have counted up the instances of cross over, a pattern for content priority will emerge. Once you have the counted priority, pick up a pen and paper and start to sketch out your content according to priority. ANYONE can do this, you don’t need to be a designer, and your sketches certainly don’t have to be pretty. The purpose is to think about how you’re going to give your customers the information they need.
Sidenote: We often undertake usability testing of hand-drawn screens; it’s a low cost and effective technique we use with our clients. With a limited budget, there’s nothing to stop you taking these initial designs to representative customer groups and getting some feedback.
3. Try some detailed pages using the same method
After you’ve finished with the homepage, go on to explore other key pages. We’ve shown an example of what our new case study page could look like. To create this we thought of what the story of a case study was and what are the most interesting aspects people need to find out about. For our site ROI was top priority followed by a summary of the brief the services used, the team involved, the process/services used, example output and a client quote. It’s natural for other ideas to be generated at this point, for example we’d like to add the feature for people to comment on our case studies and the approach taken on the original brief.
Going through the exercise helps with the content and layout, and will also aid insight into navigation and user journeys to tie different content together. After 20 mins we have a good idea about the customer groups and their information needs, and we have some initial sketches to take to our customer groups. Ultimately, many of these sketches will be thrown out – we don’t expect our new site to end up looking like it’s been drawn on a flip chart. However, many of the ideas generated during the process will be included in the end design for some low budget but effective quick-wins.
In 2005, here at Bunnyfoot, we carried out an eye tracking usability study; it showed that 79% of people were able to find the 2003 UK gross domestic product using Google.
We carried out a similar eyetracking study in May 2009 using Bunnyfoot’s Mass User Testing approach and found that this had dropped to 37%.
We also compared the performance of Google to the new WolframAlpha search engine where 100% of people got the correct answer. This result is worrying for Google for two reasons:
Google’s algorithms have got better in the intervening years; despite there being significantly more pages indexed on Google in 2009 compared to 2005 Google returns fewer results for the same search string; “gross domestic product UK 2003”. Given more pages to return results from and better algorithms it ‘should’ be easier to find information, not harder.
The general level of people’s Internet experience and expertise has increased since the original study – people ‘should’ be more successful, not less.
WolframAlpha also outperforms Google on three key measures of usability; effectiveness and efficiency and satisfaction. However, the strength of the Google brand dominated WolframAlpha with 100% of users saying that they would recommend using Google to a friend with only 77% saying they would recommend WolframAlpha.
The study is by no means comprehensive; it is based on a single search query and one that favours WolframAlpha’s approach to knowledge management/search, but is does pose an interesting question:
Can Google’s search dominance be beaten by better results and usability or is the brand so strong that people will stay loyal no matter how good the competition gets?
We developed ‘mass user testing’ in response to the real world needs of commercial clients and to combat the deficiencies inherent in the most widely used traditional usability testing methods (we have actually been doing this for about 4 years but formalised it last year).
The key to mass user testing is using large numbers of people rapidly and cost effectively – this is achieved through recruiting people ‘off street’ with the lure of some cash (or other incentive – we are quite creative in this regard) for about 15 minutes of their time.
The BBC news item below shows a report on the UK’s first Internet enabled car – produced and invented by Bunnyfoot in 2000. The car was intended as a demonstration of the essential importance of usability and accessibility … our message got somehow lost in translation in the newspapers and TV shows that ran the story, but it taught us a lot about different communication methods and to always look to the future.
Since then (is it really 10 years ago?) we have produced hundreds of video demonstrations showing usability testing, eyetracking and accessibility in action, our customer experience presentations at seminars and conferences etc, and many will be appearing here in the next few months – but this BBC one was one of our first … and is still a firm favourite.
What is perhaps surprising is that this type of technology and other ‘alternative interfaces’ haven’t really come on that far in the last 10 years– it seemed then (in 2000) that things like sophisticated voice interfaces for all sorts of devices and uses were bubbling just under the surface. In 2009 though you are likely to be annoyed at best, but most probably bemused, by the majority of telephone interfaces (has anyone tried Egg’s?), never mind anything more ambitious. It seems like it should be simple but this type of interface requires just as much research and careful design (perhaps more) than seemingly more complex visual interfaces. I’ll return to discuss this in more detail in a future post.
The point of the Bunnymobile video?
It was meant to demonstrate that usability and accessibility are vital for the interfaces of the future:
the car used software that blind people use to translate web sites into voice = accessibility
and needed to be simple enough so distraction didn’t cause you to crash (amongst other things) = usability
It seems we were right, and they still are important … lots more challenging and interesting work to do though.
After many years of fudging responses to the common question “when are the new global accessibility guidelines coming out?” – I can finally give the the answer – it is today (11th December 2008) see the Press Release and WCAG 2.0 Introduction for more info.
The new standard is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (or WCAG 2.0), it replaces WCAG 1.0 – the previously recognised global standard which had been in place since 1997 (that’s eons in ‘Internet time’)
What does the new accessibility standard mean for you?