I can't believe yet another year has passed and I haven't given up adding stuff to this blog - and this is only because of YOU! I'm excited hearing about your experiences and your ideas, reading your feedback and suggestions. Thanks so much and keep 'em coming!
Here is a short list of highlights from the past year and some of my personal favorites!
Highlights from last year
- 10 MyBalsamiq Tips & Tricks
- Wireframing – what a waste of time… not!
- The 4 Questions of Strategy
- Proposing: Feature Spotlight
- Wireframing as an Indicator for Problems in your Project Structure
After having used Balsamiq for some years now I was excited to try MyBalsamiq which is basically Balsamiq on the web which allows for better sharing and collaboration with your team and clients. This blog article intents to share my experiences and gotchas of using MyBalsamiq with you.
Tips & Tricks
Setting the stage is key to a successful use of MyBalsamiq. Explain to your team members and clients that wireframing helps to communicate ideas and the WHY and WHAT we are doing by intentionally stripping out visual fidelity so one doesn't get distracted with the HOW.
I typically create the first version of any design using Balsamiq for desktop. I then upload it to a project folder, dub it v1 (version 1) and share it with the team (and client) so they can start commenting or proposing alternate versions as part of the thread. After reviewing and discussing the proposed changes, missing items, misunderstood elements, etc. I create a revised version which instead of simply adding another comment/alternative I upload once again, this time naming it v2 (version 2).
Again I open it up for a round of comments. I strongly recommend finalizing the design at this point by creating a document that states the purpose of the screen, specifies any requirements and uses the final mockup as the proposed design. Move on! If you for whatever reason you cannot move on, then this might be a strong indicator that you might have a problem in your project structure.
Involve your clients
Yes, I create beautiful designs just to see them being destroyed by ignorant clients. Well, I guess it's the other way around, designers tend to be attached to their intellectual creation more often than they should. Well, chicken or egg, involving your client in the process is always a win-win situation. So do it, don't hesitate having your design dissected, your ideas challenged and your assumptions validated!
Notes are your Friends
Sometimes I start a wireframe with an empty frame and a bunch of sticky notes. I slowly fill the sticky notes with bullet points of requirements or anything I feel belongs into this space. Only later I start designing the actual components that make up the screen.
In the same way I ask my clients to use sticky notes to annotate anything they feel needs to be said about the design, missing items, assumptions that aren't reflected, new ideas, etc. It really helps commenting on concrete items rather than abstract word constructs. Remember, sticky notes are your best friends.
Assets are grouped items with a name that can be used like any other sketch control. Assets can range from custom frames, re-usable templates, industry-specific or device depended controls, etc. Spend some time creating assets and share them either site-wide or on a project by project basis. Have a look at the popular free map controls I've created some time ago to see what I mean.
Holistic vs. Focused
I almost never get into too much detail upfront. That's for multiple reasons:
- It's really easy getting hung up in details
- More often than not you will find yourself wasting precious time on something that is still in flux and bound to be thrown away anyway
- You lose sight of the bigger picture (navigation architecture, overall layout)
- It becomes harder and harder to make changes without rethinking your concept/layout
This tip becomes a rule when working in an agile environment. You need to design the holistic view upfront, have a solid concept in place that describes how you will integrate the pieces later. Think a lot and validate (e.g. usability testing on your wireframes)!
Start the holistic design as soon as you have a good handle on the available user stories and (ideally) have it done before the first sprint planning meeting - I've heard the term Sprint 0 used a lot.
Encourage the sprint master to create a "Design UI" task which will be added to each epic or even user story that requires user interface design - this is the place to design details.
Many times I create a concept sheet or experience workflow diagram directly in wireframes. I use simple sticky notes or window controls and connect them with arrows to show how a user will flow through the application. Very often these boxes later become pages that I need to design which is kinda neat because I can directly link these pages from the workflow diagram. Managers really appreciate this high-level view and are able to comprehend better the overall structure of the site/application. You will see the quality of questions improve as well 😉
Your clients and project managers love this feature: launch prototype. We've used it before on the desktop but now we have it available online using a private url. There is also a great article about how to integrate with the leading user testing tools (Usabilla, UserZoom,...).
Version history seems to be nice to have but it actually turns out to be indispensable. A designer makes decisions based on observations and changing requirements (and sometimes taste ;)). Being able to compare versions over time proves to be the best line of argumentation when it comes to explaining why we reached this conclusion?. Sometimes it is less the "how we did it" rather than the "how we got there" piece!
Get MyBalsamiq for (almost) free
Full disclosure: I'm not getting a dime for saying this. But here is how you turn your existing desktop licenses into an (almost) free subscription: "...existing Mockups for Desktop customers will be able to apply half of what you paid for Mockups for Desktop towards myBalsamiq credit."
Any invited user to myBalsamiq can use the online version for free basically saving on desktop licenses. While not as slick as desktop, it's a nice treat.
Check-in / Check-out
I'd really love to see a version control system that can be connected to your desktop version. Basic functionality would be:
- Get latest version(s) from myBalsamiq (and synchronize with desktop)
- Check-in a newer version from desktop (and propose as new)
- Show me changes for all files (i.e. compare your desktop version to myBalsamiq)
Right now I find it really difficult to get the latest version from the web, modify on desktop and update existing thread with newer version. Balsamiq team: any plans for such an integration?
High-level (conceptual) view of all screens
Above I've talked about sketching the conceptual workflow. While starting in v2.2 the Balsamiq team added a 'site map' control (very cool btw), this doesn't really fit my need to show the workflow. I guess for now I need to stick to my connected notes 🙁
Usually I recommend 2 rounds of wireframes (more rounds are ok during proposals).
If you still cannot move on after 3 rounds of wireframes this is typically a good indicator that your project has some sort of underlying problem that you should detect and address right now.
Typical Problem Areas
From my observation problems can arise in many different forms. The simple identification of such is half the rent to address them (and I will leave the resolution up to you here).
No real user need
Every project should have been initiated by a user need. Many times that isn't the case and that is when it becomes difficult to defend a design to new requests, just because pretty much everything sounds like a great idea. So how can one
- measure the usefulness of the overall site?
- accept/deny new ideas or requirements?
- define the importance of requirements and their conceptual representation?
- design the visual hierarchy without clear or shifting priorities?
That's tough, it's like going fishing without campfire. Educated guesses are more important and also difficult than ever. Define a story that follows a vision that makes sense.
Too many cooks in the kitchen
Is there a sense that every time you step into a design meeting the wind has changed 180 degrees? Indicators for a deeper problem are when the team cannot settle on a wireframe because of
- conflicting opinions
- never-ending subjective feedback
- scope creep
- YADRN (yet another design review needed)
- executive seagull effect
- design by committee
Try to make the best out if by asking lots of questions, a little evangelizing, prioritizing feedback, and plenty of skilled design balance.
Poorly defined requirements
Every requirement should serve the purpose of the site, i.e. the user need(s) that drive the vision and right of existence of the endeavor. Maybe your requirements need refinement because they are
- too vague
- missing a definition of WHY they are needed
- defined by committee rather than thoughtful (and curated) selection
Mockups will help you identify missing requirements or surface items that don't make sense anymore in the big picture.
Undecided project manager
Decisions have to be made, priorities have to be set, deadlines need to be met, requirements satisfied. Somebody has to sail the ship and make decisions. You know the project has a managerial problem when design decisions cannot be taken because of
- new requirements popping up like mushrooms
- another 360 (as the wind blows)
- lack of authority given to the designer
Find somebody that can make executive decisions or make the decision for yourself (I know, nobody likes to piss off their PM, but pick your battles).
Issues with the client aren't uncommon, and not always is the client the problem, but certainly some clients can be more challenging than others. Find ways to finalize your designs and move on when
- requests about the HOW increase
- nitpicking increases
- conceptual designs are dissected to the dot on the i
- changing their mind on a daily basis
Go back to the roots, ask questions about WHAT and WHY you are doing this. Ask specifically what you can do to finalize any given slide, let them tell you and move on.
Missing domain knowledge
Not everybody can be a subject matter expert, but somebody has to and this somebody needs to be available to clarify and consult. You know you are missing a SME when the mockups
- tell an incomplete story
- can't hold up to critical questions
- an actual expert doesn't understand the mockups
Involve domain experts early, listen to their advise and take it seriously.
Last but not least, the problem could be the designer himself. Sometimes the designer didn't have the time to get his head around the complexity of the project, he or she is
- missing the holistic view of the system
- is missing crucial information to design well
- is facing impediments that weren't solved in time
- got hung up on a failed design and didn't want to start over
- fell in love with a design and can't let go
- is purely not capable of designing/communicating well
Have peer-reviews, offer a mental break, mentor the designer in his/her creative blockage or inability to get their head around the subject. Create a culture of failure where it is ok to accept a u-turn and throw away a design in favor of a potentially better one.
I would love to hear about your experiences and especially how you resolved any issues.
- User-interface, user-experience & usability explained (by Bernard Schokman) - I think the title is misleading, it's more about "Practical design principles for UI/UX/Usability Design"
- 10 Important UI Design Considerations for Web Apps (by Marc Gayle) - try polishing the little things to make your app truly awesome
- Tools for Facilitating Feedback on Prototypes and Wireframes (by David Leggett) - What's your favorite? Why?
- How to Identify the Best Design Problems (by Joshua Porter) - About the importance of prioritization.
- A Guide to CSS Colors in Web Design (by Alexander Dawson) - Once again a great guide by Alexander; contrast, shades, hues, transparency and co.
- 40 Beautiful and Elegant WordPress Themes of May 2011 (by Madalin Tudose) - very nice collection, wordpress has come a long way and so did its front-end designers
- HOW TO: Add the +1 Button to Your WordPress Site (by Christina Warren) - if you like it or not, here is the +1 Button integration...
- Why You Should Buy Your First 5000 Twitter Followers (by Rohit) - ethical or not... love or not love... with a little help from your friends
- So you think you can build a website? (by Vitamin in Talent) - a really handy flowchart to determine if your idea will result in a great website
- The ultimate HTML5 resource guide (by Cameron Chapman) - what else to say? ultimate resouce guide!
- (More) Useful Web Usability Testing Tools (by hongkiat) - What are your experiences with these tools? Which one is your favorite? Why?
- Creating a User Interface That Speaks Your Users’ Language (by Cedric Savarese) - about the challenge of finding a common language - in plain English.
- 37 Productivity Tips for Working From Anywhere (by Sarah Kessler) - there is at least one tip that will help you, I promise.
- The Next Level of Design: Being Unique (by John O’Nolan) - aka: designing with edge, thinking outside the box, "not stopping until you hit that eureka moment".
- Designing the #newtwitter (by @Twitter) - The new #NewTwitter proportions were not left to chance (at least in their narrowest width).
- Understanding Blind Users' Web Accessibility and Usability Problem (by Babu, Rakesh; Singh, Rahul; and Ganesh, Jai) - the authors outline seven stages of action and what they mean from a designers point of view (think checkpoints).
- A Case for Coding Your Wireframes (by Jake Rocheleau) - "Avoid detours by focusing on your main goals." - sounds so easy, right? Have a clear strategy in mind or else you are doomed to fail (delay at the very least).
The last couple of weeks were pretty busy for me. We were trying to design an application that has potential to grow beyond national importance and get high visibility. Needless to say expectations are high. Time constraints aside, my focus was to extract the goal of the application and streamline the user experience, do I sound like a marketing person yet?
In order to get quick and accurate feedback from our client I wanted to create visuals as early as possible. That's when Microsoft Powerpoint came in handy. I created wireframe mockups and iterated through the slides via video conference which turned out to be not only useful but essential to the mutual understanding. The client was able to adjust their process, our project managers increased their knowledge about the domain and our developers identified potential issues with integrating our mapping software.
During the process of designing the wireframes I created my own set of Powerpoint stencils that covers all common interface elements as well as a set of small icons.
Just recently I started to redesign www.actress.at, the website of my sister who is an actress currently located in Berlin, Germany.
What better opportunity than this to put the wireframe stencils into work. After talking with her for some time over the phone I got a good sense of what her vision is based on the needs of job. Together with some photos from her agency and videos from youtube I created the following three mockups:
Next Step: XHMTL Prototype
Following the wireframes exercise we created a color palette and implemented an XHTML prototype which roughly took us 3 days. Screen snapshots fed another set of Powerpoint slides for the big demo and will eventually go into the design doc as well. So far, so good.
Help me to improve the stencils
I really hope the wireframe stencils will be helpful for your work (as they made my life easier). I am interested in your opinion. What is missing? What can be improved? Send me your suggestions, ideas, updates 🙂