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Using rapid visual design to benefit users

March 31, 2011

Last time we discussed a visual approach to deciding which competing features should be included in your application, so the next step is obviously to actually build them.

If you are a designer (so you actually take your hands off the keyboard at work) you already know some of this, because what we're basically talking about is sketching.

Visual communication is engrained into us as human beings. We retain much more information when we see something, than if we read about it or just listen to it. We also start drawing at a really young age, so everyone can do it. This is what makes it such a powerful way to communicate ideas.

It's also much (much !) quicker to just rub out some pencil lines than to start altering code in an application. Of course, not many of us can make a neat job of designing a user interface on paper, but there are some useful tools out there to help.

UI Stencils sell tools to help, ranging from notepaper printed to look like a blank iPhone to metal stencils you can use to make neat buttons, tabs and other controls on your sketch.

If you prefer though, you can build a simple prototype or wire frame application, although these tend to only be useful for exploring different hierarchies or paths through an application and it's all too easy to end up building a 'real' application instead.

It can be better instead to build a simple working prototype, using a tool that 'only' does that. I like using Balsamiq for this, but it's a relatively new area with plenty of choice. You can even get away with using Word at a pinch.

The most important thing to do is to iterate and get real feedback from as many people as possible. This includes your work colleagues ("could you glance at this and tell me if it's confusing or not") as well as other stake holders in the project ("this is how the item chooser will work, are these the most important parameters ?"), This provides a good double check of the choices you made earlier on in the process and your thinking about how the various user personas will use the control you are designing.

You must bear in mind that the more effort people think went into a mock-up, the more reserved with their judgements they will tend to be. This also means they'll be less likely to work with you to explore the design. This means it is essential to get feedback early, even to a very rough looking sketch, because if you leave it till you have a pixcel perfect PhotoShop version, people may be adverse to criticising 'all your hard work'. Plus, if it turns out you did miss something, you really will have to re-do all that work !

In fact, there's an increasing movement that advocates going directly from lo-fi mock ups to the real application, without spending much time on a getting a 'better' mock-up.

The great thing about sketching though, is it works with any process you are using, you really can do it your way. It doesn't matter if you use a process like I've been talking about in this series, some other Agile-like system, or something formal like Scrum or even if you prefer to play planning poker.

I'll talk more about the mobile design process next time.

Posted by Tom Chiverton

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