A few weeks back, I get an email one evening from the boss asking if I can take on a new project. There was some documentation attached explaining a highly conceptual group of mobile applications. Most of my experience with mobile equates to coordinating the desktop design with the mobile. So this seemed like an exciting opportunity to take on a new set of challenges – the largest of which has been finding the right design tool for the job. I needed something a bit more high fidelity than your standard boxes and arrows wireframes – something a little more like a “comp,” but still functional if we needed to add interactions.
Now, for the past 3-4 years, I have slowly and steadily migrated to using Axure 95 percent of the time to design and prototype interfaces. Overall, I have become increasingly attached to it and while I still use Adobe here and there when the need for aesthetics is higher, Axure is clearly a staple for me. While Axure would have worked for this project in a pinch, it wasn’t ideal. As I see it, there are two major flaws with Axure (and I am referring to the latest version – RP 7).
The first issue (which has little to do with mobile design) is the specification output. “Specs” generated from Axure aren’t particularly aesthetically appealing. But, they aren’t hideous either. It’s simply the flexibility in the layout of the output that bothers me most. Now, in defense of Axure, it is a software package for creating static wireframes and interactive prototypes – not developing specification documentation. But, since they added the feature, the least they could have done was to allow greater latitude in the flexibility of the output. Specifically, image manipulation (cropping, resizing), better annotation and the ability to control textual flow would be a good start. Last, if you truly want to use Axure for generating specifications, you need to plan well in advance. As a result of the poor spec generation from Axure, I use a completely different set of tools with Axure as a supplement to generate specifications. I am dedicating a future post on this within the next week or two.
I can overlook the specification issue in Axure since – as I note above – that is not its primary purpose. But, what I have a more difficult time overlooking is the situation with the widgets. The widgets are arguably the most important tool in Axure. I’ll put it this way: You couldn’t design without them. And for as long as I can remember, the same basic widget libraries have been available in Axure with what I would consider little modification to them. This has, of course, created a ripe marketplace for some designers to sell or make available widget libraries. I can usually get by with the free libraries or make my own widgets or download free icons when I need to. But, with my recent iOS 7 project, I suddenly realized how inadequate Axure is in this right. And, this is kind of hard to excuse in a software package this robust that is has a sole purpose of representing design.
So, I spent an entire morning digging around the web for iOS 7 assets and RP Libraries I might be able to use figuring I could piece enough together to build my own library. After 3-4 hours of this, I was still coming up short and decided to look for options beyond Axure. That’s when I came across Prototyper from Justinmind.
Prototyper, most important, is free of charge. And what’s even better is that it has one kick-ass native iOS 7 widget library for iPad and iPhone. What’s more, there is a widget library for Android applications along with frame sets for Android and iOS devices. And that is just what is included as defaults in the download package. If you need other libraries – Google Glass, Windows 8, older versions of iOS or Android – they are available for download via the website at no additional cost.
The overall ease of use is another plus with Prototyper. If you are familiar with Axure, much of the same functionality and features exist in this platform as well. The functions are just located in different areas and after a few hours, I found myself plugging right along. The ability to create interactivity for full-blown prototypes is a major advantage and I actually think it is a little bit easier than it is in Axure.
The pricing structure for Prototyper is probably my greatest issue. Of course, I can’t complain about the free version. But, the free version is stripped down to the bare essentials. If you really want to max out your prototype with rich interactions (OnClick, MouseOver, etc.) and export to HTML for testing, you’ll need the full version. But, you can’t just buy a single license as you do with Axure. You have to “subscribe” to the license on either a monthly or annual basis. If you pay annually, you are in for $228 for the year ($19 per month). If you go month-to-month, you are in for $29 per month and $348 for the year. That means each year, you are paying for a license. I’d be okay with this pricing model if I knew the updates each year would be worth the cost. But, I doubt the software will be updated with major features any more or less often than Axure is. Axure runs on about a 2-3 year release cycle with minor updates in between major releases. The Axure license is about $289 for the standard version and you won’t have to pay that again until the next major upgrade. And sometimes you don’t have to pay for a major upgrade. Axure RP 7 was a free upgrade if you were running 6.5. From monetary standpoint, Axure is the better value.
Overall, Prototyper is still a nice tool. Right now, I am working on a project that only requires static wireframes. So it is an apt solution and I will be sticking with the free version for the time being. However, I do believe this software package will offer some stiff competition to Axure as time passes by. And, Axure has some work to do in relation to the native set of widgets included in their software package. Were it not for this lacking feature in Axure, I would have never strayed to begin with.
If you are working on a mobile project and need to a sense of realism in terms of graphics without turning to Photoshop, give Prototyper a try. It’s a free download and there are a ton of native iOS widgets to choose and use. If you like Axure, you’ll truly appreciate Prototyper. I’m not giving up Axure any time soon, but Prototyper makes a good addition to my toolbox.