Prototypes play an important role in the design process. They help communicate ideas to stakeholders, specify interactions for developers and test early product versions with users. When you’re interacting remotely — either as a team or with clients — your prototyping tools should make collaboration easy. Among the multitude of prototyping tools, Axure is a powerful option I frequently use. It’s not browser-based as other tools are, but Axure still offers some convenient options for remote design.
Working together on prototypes remotely
On larger projects it’s not unusual that more than one designer is working on a prototype. With the Team Projects feature, Axure lets multiple designers work together on one prototype file. You can either host your shared prototype on Axure Share (on Axure’s servers) or on your own SVN server (especially if security is vital to your project). Axure recently introduced an on-premise solution for Axure Share which might be a great option for maximum security and convenience. So far it is only available on request.
Once you have created a Team Project, other team members can join the project and you’re ready to collaborate. Each team member then needs to always “check out” a page to edit it and eventually “check in” again to let others edit the page. Although this can sometimes become tedious, you avoid working with multiple files. The version history included in each Team Project can really help in situations where things have gone wrong.
As I mentioned, checking in and out frequently can become annoying. That's why people have come up with other solutions that don’t let you work on the same document, but let you share widget libraries. That seems to be a smart approach I haven’t tried myself yet.
Sharing and discussing prototypes remotely
Being able to quickly share new versions of prototypes and discuss design decisions is vital to an iterative process. Sometimes it's pretty hard to get decent feedback remotely though. I remember one project with clients from Dubai where we received Word documents where all stakeholders had coded their comments in different colors. That’s feedback you want to avoid. Of course, getting effective feedback is a general communication issue and a matter of good project management, but being able to comment directly on prototypes helps.
So how can you do that with Axure? Again, there’s the self-hosted solution and there's Axure Share. Choosing one is mostly a question of your client being OK with relying on third-party servers. If that’s the case, you can use Axure Share. From within Axure, you can directly publish your prototype and enable the Discussion feature which provides a chat option embedded into the prototype. The Discussion feature feels a bit clumsy and is not as elaborate as in other tools, but in some cases better than email ping-pong. Additionally, Axure Share provides custom domains and branding for your shared prototypes. If you opt for self-hosting your prototype, just upload the HTML files Axure generates. For the Discussion feature you still need to use Axure Share though.
Another interesting approach is to use a dedicated feedback tool with your Axure prototypes. With tools like BugHerd you paste some lines of code in your prototype and get a more visual way to add comments.
What has been your experience using Axure for remote collaboration?
What I learned from The Evolving Role of Expectations in Long-Term User Experience by Sari Kujala and Talya Miron-Shatz (published in September 2015):
- People’s expectations before using a product influence how they evaluate it after using it.
- People with high expectations tend to be overly positive about their experience — especially during the first days of use. If you ask them about their experience then, you won’t get reliable answers.
- That’s why you need to be careful asking people about their subjective experience after first use. Compare their assessment with their initial expectations and ask them again after having used the product for several days.
Between Christmas and New Year I found the time to read through two great books. Both are short, entertaining and insightful. One introduces the practice of Information Architecture, the other illustrates basic principles of visual design. I recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more about the essentials of user experience design.
“Picture This - How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang
Illustrator Molly Bang tells a compelling story about how certain visual elements make us feel. Step by step, she creates a scene of Little Red Riding Hood (the one you see on the cover) by only using geometric shapes. That's an excellent way to learn about visual design principles like position, size, contrast, and color. Her principles remind me of the Gestalt Principles, but focus more on the emotional effects on people (e.g. white or light backgrounds feel safer to us than dark backgrounds because we can see well during the day and only poorly by night). Some of these principles may sound obvious at first sight, but going through them based on one perfect example makes the book very intriguing.
“Making Sense Of Any Mess” by Abby Covert
Abby Covert is the president of the Information Architecture Institute (where I am currently member of a volunteer team). Her book can be read “in the time it takes to fly from New York to Chicago” she says. Although I haven't tried that out myself, I can say that it gives a very good overview of the process behind Information Architecture in a rather short amount of time. The process from identifying and defining IA problems to solving them by structuring and clarifying things is described very comprehensibly. Important principles like “Information is not data or content” or “The way you organize things says a lot about you” are laid out with great clarity using real-life examples. I think this book is both a great reference for experienced IAs and a good high-level introduction for IA students. By the way, meanwhile the book has been made available online.
Last Saturday I had the pleasure to do a session on remote work with distributed teams at UX Camp Hamburg — a perfectly organised and fun event.
Here are my slides:
And last but not least: Mayra De Ita created a beautiful sketchnote of my talk:
Lately, I’ve been working more and more with teams spread across different cities, countries and timezones. Though there are times when it’s difficult not having everyone in the same room (you know the drill), user experience design can work quite well remotely when you give thought to the tools and methods you are using. Starting with ideation and sketching, I will have a closer look at how the different steps of the ux design process are affected by remote work.
Co-located ideation kickoffs
The ideation phase of a project is the part of the design process, where I recommend having a co-located meeting if possible. Getting everyone together and sharing ideas visually is a great way to start a project. With a whiteboard, post-its and a good facilitator, a design studio session can produce a lot of output in a short amount of time. This can make working remotely later on easier, as you have created a shared vision early on.
Remote ideation sessions
But what if a co-located ideation kickoff is not possible? A whiteboard and post-its are so effective as everyone can share their ideas immediately — no one needs to wait to give input. That’s why a simple voice or video call does not do the trick here. People need to be able to write and sketch freely and need to see in real-time what others are sharing. Laïla von Alvensleben has carried out an interesting study on this subject. She describes her experience with a distributed team implementing remote design thinking using tools like Murally and Slack. She points out that getting used to the collaboration tools and having a good plan and facilitation is important for a productive ideation session.
Using digital tools for ideation instead of physical tools can be awkward. That’s why I really like the approach of EightShapes. They use document cameras to share what other team members are sketching on paper. When your team needs to do a lot of remote sketching, this might come closest to the co-located experience. Jeff Gothelf, author of “Lean UX” shared his experience with a similar approach.
More and more great products are designed with completely distributed teams. I think we can learn from these lead users and integrate some practices into our mostly co-located teams. Even if you only work remotely from time to time, it’s great to have a good setting available to do a quick ideation session remotely. When working with remote clients you can do more iterations and do not need to rely on in-person meetings only. There definitively is some preparation and discipline necessary to make it work, but new tools like Murally and Deekit make it easier to replace the whiteboard and post-it we are so used to as user experience designers.
During the past few months, I've had a longer commute than usual. This is why I subscribed to a lot of new podcasts. Compared to my experiences from a couple of years ago, podcasting has really evolved. There are a lot of quality podcasts out there – both from traditional publishers and independent podcasters. The following podcasts are my favorites right now.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum highlights important events in German history. The podcast accompanies an exhibition in the British Museum. Even – or maybe especially – as a German, the 15 minute shows are quite fascinating. I really liked the episode on Gutenberg.
From the makers of the brilliant This American Life, this podcast surprises with a new format: one long story, told throughout multiple episodes. The first story sheds light on a highschool murder case from the 90s. Really captivating.
These often quite short episodes, are excerpts from the Economist print issue. Good journalism in digestible audio bits.
The audio edition of the Grimme Online Award winning webvideo show. I really enjoyed the interviews with people from israel and palestine. They offered an unusual view into the life of the people involved in the conflict. Most of the interviews are in German, but you'll find some English episodes too.
Today's awful weather was perfect for rereading 101 Things I Learned In Architecture School. It's a short book I bought a few years ago for a UX Book Club meeting. Matthew Frederick included a few thoughts particularly interesting for user experience designers:
Some interesting thoughts from 7:16 to 9:02 on how governments communicate with their citizens and how designers could fix it.
There is still horrible government communications. If I look at the text forms. They are just as bad as they were forty years ago. And I could make them a hundred times better in two days. But they don't realize it's something that people can do. They go to their advertising agencies, and their advertising agencies aren't interesting in forms. You know, they do big campaigns. And if they came to me, I would do the form, not the campaign. [...]
Two weeks ago, I spoke at World Usability Day in Hannover. Among great talks on flat design, feedback forms and gestural interaction, I had the pleasure to talk about prototyping in cross-device design projects. Unfortunately, I could not go into details of the tools I presented (in German). I would like to take this as a starting point for a series of blog posts.
I won't dive into the merits of prototyping, but rather jump directily to the tools I reviewed for my talk. All these tools try to make it easier to build interactive models in order to test them on your devices. Following Fred Beecher's prototype fidelity scale, I'll take some tried and true deliverables like sketches, wireframes and design comps and discuss how they might evolve when designing across devices.
In this first post, I'd like to start at the lower end of the fidelity scale with an app called AppSeed.
From static to interactive sketches: AppSeed
- Take a photo of your paper sketches
- Make your digitized sketches interactive
- See your sketches in action on screen.
AppSeed takes it one step further though. By using computer vision – as they call it – the app decomposes the individual elements of your sketches and lets you process them digitally. You can then move elements of your sketch on-screen and (where it gets really interesting) you can define your sketched boxes as input fields or as scrollable map elements. What they promise is, that you can take your sketch from flat boxes on paper to interactive modules on screen.
In January we will see if they can keep their promises. I'm looking forward to using the Kickstarter version and test how good the computer vision really is.
What I really like about this approach is that it adapts smoothly to my design process. I can start on paper and can proceed digitally. Of course, the fidelity will most likely not surpass basic interactions (and basically you could also do this with other tools) - but the direct transition from analog to digital is really interesting.
In my next post I will climb the visual fidelity scale. I'll talk about wireframes and how they can evolve in times of responsive design. So stay tuned!