Friday, October 14, 2011

16 Design Tools for Prototyping and Wireframing Article

By | In recent years the number of tools available to help you document and design your web site has just exploded. It seems that we all need a wireframing or prototyping tool at our fingertips (at least in the design arena). So in order to save you the hard work required to find one, I’ve assembled this list. It can be expanded upon, so if you use an unlisted application, please let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

The tools tend to fall into two categories:

  • purpose-built applications
  • multifunctional applications

Within these two groups I’ve found that usefulness can vary markedly among tools; some are only suitable for diagramming and wireframing, while others focus only on prototyping. The best are blessed with both capabilities and more.

Purpose-built Applications

1. Visio

I will state upfront that I’m not a big fan of Visio (price: from $US259, demo available); I’ve used it from time to time on various projects, but I’ve always found it fiddly and time-consuming.

Visio first started as an add-on to MS Word, filling the need for a business and technical diagramming tool and eventually graduating to separate product status. Visio’s power remains in the area of diagrammatical documentation; as a prototyping tool its functionality is limited at best. However Visio, like Omigraffle (below), is particularly suited to content map generation from CSV files. In the recent version, Visio 2007, the addition of the UML plugin has allowed for smoother importing of UML.

Visio has also spawned a number of add-on tools; Swipr (which is free) is the most relevant as it allows for rapid export of wireframes and screen flows into a clickable HTML prototype. This is very handy for creating the entire prototype in one go and not having to link it together after exporting.

Visio is only available on the Windows platform.

2. OmniGraffle Pro

Yes, I’m a little biased here; I do like OmniGraffle (price: $US199, demo available), especially the latest version. OmniGraffle is best suited as a tool for wireframes, screen flows, and content maps. It can also be used as a prototyping tool, with the ability to link canvases (pages). This allows you to produce a complete HTML prototype in one operation from OmniGraffle. You can, via the use of the notes function, easily annotate and complete the specification documentation for your prototype objects as you go.

OmniGraffle Pro

OmniGraffle provides an extensive series of Visio import and export functions, allowing for cross-platform team compatibility. It also allows you to import your base content structure from a CSV or XML file via a fully customizable rule-based layout function; this can be especially handy for documenting large and ever changing content maps.

Support for OmniGraffle is supplemented by a large online community, as is evidenced by the resources available at Graffletopia. OmniGraffle is only available for the Mac.

3. Axure RP Pro

Axure (price: $US589, demo available) has rapidly become the darling of the user experience and information architecture communities. The application allows you to construct wireframe models, document functional specifications, and generate prototypes, all using a built-in version control system.

Axure is an extremely rapid wireframing and prototype generation system that I’ve personally found pays for itself very quickly – in terms of increased productivity – despite its mid-level price tag.

Axure RP Pro

Axure allows for complete flexibility when designing an interface, from standard widgets, to custom builds, to an open-ended canvas. However, Axure’s true killer functionality is the generation of rich HTML prototypes and Ajax-like interactions between states. It’s a little like Dreamweaver and its JavaScript generation, but good.

A word of caution: if you do go looking under the hood of your HTML prototype, the code it generates is not for the fainthearted and should never be considered for use beyond a testing prototype.

The one downside for me is that it only runs on Windows. If it was available on the Mac, I would be very happy with Axure.

4. iRise Pro

iRise (price: from $US6,995, demo available) was the first product of its type to market, and has advantages and disadvantages. The iRise product suite is very Axure-like in its functionality, and as the price suggests, is clearly geared towards an enterprise-level market.

Price aside, the one thing that I dislike about iRise is the user interface. Now this may be a personal preference, but you would think that if you’re going to be producing a tool for user experience professionals that you would at least make sure the UI is right. iRise suffers from a legacy interface that uses older GUI methods and techniques. I believe it’s in real need of an overhaul.

Still, if you’re looking at working with very large teams and need a comprehensive suite of products to span your entire prototype development life cycle, then iRise is worth a look.

5. Pencil

Pencil (free) is a Firefox plugin that professes to enable you to build wireframes and prototypes. As a prototyping tool it’s quite good, allowing you to quickly put together a reasonably high fidelity mockup. However, be aware you’ll still need to produce the visual design elements for Pencil, as it relies on dragging and dropping pre-made graphical elements.

The output wireframe elements that ship with Pencil do tend to be based on the look and feel of a Windows desktop application. This really is undesirable for a web application, however you could modify this with your own page elements.

Another downside of Pencil is that its export functionality provides only a few image formats. This means that Pencil falls short of being a real interactive prototype development tool.

6. SmartDraw

SmartDraw (price: from $US297, demo available) is marketed at the business diagramming sector, it’s not really a dedicated wireframing and prototyping application, but that doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed completely.

It’s at the lower end of the market so you would expect a reduced functionality set compared to Axure. SmartDraw is aimed at the same market as Visio or OmniGraffle, with a standard template suite and few auto generation features. For prototyping SmartDraw allows you to add simple dynamic elements to a page, with the final output being a PDF file. There is no allowance for the representation of the transition between states on prototypes.

SmartDraw is only available for Windows, offering a degree of MS-Office Suite integration.

7. MockupScreens

MockupScreens (price: from $US79, demo available) is a Windows-only application. It focuses primarily on the building of simple prototypes from a series of wireframes based around common screen elements.

The prototyping functionality is limited, and only available within the MockupScreens application. I do note that you can export the screens as image files or as a very limited HTML rendering. This product is very much at the bottom end of the market in terms of cost and functionality, however this may suit your needs.

Read more on: sitepoint

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

IE Effects 3D conversion for Harry Potter

I.E. Effects (Los Angeles, CA, USA) contributed to the complex Harry Potter postproduction task, providing 2D-to-3D stereo conversion for several key sequences, including some in the film’s opening scenes. A team of over 50 I.E. Effects artists worked together for over six months to perfect the stereoscopic 3D effect, making frame-by-frame adjustments.


3D conversion : Converting a 2D film to stereo 3D is labor intensive and requires skilled visual effects artists to create a final result that looks natural. Creating two separate images from a single frame requires subtle adjustments to the viewing angle for each element in the image.

The process starts off with rotoscoping – manually cutting elements out of the image and then assigning them depth values to make different parts of the picture seem closer or farther away. These depth values allow the artists to reposition each element for the right and the left eyes. Once in place, the missing details for the left and right eye images need to be ‘painted in’ frame by frame.

“Stereo conversion is as much an art as it is a science, so we look at every shot individually and approach it in a handcrafted way”.

Hairy problem : Several shots in the opening sequence included very fine elements, such as hair blowing in the wind. “The Ollivander character is a wise old wizard with wispy hair,” said Dennis Michel, VFX supervisor. “Hair is an interesting challenge for any kind of visual effects work. For this film we had a small team of artists painting and tweaking individual strands for some time until we got the stereo 3D just right.”

The tools: For rotoscoping and reassembling the images, the team at I.E. Effects usesThe Foundry’s Nuke compositing system along with a set of in-house proprietary software tools that drive the workflow and link the company’s two locations. “We use automation to expedite the steps in the process, but this kind of work always comes down to the artist’s eye and a lot of patience.”

Visit I.E. Effects web site. The Harry Potter Deatly Hallows Part 2 trailer is on YouTube (in 2D). The movie is on IMDB too.

Read more on this in Below The Line.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Delcam CADCAM Helps LSNW to Conquer Aerospace Complexity

With Delcam software, LSNW can produce complex parts in difficult-to-machine materials

Delcam's CADCAM software has given aerospace subcontractor LSNW Ltd (Lofting Services North West) the tools needed to specialise in the machining of challenging materials and complex shapes. Director Richard Fielding claimed that his company had "no interest" in simple high-volume jobs, preferring to take on more demanding work that other subcontractors would struggle to complete.


Lofting Services was founded in Manchester in 1996 by two brothers, Richard and David Fielding, in a 1,200 sq.ft. factory unit. It has grown so rapidly that the design office alone is now bigger than the original site. The company started out as a loft-drawing service, printing sections through designs onto aluminium sheets to act as templates for aerospace customers. While it is still doing some projects of this type for sheet metal parts and checking fixtures, these are now only undertaken as part of a complete service to its bigger customers. The main focus now is on larger aerospace projects, plus press tools, moulds and inspection fixtures for the automotive industry.

Mr. Fielding bought the company's first CNC machine to create 3D models in 1997. This initial investment was so successful that a second machine was added a year later. At this stage all of the programming was completed externally by contractors, mainly using Delcam software. Following the purchase of more machines and an expansion into a second unit in 1999, Lofting Services decided to bring programming in-house, as more and more of its projects were CADCAD: Computer Aided Design or Computer Aided Drawing. CAD is used to describe a type of software program used to design, graphically and geometrically represent an idea, present that idea as a drawing or model and provide design data to other software of machines for further processing. -based.

"Delcam was always the favourite when we started looking for our own software because we had never had any problems in machining programs supplied by Delcam users," remembered Mr. Fielding. "We were also aware of a number of companies using Delcam products within our industry sector. The demonstration showed it to be the most cost-effective and powerful program of those that we reviewed, while it also appeared to be easy to use. The salesman was very knowledgeable, plus it was a British company with a good reputation for support." Lofting Services invested in PowerSHAPE, PowerMILL and PowerINSPECT, plus Delcam Exchange to read in CATIA models.

The ten years since the addition of the Delcam software have seen continued growth at Lofting Services. In 2004, the company purchased a 3-acre site and moved into new, purpose-built, high-security premises in 2006. Since the purchase of the first CNC equipment, eleven further CNC machines have been installed, ranging from two-metre machines up to four-metre, double-column bridge-type machines, to ensure rigidity during the machining of tough and exotic materials. The range of equipment has also grown with the addition of seven-axis arms and laser-tracker inspection equipment from FARO using PowerINSPECT.

The latest and biggest machine tool purchase was a five-metre, five-axis machine installed November 2009. The post-processers for this machine were written by Delcam engineers who liaised closely with the designers of the five-axis head from "ISA" based in Milan, Italy.

LSNW's reputation has spread with the completion of a number of high-profile projects, including work on components for JSF and the Eurofighter. Approvals have been received from Rolls Royce, Airbus and BAE Systems, among others, for supply of tooling and components.

While geometry for many components is supplied to Lofting Services as CAD files, PowerSHAPE used extensively to prepare the models for machining. "PowerSHAPE is also very good for designing fixtures, both for machining and inspection," added Mr. Fielding. "PowerMILL is unbeatable for machining," he continued. "I've seen lots of CAMCAM: Computer Aided Manufacturing. The use of computers to assist in manufacturing operations. Usually this takes the form of translating data from a geometric model from some source into control codes suitable for the machine being assisted and enabling that machine to produce some manufactured product. This product might be a textile, cut, punched or bent sheet material, turned, milled, drilled or routed material. demonstrations over the last ten years but I've never seen anything that would make me think about changing."

"Fast turn-around has always been the key to our success and growth," claimed Mr. Fielding. "The Delcam systems make it quick to program one-off jobs in fact, in a lot of cases, we can program quicker than we can machine. The results are extremely reliable. This is essential for us as we rely on 'lights-out', unmanned machining overnight and at weekends to meet the tight deadlines on many of our projects."