Visio Replacement? You Be the Judge

Written by: Scott McDowell
“In the same way that the Internet took us to the next level of interaction, complete with rich visuals, simulations are doing the same for application definition.”

Every decade, there’s a new technology that fundamentally transforms the way people do business, enhancing productivity and profitability along the way. In just the past few years, the user experience community has become captivated by the power of simulation software—the next-generation tool for requirements definition needed to build any online application. Think of it as the “flight simulator” for the IT industry.

In yesterday’s world, the typical deliverable would consist of a Visio diagram (composed of static wireframes) or a costly HTML prototype (still very static in nature)—the equivalent of drafting a car or a skyscraper in 2D. In today’s world, UX professionals can produce simulations—high-fidelity visual representations of what’s going to be built.

In the same way that the Internet took us to the next level of interaction, complete with rich visuals, simulations are doing the same for application definition. The advantage that simulations offer over traditional deliverables is that they provide interactivity without requiring the IA to know scripting or a programming language. Plus, with some packages, changes can even be propagated to all related documents.

Simulations can be used for ideation, definition, validation, development, and pre-development usability testing. Once a simulation has been modeled, its usefulness far exceeds that of any static wireframe primarily because of the simulation’s ability to look and act like the final product.

History
Simulation traces its roots to the aeronautics industry. In the early 1990s, Boeing used simulations to define requirements for aircraft like the Boeing 777 and to “test drive” requirements before building the plane. The automotive industry was also an early adopter. Manufacturers such as General Motors used simulation to test the effects of wind and road conditions in order to improve the handling and performance of both race and production vehicles. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the software industry started leveraging what many other, more stalwart, industries had been doing for decades.

Here is a review of the newest simulation products available to user experience professionals. (The list is arranged in alphabetical order, by company name.)

Product options

Axure
Product: RP4 (Product Tour)

The latest version, RP4 (there is actually a Beta of 4.3) has certainly added a number of new features compared to RP3. RP4 provides the ability to create a basic sitemap (indicating pages) and the ability to link these pages together. RP4 offers masters for rapid changes to an entire project. RP4 allows for basic annotations but doesn’t offer a robust requirements management solution. Of the products reviewed, Axure RP4 falls in the mid-range for pricing. With the addition of a true simulation engine, this RP4 could certainly gain ground against the higher-end products. However, at its current price, it’s a great entry point into the world of simulation.

Scenario Design: No
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: Yes
Dynamic Display: Yes
Data Interaction: No
Decision Logic: No
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: No
Portable Distribution: No
Requirements Management: No
Enterprise Support: No
Export to MS Word: Yes

Elegance Tech
Product: LucidSpec (Product Tour)

Much like Axure, LucidSpec offers the capability to create static “prototypes.” The product does not contain an actual simulation engine, thus limiting the product’s ability to save and reuse data at a later time. The product allows the design to “describe behaviors” or specifications in annotative form. However, it does not offer a solution for tying a non-visual requirement to visual elements.

Scenario Design: No
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: No
Dynamic Display: Partial
Data Interaction: No
Decision Logic: No
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: No
Portable Distribution: No
Requirements Management: No
Enterprise Support: No
Export to MS Word: Yes

iRise
Products: Studio, Shared Server, Manager, iDoc Express (Product Tour)

iRise offers a real simulation engine that allows users to save, edit, and delete requirements data. Of the products reviewed, iRise Manager provides the most comprehensive requirements management solution. Studio generates a portable simulation known as an iDoc, which can be reviewed with the free iRise Reader. Shared Server enables collaboration and incorporates a model for check-in/out capabilities and synchronization with the requirements management server. The shared server also provides an alternative delivery method, allowing stakeholders to view the simulation by accessing a URL. iDoc Express is a cost-effective service offering, where companies hand over requirements and receive a comprehensive simulation at a fixed price. No product purchase or installation is required. This is by far the most mature product in this space, with the most extensive list of recognizable customer names.

Scenario Design: Yes
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: Yes
Dynamic Display: Yes
Data Interaction: Yes
Decision Logic: Yes
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: Yes
Portable Distribution: Yes
Requirements Management: Yes
Enterprise Support: Yes
Export to MS Word: Yes

Serena
Product: Composer (Product Tour)

Composer fits at the lower end of the higher tier products. It offers the ability to model business processes at a very high level much like MS Visio. It then extends that ability to creating activities and detailed page designs. Composer provides greater support for requirements management; it is probably closer to iRise than any other tool. The challenge with Composer is that all users must own a licensed seat to view anything created within the product; this really limits the ability to share with stakeholders.

Scenario Design: Yes
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: Yes
Dynamic Display: Partial
Data Interaction: Partial
Decision Logic: No
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: No
Portable Distribution: No
Requirements Management: Partial
Enterprise Support: No
Export to MS Word: Yes

Simunication
Product: Enterprise Simulator (Product Tour)

Simunication is all web based. This is most likely the product’s biggest advantage over some of the lower- and middle-tier applications. Its interface, however, is quite cumbersome for the non-technical user. It offers the ability to simulate data through a scaled-down simulation engine. The workflow is driven primarily by creating use cases, then designing screens around those cases. Delivery is simplified by its all-online approach—thus anyone with a web browser can access it.

Scenario Design: Yes
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: No
Dynamic Display: Yes
Data Interaction: Yes
Decision Logic: Yes
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: Yes
Portable Distribution: No
Requirements Management: No
Enterprise Support: Yes
Export to MS Word: No

Sofea
Product(s): Profesy

Profesy is comparable to Composer in product maturity. It offers requirements management with a scaled-down simulation engine. Much like Composer, there isn’t an easy way to distribute the simulation outside of the tool/editor in which it was created.

Scenario Design: No
Page Design: Yes
Widget Library: No
Dynamic Display: Partial
Data Interaction: Partial
Decision Logic: Yes
Annotations: Yes
Centralized Server: No
Portable Distribution: No
Requirements Management: Yes
Enterprise Support: Yes
Export to MS Word: Yes

Benefits to the user experience professional
User experience professionals who leverage simulation technology are able to visualize projects much earlier within the development lifecycle, while producing requirements that are much clearer than those generated through traditional requirements gathering processes. In fact, two of these packages, iRise and Serena, were actually created to help business analysts visualize requirements when they didn’t have access to user experience professionals for that part of a project!

One key feature that static wireframes lack is the ability to interact with the interface; by using a simulation tool, this limitation is removed. Software interactivity and ease-of-use, in addition to the portability and reusability of the simulation, are key points to consider in choosing the right simulation software for your company. The next several years should be quite interesting as each of these products continues to improve, adding new features and offering tighter integration with third-party products.