Storyboarding iPad Transitions

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If your clients are not yet asking you to design transitions, they will likely do that on your next project. Transitions are hot, and not just because they entertain the eye. In confined mobile computing interfaces, on tablet devices or in complex virtual environments, transitions are an authentic, minimalist way of enabling way-finding, displaying system state and exposing crucial functionality – in short, they are key in creating a superior user experience.

Transitions as design elements

Since the 1980s, designers have been drawing wireframes to represent web pages and device interfaces.1 In the beginning, wireframes were static schematics that showed a single state of the page. With the emergence of dHTML in the 1990s, it became necessary to draw different states of specific dynamic page elements, so the designers adapted the wireframe methodology to document the beginning and end states of the dynamic elements. Still, designers and engineers had little or no control over what happened in between the beginning and end states — the browser or the operating system handled all transitions.

More recently, sophisticated mobile touch frameworks like iPhone, Android, Palm and Windows Mobile allowed unprecedented control over the speed and structure of the transitions, giving designers more tools with which to create a better experience in a confined mobile space.2 Simultaneously, on the web, dynamic platforms like Flash and Flex gained tremendous ground, making it possible for designers to think about and document transitions because those were now part of the customer experience.

With the release of the Apple iPad, the Age of Transition has come to its full potential. On the iPad, Apple takes full advantage of some of the principles and ideas the company previously explored and perfected using the iPhone. On the bigger iPad screen, transitions achieve a new level of detail and sophistication, making the device come alive, and become a powerful, integral part of the experience.

Transitions Require Thinking Differently

As Jonathan Follett writes in his article “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:, 3 many UX designers approach projects from a combination of information architecture and interaction design. These disciplines involve thinking that is quite different from constructing the continuous linear narratives required to design and document transitions. Nevertheless, by borrowing freely from the lessons of early animators, it is quite possible to adopt the existing wireframes methodology to convey the structure and rhythm of a user interface transition.

The task consists of wireframing each of the important changes (or “key frames”) that occur during the transition and stringing a bunch of wireframes together in a storyboard. By documenting the key aspects of the transition, it is possible to share them with the larger team and try out different transitions designs. Documenting the transitions also allows us to step back and consider them in a larger context of a specific use case or overall goal of progressive engagement and immersion.

Understanding iPad Transitions

In order to be able to design and document transitions using storyboards, we have to first understand design principles that designers of transitions use to convey the desired meaning. Let’s take a look at the Apple, Inc. video in Figure 1 showing selected transitions from what is arguably the most popular iPad application today: iTunes. Although many different transitions are shown in the video, we will be specifically looking at the two of them: “opening the iTunes application” (0:17-0:20 min) and “opening album details” (0:30 -0:36 min).

Figure 1: Video of iTunes transitions on the iPad [“View larger version on YouTube”:]

Borrowing from Chet and Guy’s excellent Devoxx presentation “Animation Rules!”:,4 we can identify seven key principles that specifically apply to the animated transitions on the iPad:
# Component Relationship (background-foreground)
# Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)
# Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
# Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)
# Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)
# Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)
# Simplicity (avoiding noise)

To understand how the seven principles above apply combine to make the transition work its magic, let’s do a step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition.

Figure 2: Opening iTunes Application Step-by-Step

Using our seven key principles:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This transition is essentially the process by which the iTunes application comes into the foreground, while the rest of the apps recede into the background. In the first row, the transition starts out with the home screen and apps icons firmly in the foreground. By the end of the row, we can see that the home screen recedes and darkens, while the iTunes app (represented by a white square) slowly comes into the foreground. By the second row, the background-foreground transition is essentially complete – we can see only the loading iTunes app against the black background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

This transition creates its magic via an illusion of “flying into” the device, and eventually meeting the white square that represents the iTunes app. To accomplish this, the animation shows us “flying” through the layer of the apps icons on the home screen. The other app icons begin to “fly” to the sides of the screen in a circular pattern, as shown in row 1. The most interesting part of the illusion is the kind of “bait-and-switch”. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the app icons never make it off screen. Just before we “pass through the icons layer” and “witness” the icons “flying off screen”, the background goes completely black, and our attention is focused on the white rectangle. The illusion is complete.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
In this transition, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. In the second row, the background goes completely black, to highlight the change in state. Exaggeration can also be used to warp the shape of an object to emphasize movement, as in is used more in the “genie” effects and transitions.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

Subtle but powerful lighting is used throughout the transition as the primary means for focusing our attention on the foreground of the opening window of the iTunes app through subtle darkening of the background (principle 1). Lighting is also used to accomplish the bait-and-switch in the Illusion principle.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

Our brains know from experience that objects do not start running at top speed or “stop on the dime”. To make the movement more life-like, the animation accelerates into the movement very slowly, picking up pace in later screenshots, as evidenced by the increasing “smudginess” of the icons in the first row. Not surprisingly, the bait-and-switch happens in the fastest moment of the transition to pull of the illusion that the homepage icons actually “fly off screen”. The transition then slows down again in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes content elements, deliberately giving the auxiliary page elements and pictures time to “catch up” and making the page load appear smoother.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

The most effective transitions use real-life elements to provide a frame of reference which makes the animation more realistic. In this case, the icons on the home screen are moving to the sides, creating an overall illusion of moving through space, or deeper “into” the device itself to convey a digital event of opening an application inside the device.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)
The overriding theme of this transition is its apparent simplicity. During the transition, iTunes is not doing anything particularly complicated or earth-shattering. The magic comes not from one particular element, but through carefully blending and combining the lighting and movement to create a smooth cohesive digital dance, perfectly orchestrated from beginning to the end.

Storyboarding iPad Transitions

The key to successfully designing and storyboarding the transitions is understanding and applying the seven animation principles we discussed above. To demonstrate how this can be done, let’s use a slightly more complex transition: the iTunes “opening album details”, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Here again, we see the seven principles at work:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This entire transition can be viewed as bringing the selected album cover into the foreground, while the rest of the iTunes application recedes slightly into the background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

The animation shows us the illusion of the album flying forward on the screen while flipping 180 degrees. The most interesting part of the illusion is the switch from darker gray “back” of the album to a while loading screen (midway through the second row). This sleigh of hand changes the focus to the white cover to make the transition believable.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)

In this transition again, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. Midway through the second row the album turns completely white against the slightly darker background.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

In the beginning the iTunes application darkens gradually, and reaches its full saturation about half-way through the second row to create the background against which the album will be staged. The album, on the other hand, switches first from color to darker gray, then to solid white to jump to the foreground.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

The animation starts slowly, and achieves top speed half-way through the second row to quickly switch from the dark gray flipping rectangle to a solid white loading page. Just as in the previously discussed “opening iTunes” transition, this transition also slows down in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes album cover content elements.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

This transition invokes the magical feeling of opening picking the old LP album off the shelf and flipping it over to see the back cover by creating the illusion of the album jumping off the page and flipping 180 degrees horizontally around the middle.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)

While a bit more complex than the “opening iTunes application”, this transition can nevertheless be adequately described by looking at only 12 screenshots.

Once the transition design principles are understood, the process of drawing the storyboard becomes fairly straightforward. I use the same method that Galileo Galilei used four centuries ago when he first diagrammed the step-by-step movement of the sun spots in 1613.5 The basic transition storyboard for the “Opening iTunes Details” transition is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes [“See larger version”:/files/banda/storyboarding-ipad/figure4_ipadtransitions_postitnotes_large.png]

Now Start Making Your Own Transitions

As you try your own hand in transition storyboarding, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Use appropriate materials

To diagram transitions, I prefer to use medium-size post-it notes that measure 3-inch square. I draw each of the steps in the transition using a soft retractable pencil with a good eraser. This allows me to quickly diagram portrait and landscape transitions, and everything in between. Because the iPad is a rectangle, not a square, I leave the extra space left on the right of the post-it note (on the bottom for landscape) to write the additional explanation for each step or simply leave it blank.

Simplify shading

As I said above, on the iPad the lighting is foundation to expressing Component Relationship, Exaggeration, and Staging principles, so it makes sense to take a disciplined approach to drawing various shades of light and dark in your storyboard. I find that the easiest approach is to draw shading on top of the picture as light lines at a 45 degree angle. As you can see in the last three post-its, I use tighter line spacing to indicate progressively darker shading.

Get the basics down first

When I first approach the transition design, I make only the post-its necessary to convey the overall movement of the various elements and basic component relationship. I sketch quickly using very rough strokes, and use a ruler and templates whenever possible to make my job easier.

Stick to 6-8 post-its

As you can see in Figure 4, it is not necessary to draw all 12 original key frames we saw in figure 3. To convey the basic structure of a transition, I typically try to use only 6-8 post-it notes. Using fewer steps keeps me focused on the principle of simplicity: if it takes me more than 8 post-it notes to describe the transition, it is probably too complex and I immediately look for unnecessary elements or animation that needs to be eliminated or scaled back.

Ignore Acceleration and Deceleration

Above we spoke at length about the Acceleration and Deceleration principle. This idea is essential to creating effective, believable transitions. However, when drawing a rough storyboard of 6-8 post-its, this is the one principle that I found can be safely ignored. Once people understand this principle, most folks can extrapolate from your rough drawings to imagine the complete smooth transition “in their mind’s eye”. As long as you make it clear to your team that this is only a rough storyboard that the end result will in fact follow the principle, you can safely ignore the subject and concentrate on the relationship, movement and shading of screen elements.

Draw the complete story

Transitions do not happen in isolation – they are an integral part of the overall customer experience. Thus, when I storyboard transitions, I typically do it in the context of the entire use case. This helps me make sure that the particular transition makes sense in the complete context and in combination with other transitions. For example, when I use the “flip” transition to show the search results on the map, and then use the “slide back” transition to go back to the list of search results, the storyboard will quickly reveal the inconsistency in the mental model of the interface I am trying to create and the problem transition will feel awkward when walking through the use entire storyboard.

Sketch a few different transition designs

When I approach a given transition, I usually try out 3-4 different design approaches to see which transition creates the effect I am seeking. Sometimes I find that I need to create 10 or more sets of ideas for more complex and critical interactions. The point of this initial sketching is not to create the complete and final blueprint, but to help you visualize how a given transition design option would feel with the rest of the app interactions. Doing the transition with post-it notes allows me to quickly add a new transition or re-position the existing post-its to create and try out several different scenarios, often while engaging in the active team discussion. I recommend you make copies or take photos of your boards periodically to preserve promising design directions before repositioning the post-it notes and changing the transition layout again.

Obtain Initial Stakeholder Approval

In addition to helping you find the best design approach, a rough storyboard is also a fantastic tool for conveying various design options to your team for joint discussion and brainstorming as well as for obtaining initial stakeholder buy-in. It’s a lot easier to discuss the merits of a particular transition movement and information architecture when everyone is quite literally on the same page looking at your complete use case storyboard.

Creating the Final Transition Blueprint

When you obtain the initial stakeholder approval using your rough storyboard drawing, you will need to document the final storyboard design that the engineers to actually create. Here you have a couple of options.

One approach is to use Flash to create the transition with the final high-fidelity look and feel. This is certainly a valid option. However, I found Flash to be more useful for higher-fidelity usability testing and final stakeholder approval than for describing transitions to engineers. Here is why: most developers do not read Flash code and most transitions are simply too fast for the eye to understand in detail the subtleties of acceleration and shading simply by looking at a running a Flash file. I have had several instances of getting not exactly what I specified or else getting something completely different, only to have the engineers claim that “this is exactly what the Flash looked like”. This is especially a big problem with distributed multi-lingual teams where communication is an issue.

The method that I found to work well is to specify (e.g. create a wireframe for) each of the frames at regular intervals of every 50-100 milliseconds for the entire duration of the transition. Most transitions are between 0.5 – 1.2 seconds, so you will need to create anywhere between 5-24 wireframes in your favorite wireframing tool such as Fireworks, OmniGraffle or Visio. Stringing these frames together in document pages will create a short movie that will comprise the complete blueprint that will describe the position, shading, and movement of each element that will communicate clearly and exactly so the engineers can create the exact transition you envisioned.

While this seems at first like a lot of work, after a bit of practice the wireframing goes fairly quickly, as the difference between the each new page and the one before it is only a slight change in position and shading. As long as we firmly keep in mind the principles by which iPad transitions work, we can easily diagram relevant steps for rich, expressive transitions.

To continue this conversation, add a comment below or reach out to Greg at “@designcaffeine”: or through his website, “”:

Interested in more UX sketching techniques? Join us Saturday, May 28th, 2011 at UX SketchCamp [“”: or “@sketchcamp”: on Twitter] in San Francisco for a chance to learn from the experts, practice UX sketching and share what you know with others.


1. “Wireframing Marathon Starts”:; CIO Happy Hour, September 2010

2. See my article “Designing Mobile Search: Turning Limitations into Opportunities”:; UX Matters, March 2010.

3. Jonathan Follett; “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:; UX Matters, July 2007

4. Chet Haase and Romain Guy; “Animation Rules!”:; Devoxx ’09

5. Galileo documented the movement of the sun spots in his triumphant “Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari e Loro Accidenti Rome”: (History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their Properties); 1613.

So You Wanna Build a Library, Eh?

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Modular Web Design book coverThe following article is an abridged version of Chapter 7 of Nathan Curtis’s 2009 book, Modular Web Design published by New Riders. The book’s first half addresses how to modularly break down your design, build it back up, and communicate in new and interesting ways. With those design techniques in hand, the book then drills into how to organize and build a library, teach it to others, and establish a process for maintaining it for an organization.

Legos are so freakin' awesome!!! Design patterns and modular components are effective techniques for designing and building long-lasting, consistent experiences. You may reach the point where you ask yourself “Is it time to build a library for our team?”

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial. It takes time and effort to get off the ground, can trigger significant and uncomfortable organizational change, and comes with an ongoing maintenance cost. In some cases, libraries are not the answer and yes, sometimes libraries fail. Nobody wants to invest the time, effort, and personal capital only to have nothing to show for it.

Therefore, precede any kind of library build out with a period of discernment. Before you dive, ask yourself and your teammates the following eight questions to gauge whether a library is right for you.

1. Why Do You Want Create a Library?

What is your primary rationale for building a library? What motivates you?
At the top of nearly everyone’s list is usually one of two benefits: efficiency or consistency. Some value speed through reuse: get design done faster, be more productive, save time, save money! Others see opportunities for governance and consistency, using the library as a baseline to sustain a design system over time.

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial.

Beyond efficiency and consistency, other benefits that drive teams include:

Memory: A destination to record and refer to all the design decisions made in creating a large-scale experience.

Portability: Designers come and go. Project priorities change. A library should make you more nimble in shifting resourcing and focus.

Vocabulary: Establish and promote common understanding that includes terms you use for items, page types, and even deliverables.

Authority: Provide a more credible resource on which to make design decisions, prioritize efforts, and easily refer to conventions.

Predictability: Have a foundation to discuss and more closely approximate the impact of a design decision.

Collaboration: Amp up collaboration in your organization to trigger conversations, share knowledge, and learn together.

2. Are You Building the Right Kind of Library?

When it comes to libraries, teams usually find themselves choosing between a library of patterns or components.

A design pattern is a solution to a recurring problem. Patterns offer principles to follow and avoid specifics like style, editorial guidelines, page location, and finalized code. Libraries of design patterns are ideal for teams that design many experiences, such as Yahoo’s team that designs products with unique visual systems that adhere to a larger, common brand.

A component is a chunk of a page design. Experiences can reuse components for navigation (such as header, footer, and local nav), content (such as video players and page titles), and more. A component library is ideal for organizations that have built a system of modular HTML and CSS, and these teams can complement the code library with a collection of reusable design assets for wireframes or comps.

Choosing between patterns and components may not be an either / or question. In fact, one team built libraries for both patterns (for example, Tabs) as well as components (for example, tabbed product details, tabbed content module, tabbed search results, and so on). Other teams have hedged their bets by embedding aspects of one approach into the guidelines and spirit of the other, most commonly via pattern-like guidelines incorporated into the more specific component definitions.

Consider a pattern library if your team has:

  • Many design systems that are intentionally different or will not be reconciled into a single component library.
  • Capability to document patterns more specific than public libraries like Yahoo Design Patterns,, and
  • Known opposition to prescriptive approaches, but a willingness to use common guidelines.

Consider a component library if your team has:

  • A specific visual design system, including grid(s), layout, color palettes and typography.
  • Many reusable components (page “chunks”) within that system.
  • Diverse groups across an organization that must work together using that system.
  • Interest in and capability of sustaining that design and code system across groups, projects and time.
  • Strong, centralized influence to create, deploy, and maintain a library (or plans to centralize influence via a library).
A comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. A team could consider … include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.

Finally, a comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. Instead, a team could consider expanding their repertoire to include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.

3. Is Your Experience Ready for a Library?

Ok, so you’ve got dreams of efficiencies, consistency, standards, and more. However, just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library. In fact, there are plenty of websites for which a library won’t net any benefit. You should take a long, hard look at your design system to ensure it warrants a library.

Scale: Libraries can be invaluable to large, distributed teams supporting many products or a site with thousands – or millions – of pages. On the other hand, if you are a small and tight-knit team constantly communicating across cube walls, then there’s no need to codify standards. Heck, there’s no need to document anything at all – just get real and build stuff.

Relevance: Rarely do experiences of any scale contain no reusable elements. However, some site areas – like an e-commerce checkout or an account management portal – may be unique, built once, and not duplicated again short of a redesign. Why standardize something that’s never reused?

Stability: Be careful not to standardize an experience too soon. A design system should stabilize before you invest in codifying layouts, grids, typography, patterns, and components.

Disparity: Instead of one simple set of grids, styles, and reusable chunks, you may have multiple, distinct design systems. Do you merge them into one library? If now, is it worth it to create distinct and potentially overlapping libraries?

4. Is Someone Ready to be a Librarian?

Just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library.

Building and sustaining a component library takes an evangelizing advocate. That person may be you, or someone you manage or work with. Almost always, the librarian wears many hats:

Leader: You’ll promote a new way of thinking, shepherding participants into common practice and evangelizing the techniques, benefits, and spirit of the library.

Target: You’ll be a lightning rod for the library, and even the cause of controversy in a design organization. Others may point to you as the standards police that constrains them from being creative.

Writer: You’ll be an author, or at least a contributor and reviewer of other’s contributions, for items like guidelines, library cheat sheets, and blog posts.

Teacher: You’ll teach principles and basic fundamentals about what’s where and how to use it. Help requests can be disruptive, and you’ll have to be patient, determined, and flexible.

5. Is Your Design Team Ready for a Library?

A library can transform how a team operates. Gone are the days where every project is a blank canvas where a designer creates a creative and original work of art. Instead, designers are equipped with helpful starting points as a framework in which to operate. Those constraints can be simultaneously welcome and controversial.

Above all, your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel. Templates with grids, libraries, styles, and pre-made page chunks don’t turn designers into robotic automatons. But designers often react that way. You’ll have to convince designers that library starting points can focus creativity.

Other team attributes that influence library readiness include:

Size: How big is your design team? The larger the team, the more likely techniques, styles and deliverables vary. Libraries and templates can get your team synched up and communicating more consistently.

Overlap: How much do designs contain overlapping patterns and components? If your team is designing towards a common experience, a library can be a key part of a holistic strategy.

Distribution: Is your team spread out geographically? Standard design assets can mitigate impacts of reduced face-to-face collaboration.

Adaptability: Will your team be able to adapt to design practices that involve a library?

Stability: How stable is your team? Do designers come and go often? Learning library details is an investment with a return that increases the longer each designer uses it.

Advocacy: Do you have team members that are jazzed about or knowledgeable of reuse? Are they willing to be partners or champions?

6. Is Your Organization Ready for a Library?

Your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel.

You’ll need to have a pitch that explains the library in simple and concrete terms. What is it? How does it work? What does it mean to me? These questions hint at the profound impacts a library can have:

Workflow: Design libraries impact at least two critical workflows: how you produce a solution for each project and how you maintain assets, guidelines, and documentation across projects.

Collaboration: Do key team members – such as engineers and designers – have a common foundation to communicate on?

Documentation: You got to make it easy for people to refer to, find, learn, and integrate reusable assets into their own practices, whether via a component ID annotation on a wireframe, a PDF’s link to online documentation, or consistent HTML comments in your code.

Timing: When change is in the air, there may be opportunity to insert a library into the discussion and approach. Can you time the expansion of your library to dovetail with when your experience are already undergoing significant change?

7. Is Management Ready to Support a Library?

None of your planning and efforts will matter if you lack management support. They must vocalize a public belief in your effort as well as pony up time, money, and resources. It’s your duty to communicate a plan – and the return on that investment – to sell your management on why a library matters.

Unfortunately, even when the library is otherwise a good idea, management support sometimes wavers in instances like:

Lack of Priority: It can happen to the best of teams. You get your top talent together, you start roughing out a framework, and then projects hit. You get distracted. It’s up to management to carve out sufficient time for you, or else the library becomes stale and ineffective.

Insufficient Hardware and Software: It’s up to managers to ensure that designers have the right hardware and software installed so they can use the design assets. My confusion turned into empathy when I sat at a designer’s desk and watched for TEN MINUTES as the software tool launched on his out-of-date laptop. My query of “This is unacceptable. Haven’t you asked for an update?” was met with “You can only ask so many times” and a shrug.

Leadership and Evangelism: Ensure management is on message. Prep them with simple ways to communicate library value and help them avoid undermining you with explanations like “the library is another good idea, but if it doesn’t work for you, shouldn’t disrupt your own personal approach if you feel your way is more effective.”

Background Support: Public declarations are important, but so are the back-channel efforts. Your managers need to open doors to connect you with key players and partners. Knowing what doors to open is a two-way street, so help your managers understand the obstacles and why you need help.

8. So, Are You Really Ready to Build a Library?

Take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

So, your design system is stable, you’ve got some champions backing you up, and you know just what your organization needs. You are ready to put yourself on the line. You believe.

Then take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

Creating a UX library diagram
Diagram of How to Create a UX Design Library (PDF)

Up next, you’ll want craft a plan and read all you can from all the best authors and online resources. You then discover, organize, and prioritize what goes in your library. You’ll setup a platform for managing your catalog and publishing your standards. You may even equip one or more software tools with a library of reusable assets so that your team can create better design and deliverables, faster.

It’s time to build a library.

Sketchy Wireframes

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When it comes to user interface documentation, wireframes have long been the tool of choice. However, using traditional diagramming tools like Visio, OmniGraffle, and InDesign, most wireframes today look the same as their ancestors did from a decade ago – assembled with rigid, computer-drawn boxes, lines and text. While these artifacts have served us well, they can also be slow to produce, burdened with unnecessary detail and give a false impression of “completion.”

To compensate for the drawbacks of traditional wireframes, many practitioners put aside the computer in favor of simple pencil sketches or whiteboard drawings. This speeds up the ideation process, but doesn’t always produce presentable or maintainable documentation.

There is a growing popularity toward something in the middle: Computer-based sketchy wireframes. These allow computer wireframes to look more like quick, hand-drawn sketches while retaining the reusability and polish that we expect from digital artifacts.

The same wireframe in sketchy and traditional representation.
The same wireframe in sketchy and traditional representation.

The Traditional Wireframe Problem

Throughout a project lifecycle, wireframes can be used for different purposes depending on the stage. In the early stage, wireframes act as a tool for exploration and concept development, when sweeping changes are expected and encouraged. As the project continues, parts of the wireframe begin to be “locked down” as functionality is reviewed and “signed-off.” During this process, wireframes can become a confusing hybrid of conceptual ideas and finalized functionality. By the end of the process, wireframes can turn into a highly detailed functional specifications document.

The problem here is that traditional computer wireframing tools, like Visio, OmniGraffle or InDesign, lay out drawings as hard-lined boxes, lines and fonts. As a result, wireframes look the same regardless of which stage of completion the wireframe is representing. Early-stage, conceptual wireframes look identical to late-stage, functional specifications. This differentiation becomes especially murky in the middle of the project, where conceptual and final elements are comingled on the same page.

Sketching to the rescue?

To compensate for the drawbacks of traditional wireframing, some designers ditch the computer in favor of hand sketching. An informal poll by (as of 8/24/09) showed 22% of respondents identifying sketching as their primary tool for wireframing. Hand-sketching of wireframes, proponents argue, allows for faster expression of ideas and freedom from artificial confines of diagramming software. Sketches don’t require the same level of detail, and can be produced faster than traditional computer-based wireframes, allowing for a more iterative design process.

Why not sketch…

If hand-sketching has so many advantages over computer-based tools, why don’t we all ditch our mouse pads for sketch pads? There are four major reasons:

  • Drawing ability – Wireframes are essentially presentation tools, and not everyone may feel that their drawing skills are “presentable.” In team environments, there can be a wide range of drawing skill levels… from the “can’t draw a straight line” people to the “can’t put down their sketchbook” people. This leaves a disparity in the quality of sketched deliverables produced by the team. Many organizations feel it’s best to standardize their deliverables by forcing everyone to use the same tool.

  • Perception – When people become accustomed to seeing fully fleshed-out wireframes, introducing sketchy may be a challenge. Some may see the architect as suddenly becoming “sloppy” or “lazy.” In these cases, it is critical to sell the benefits of sketchy wireframes to stakeholders and opinion leaders.

  • In situations where wireframes are intended to live past the initial concept stage and turn into functional specifications documents or user guides, hand-sketching is not the most appropriate method. Hand-drawn sketches give the wrong impression of flexibility at later stages of development when the interface has already been “locked down.”

  • Reusability – Hand drawing is great for getting ideas down quickly. However, when wireframe documentation is lengthier than a couple of pages or when the documents must be re-worked over a long period, sketching loses its speed advantage and becomes a burden. In an electronic medium, changes can be made across pages and documents very quickly.

  • Prototype flexibility –Many practitioners prefer to go directly from hand-drawn wireframes to interactive prototypes, bypassing the more traditional wireframe process. However, in many situations, wireframes are used to generate interactive prototypes for proof of concept and/or usability testing. Hand-sketched wireframes are excellent for paper prototyping, but the amount of work involved increases quickly if they need to be scanned into the computer and converted into interactive prototypes. For on-screen prototypes, it is much easier to start with wireframes that are already in an electronic format.

Enter the computer-generated sketch

To compensate for the problems of both traditional and hand-sketched wireframes, certain programs allow you to create the look of hand-sketching with no drawing ability required, while retaining all of the benefits of a digital tool:

  • The style gives the impression of a work-in-progress, yet still retains a “polished” feeling that aids in acceptance by the workplace
  • Components are easily reusable for longer documents
  • Wireframes can be re-purposed for interactive prototyping

Sketchy Wireframes in Action

I discovered the need for computer-based sketchy wireframes while working on the website redesign of a well-known print media brand. I found myself presenting wireframes to executives, who would critique them in the same manner that they would a print-spread: with a heavy focus on fonts, text placements and graphic treatments. Despite frequent disclaimers that the wireframes were for high-level discussion purposes only, each presentation would drift into fixations of irrelevant details. To accommodate them, I found myself spending countless hours polishing the wireframes to look beautiful, when I should have been spending time on concept development and user testing.

To make matters worse, as we removed features from the wireframes that were determined to be “out of scope,” we continued to receive requests to bring them back, right up until the end of the project. Clearly, the wireframes were not helping to convey the right message.

On the next project, I generated the conceptual-stage wireframes using sketchy Visio stencils created by Niklas Wolkert. I began all of my wireframe presentations with an explanation of why the wireframes looked like sketches: they were intended to be malleable, rough outlines. I also prepared the executives for the next phase by telling them that the sketchy look of the wireframes would be removed as decisions became “finalized.”

Comparison of the sketchy wireframe stencils by Niklas Wolkert (right) and traditional ones by Henrik Olsen (left) at Image credit: Henrik Olsen.
Caption: Comparison of the sketchy wireframe stencils by Niklas Wolkert (right) and traditional ones by Henrik Olsen (left) at Image credit: Henrik Olsen.

The improvement in the executives’ perception of the process was immediate. The boxes and lines of the wireframe no longer had to look perfect, and the hand-drawn fonts couldn’t possibly have been mistaken for an intentional design. The executives, feeling less compelled to fix the visuals, were free to talk at a high-level about architecture and strategy. As the project transitioned from concept to execution, I removed out-of-scope features and converted the style from sketchy to traditional. This virtually eliminated later-stage requests for functionality that had previously been removed.

The reaction to computer-based sketches

Having used computer-based sketchy wireframes on a number of projects, I’ve found many ways that they can decrease confusion with teams and stakeholders:

  • Clients and Executives – People in this group typically want to push projects forward as quickly as possible. Consequently, the more “finished” the wireframes look, the faster they will expect to see the finished product. You can do yourself a disservice by making your wireframes look more complete than they are. To quote Kathy Sierra, “How ‘done’ something looks should match how ‘done’ something is.”

  • Programmers – Programmers who see traditional wireframes too early in the process may misinterpret their functionality as “signed-off.” Don’t be shocked if you hear frantic questions like “Did we agree to this?” Programming requires meticulous attention to detail, so programmers read wireframes with an eagle eye. Consequently, they may expect a level of specification from wireframes that isn’t appropriate in the early stages.

  • Designers – Designers make their living with their visual creativity, and they resist anything that could constrain it. Consequently, in situations where designers must work with wireframes created by someone else, designers can perceive them as a creative straightjacket, or worse, as a threat. A sketchy representation can help reduce friction by removing unnecessary details and adding a certain amount of “fuzziness” to the wireframes, thereby giving designers more leeway in interpreting the look and feel of the interface.

  • Users – In my research, I’ve found that users who are asked to comment on traditional wireframes can be intimidated by an overly finished look and feel. This is mirrored by a general consensus in the usability industry that the “less done” a demo looks, the more comfortable users feel with giving feedback. Where traditional wireframes can elicit comments like “I don’t like the font on those words,” sketchy wireframes are more likely to elicit comments like “I don’t know what those words mean.”

Computer-Based Sketchy Tools

There are now a number of programs that are capable of generating computer-based sketchy wireframes. However, in working with them, I’ve found that many of them are missing what I have identified as four essential capabilities necessary to be considered a “complete” sketchy wireframing tool:

  1. Ability to Draw New Sketchy Shapes –
    These days, many components of user interfaces are standardized into stencils that can be dropped onto wireframes to build them out quickly. While this can be a real time saver, not all UI problems can be solved with prepackaged stencils. In fact, one could argue that the best use of wireframes is to illustrate new concepts that have not become standardized. Many tools use pre-built, sketchy-looking stencils to allow designers to create sketchy wireframes. However, at some point you will need to create new shapes that aren’t available in your set, and a true sketchy tool must enable you to create new ones in the same sketchy style.

  2. A sketchy tool should allow you to draw.  These were created in Visio using custom line styles. This tutorial tells you how.
    A sketchy tool should allow you to draw. These were created in Visio using custom line styles. This tutorial tells you how.

  3. Easy Conversion from Sketchy to Traditional Style –
    Sketchy wireframes are a great tool for encouraging creativity, exploration, and collaboration. However, at some point, your blue-sky, creative ideas fall away and you are left with what you are actually going to build. In environments where wireframes morph into spec documents and user guides, those rough lines and hand drawn fonts must be converted to a more finished, traditional style to avoid the impression that your technical documentation is still changeable.

    Does this mean you have to go back and re-draw all of your sketchy wireframes with straight lines? Not if you can avoid it. Fortunately, certain programs allow you to convert your existing sketchy lines and fonts to traditional style without having to recreate them.

    Some software automatically converts from sketchy to traditional lines.
    Some software automatically converts from sketchy to traditional lines.

  4. Realistic Lines –
    It’s always been difficult to approximate the look and feel of true hand-drawings using software tools, but some do it better than others. The quality of drawings generated by a computer-based sketchy tool could have an impact on whether the wireframes are perceived as “conceptual” or just plain “sloppy.” These are the 3 major components needed to completely represent hand-drawn styles in wireframes:

    • Wavy Lines – No human can match the rigidity of a computer’s lines. Adding waviness and movement to lines humanizes them.
    • Varying Line Weights – When drawing conceptual wireframes, there are often areas of the screen that have yet to be explored. One way to represent this is to fade out lines as they enter these areas.
    • Smudging and smearing – These effects help to reduce focus on unimportant areas of the wireframe.

    These lines, created in Fireworks with a graphite line texture, could hardly be mistaken for true hand-sketches.
    These lines, created in Fireworks with a graphite line texture, could hardly be mistaken for true hand-sketches.

    These lines, created in Illustrator, are much closer approximations of true sketching.
    These lines, created in Illustrator, are much closer approximations of true sketching.

  5. Prototype Flexibility – For those who prototype their products, speed and efficiency of workflow is a critical issue. In this case, the benefits of creating a sketchy look and feel will become irrelevant if doing so increases the time needed to create prototypes. Fortunately, some tools allow themselves to slip naturally into the process by generating interactive prototypes that maintain the sketchy look and feel.

  6. In interactive sketchy prototype created in Visio and imported into Axure.
    In interactive sketchy prototype created in Visio and imported into Axure.

Comparison of Computer Based Sketchy Tools

Software developers are starting to recognize the importance of computer-based sketchy wireframes, and there is a growing assortment of tools to create them. This is a quick breakdown of how each of the major tools matches our criteria for a complete computer-based sketchy tool:


Draw Shapes

Easy Conversion

Realistic Lines

Prototype Flexibility











Expression Blend 3





Fore UI



































None = No Support
Partial = Partial Support
Full = Full Support
  1. Assumes prototype flexibility using a 3rd party program called Napkee
  2. Assumes use of custom line styles, as demonstrated in this tutorial


As the industry evolves, there is a growing trend toward hand-drawn styles, as evidenced by an expanding amount of literature and workshops on the subject. This is a positive step in the evolution of our field. Sketchy wireframes allow practitioners to guide creativity and problem solving in the early stages of projects, rather than getting lost in a sea of documentation. Hopefully, this trend will continue as software manufacturers focus on enhancing their tools for creating computer-based sketchy wireframes.

Using Wikis to Document UI Specifications

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The role of the interaction designer is to specify the interface’s behaviors and elements, so that engineers know what to build and how the product should operate. This documentation is commonly known as a UI specification or UI spec. There are several applications for authoring a UI spec, with wikis being a relatively new tool. However, designers should be aware of a wiki’s benefits and drawbacks for documentation, since UI specs uniquely reflect a project and its context. The documentation needs are often based on the size of the project, launch date, team dynamics, audience, technology, and the product development process. The development process usually plays a major role in how teams interact and how work is completed or delivered, thus, there is a direct relationship between the UI spec and the process the team is using.

Description of the Problem

There are many product development processes and one that has garnered much attention is agile. Agile refers to a group of software development methodologies that promote the project development lifecycle through iterations, open collaboration, and process adaptability. It moves away from traditional process-heavy methodologies and instead focuses on quick actions and an evolving plan as steps are taken.

The Agile Manifesto[1]:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a strict plan

Many claim that agile methodologies help companies increase revenue, reduce costs, improve quality, ensure compliance, and drive innovation throughout the product lifecycle. As designers, we often find ourselves working with teams that are using agile processes. I propose that the UI spec is best documented through a wiki when working in such an environment. This method is both adaptive and sufficient for teams building and delivering products, and helps to foster the collaboration that agile development requires. Problems with traditional UI specs include the following:

  • Documentation is expensive to write and maintain
  • Encourage a waterfall methodology
  • Slow downloading time for documents filled with tables, images, and cross references
  • Difficult to facilitate collaboration within the document
  • Rely on one central author to write and maintain the document

Wiki Overview

Before you can write anything you must have wiki software[2] established on a private server. There are many articles available[3] to help you choose the right wiki software[4]. Once you have the software installed it’s time to get going! The quickest way to make progress is to create a template that you can use for every project. A basic template frees you from having to repeatedly format a wiki page each time you begin a new project. You can modify your starter template and learn what format works best for you and your team. Template elements to consider include the following:

  • Table of Contents: A list of topics related to the project in order of appearance.
  • Tea List and/or RASCI Model: Owner, accountable person, or support role on the project; someone who provides input or expertise on its outcome.
  • Issues Section: Captures running problems or questions that need to be resolved.
  • Tables: How to layout information in a grid format.
  • Titles: Attributes such as bold, color, size, etc.
  • Subtitles: Attributes such as bold, color, size, etc.
  • References: Links to related information resources.
  • Figure References: How you refer to a figure or diagram within the document.
  • Images: Thumbnails and full images, as well as defining rules for opening a new window.

As you gather information and ideas, you can document them in the wiki. The nature of the wiki makes it fast and easy to record ideas, which helps to spawn additional ones and encourages participation. This process allows you to have a repository that can be easily reviewed by your team members. Undoubtedly, the wiki spec will start conversations among team members both online and in person. As you add more detailed material, your team members will be more likely to contribute. My experience has been that if someone needs clarification on a topic, they are vocal about it and team members will make sure the required information get added to the wiki. Before you know it the spec will be complete.



Collaboration is the single best advantage of a wiki spec over a traditional one. The supposition of a wiki is that there are many authors and contributors to the document, and therefore, you have the right environment for collaboration. This is a huge advantage for product specifications. As the interaction designer you don’t have to sit in a cube by yourself and define everything on your own. It’s fine not knowing all the answers and you can rely on your team to help fill in the blanks.

Team members can add clarifications, details, or make edits to content. Oftentimes, the details and clarifications build upon one another to complete the document. For example, if the designer has specified the layout and behavior for a button, the tech writer can add in the rollover text without disturbing the designer or the flow of the project process. To follow the example further, the tech writer can then add the help content to the wiki, allowing the engineer to upload the information onto a server and post the URL. The transparency and collaboration are quite amazing. Team members are able to get the information they need to perform their jobs and help the project along.


Speed is a major benefit of wiki specs. This is also why it’s a good match for agile projects. Speed comes in two forms: writing and consumption. It’s easy to add content because of the WYSWIG interface. As you begin writing content, it can be instantly viewed by team members. I have found that the sooner you post sketches and thoughts the better. It gets the whole team collaborating and they can offer feedback immediately.


A wiki spec is extremely flexible. This characteristic allows you to morph its structure and organization as the project evolves, reflecting the nature of agile processes. The team is able to keep up with the changes that occur in an agile project because all edits can be instantly viewed. Additionally, if anyone wants to be informed of the most recent wiki changes, an email notification system can be set up by any team member.


In the event that a change was accidental or a major disagreement arises, the wiki spec can be reverted to its previous version. This does not happen very often, but when it does, it’s a real life saver.

Figure 1: The image above shows the wiki revision history, including the date and time of the latest modifications.


Since wikis are hosted on a server by your company, the spec can have a longer life beyond the current team assigned. This living archive allows new team members to get up to speed quickly, and helps them understand how the project has evolved.

Centralized Image Updates

As they say, “a pictures is worth a thousand words” and the old expression applies to UI specs as well. No spec would be complete without images to help the team see what it is building. Once an image has been uploaded it’s easy to update all instances of that image. All that’s required is uploading a new image with the same name. This step saves time for team members and interaction designers, since we’re usually creating screen mockups as we go.

Informal Approval Process

A team typically has an approval step or sign-off for a UI spec. This is often used to ensure that all issues have been resolved and everything has been documented to the team’s satisfaction. With wiki specs this step is unnecessary, since team members have been participating in writing the spec all along. This saves time and the formality of having a spec review. If the team does insist on a spec review, you can capture notes and issues in real time as the meeting is occurring and everyone can easily see the discussion progressing. As issues are resolved, the wiki can reflect the updates and decisions that were made after the meeting is adjourned. Team members can then modify entries and resolve any issues that remain outstanding.

Challenges and Solutions

Installing the Wiki

If you are lucky enough to have either the technical prowess to install the wiki software yourself, or have someone on your staff do the work, then you will have overcome the first hurdle in wiki specs. There are many free wiki software programs available online, so you might be able to skip this first step all together. However, if you are working on anything that is propriety or secure, I would not recommend hosting it on a third party site. You might be exposed to competition or legal issues, not to mention someone else will have your product specs.


Another consideration is that wiki contributors must learn some syntax. This can be off-putting for non-technies, but the syntax is not difficult to learn and is similar to HTML. Many wiki software programs make it easy by providing a WYSWIG interface that allows for basic formatting while creating the syntax for you. This lets you focus on what you are writing rather than the syntax. Other ways around learning or creating complicated syntax is to pilfer code from another wiki template by simply copying and pasting it. If copy appears incorrectly, you can remove it or revert to a previous version. Wiki syntax also forces you to keep the document simple rather than spending time writing syntax for a spec.

Figure 2: This interface shows the code created by the WYSWIG editor.


Some people like the capability to read and write documentation wherever they are. With wikis you have to be online for either of these activities. Even though connectivity is increasing, most companies have firewalls or VPNs that can make access more difficult.


Some designers take pride in their documentation and deliverables. They spend a significant amount of time creating deliverables that are functional and beautiful. Wiki specs do not support this capability. They are essentially text editors that can be used to make documents more appealing by adding images, but they don’t really support the easy customization and flexibility that some designers would like to have. Images must be added one at a time and wikis don’t support many file formats. This may limit a person’s creativity in designing the document.


You may often see people printing traditional specs so that they can read them during their commute or at their desks. Wiki documents can be printed but they lack the basic characteristics that you would find in a traditional spec. Most of the issues involve pagination. Images get bumped to the next page unexpectedly or tables are displayed across multiple pages. This makes reading difficult, but it can be done. Although I do understand why some people like to print, I would argue that it’s not good for the environment and you should try to work on screen as much as possible. However, the functionality is there for those who prefer to print.


Trust is a major factor among team members. Some projects outright fail because of the lack of trust among individuals. Wiki specs can exacerbate a trust issue because team members have editing capabilities. If a lick of trust exists among your colleagues, you may see this manifested in the wiki via reverts and lots of edits or re-edits. This can be time-consuming and frustrating. If you have trust issues with your team or certain people need their roles clarified, you might want to consider an alternative method rather than a wiki spec.


Today’s economy and globalization are forcing companies to accelerate growth and increase revenue. In order to meet these demands companies are using new methodologies like agile, to bring products to market. As interaction designers we find ourselves working with these processes and playing an important role in the creation of new products. One of our major contributions is the UI spec, and the best way to document it for agile projects is through a wiki. It’s adaptive and allows for a collaborative experience.


1“Agile Manifesto”:

2“List of Wiki Software”:

3“Wiki Engines”:

4“Wiki Feature Comparison Table”:

UI Pattern Documentation Review

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User interface (UI) patterns have the potential to make software development more efficient. The prospect of such efficiency gains has led to interest in user interface (UI) patterns by individuals and organizations looking for ways to increase quality while at the same time reducing the costs associated with software development.

The very nature of UI patterns requires that they be familiar to end-users. An individual UI pattern is a discrete, repeatable unit of user experience. I refer to collection of patterns as a library.

In many cases, less proprietary patterns are more useful in solving a design problem as they can be implemented more uniformly across platforms. This characteristic and the efficiency gains make patterns an excellent opportunity for software companies to come together and promote UI patterns to the wider development community.

Producing a common pattern library, however, implies that the patterns presented are at the very least, consistently documented and most probably presented in the same single classification system. Currently though, patterns are classified and documented in various manners across publishers with no clear standard evident.

The problem

To date, the most common approach to propagating a single user experience standard is the development of UI guidelines and principles documentation within an organization. Development teams  — usually incorporating a user experience specialist — then reference this documentation during implementation and upgrade processes.

However, as the numbers of systems grow within an organization, so does the effort needed to maintain the quality and consistency of the user experience. For many organizations, it is now impossible to assign much, if any, time of a user experience specialist to all implementation efforts, and experience has shown that the UI guidelines and principles approach to propagating a single user experience standard does not scale well.

There are two common issues, both major.

The first issue is ensuring developers are familiar with all the principles and guidelines.

Documentation to fully describe a UI standard is, by its nature, extremely detailed and complex. Getting developers to know all this information intimately is an ongoing and often un-winnable battle.

The second major issue is that the application of guidelines and principles can be open to wide interpretation.

Requiring developers to combine guidelines and apply principles together to create a complete UI can be inefficient. This synthesis process can result in widely-varying solutions to a single design problem across teams — especially when working with widely distributed and possibly culturally diverse groups. Removing these variances to create a more consistent user experience requires rework.

The solution

UI patterns to a great extent mitigate the problems of weight and interpretation experienced with the principles and guidelines documentation approach of the past. In essence, patterns can be seen as prepackaged solutions based on guidelines and principles.
Patterns and pattern libraries are more convenient for developers because they solve common higher-level design problems without the need for deep knowledge of often-complex guidelines and principles documentation. Also, they implement best practices, so developers don’t synthesize what are often “slightly original” solutions that would need to be reworked later.

Much of the value of a pattern to the developer is its less granular and more physical nature. Principles of good UI design dressed up as UI patterns add little value over traditional guidelines and principles documentation, as seen in many of the UI patterns as described in the Design of Sites; examples such as “Low Number of Files” — while an important design principle or guideline — do not deliver up a usable UI component.

Also important is creating the patterns to begin with. The guidelines and principles that form the foundation of patterns still need to be developed before any patterns themselves are developed.

Integrating UI patterns

Integrating UI patterns into the culture of software development is to a large extent still beginning. Next-generation development tools such as those proprietary ones being developed by enterprise software companies that implement patterns natively are now or will be soon in the hands of developers around the world.

Embedded drag and drop UI patterns hold the promise to empower developers to create better user interfaces, faster — unsupervised by user experience specialists. While this may strike fear in the hearts of many a user experience specialist, issues of scale dictate such a pragmatic approach. Be aware though, that they also can perpetuate problems if the UI patterns implemented are out of sync with end-user expectations.

Why standardize UI patterns?

Currently, there is no recognized standard for the classification or documentation of UI patterns, as seen by browsing through pattern libraries from:

  1. Martin Welie’s UI patterns
  2. Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Design Patterns
  3. Sari Laakso User Interface Design Patterns
  4. The Design of Sites: Patterns, Principles and Processes for Crafting a Customer-Centered Web Experience by van Duyne, Landay and Hong.
  5. Yahoo Design Pattern Library

The variety isn’t surprising, since applying the pattern concept to user experience design is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, the successful introduction of a single classification and documentation standard could significantly increase the value of a UI pattern library to developers by…

  • Reducing confusion among pattern versions across collections. Not surprisingly, many of the same patterns exist across collections. A standard classification system (discussed below) can help developers make sense of both these patterns and their different versions in collections across the web and in paper publications.
  • Promoting development of net new UI patterns. A clear classification taxonomy is likely to make the “holes” in the current crop of pattern libraries more apparent, which in turn hopefully will increase the pace of development of new UI patterns.
  • Providing a standard UI pattern interface. As the number of patterns increases, pattern search tools will become more important. A standard classification and documentation approach will enable developers to quickly display their UI options.
  • Promoting UI pattern adoption. A clear classification taxonomy is likely to have the effect of making patterns easier to find and in turn increase their use.

Problems with the solution: UI pattern Classification Approaches

The following is a high-level analysis and discussion on classification approaches of the previously mentioned UI pattern collections. Each collection is mapped and discussed from a classification and documentation perspective.

Martin Welie’s patterns

Classification Analysis

Patterns in Interaction Design

Cropped version of Welie's patterns

Figure 1. Classification Map (click image to enlarge)

Welie divides the patterns into three delivery methods: Web design patterns, GUI design patterns, and mobile design patterns. Within the web design patterns channel (the focus of this document), the patterns are categorized into ten groups based on a mix of content and functional subjects.

Documentation Approach

Cropped version of Welie's approach

Figure 2. Documentation Map (click image to enlarge)

Welie’s documentation approach is simple, with a focus on visual elements to explain the function of the pattern. It can be broken into three main parts:

  • Description: This area of the documentation provides the name and image to describe the pattern.
  • Rationale: This area provides a description of the problem that is solved by the pattern, how it works, and the scope of its use.
  • Associations: This area provides links to other patterns related to the current pattern.

Jennifer Tidwell’s patterns

The following is a map of Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Design Patterns. (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of Tidwell's patterns

Unlike Welie, Tidwell does not take into account different delivery methods. The eight categories she does specify look to be based on functional subject areas only.

Sari Laakso’s patterns

The following is a map of Sari Laakso’s UI patterns. (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of SL's patterns

Like Tidwell, Laakso does not differentiate between delivery methods; he bases all seven of his categories on functional subject areas.

The Design of Sites’ patterns

The following is a map the patterns presented in “The Design of Sites.” (Click image to enlarge.)

Cropped version of Design of Sites' patterns

The most extensive pattern collection of the four sampled, Design of Sites does not specify delivery methods, and, in some cases, the items presented could be regarded as design guidelines or principals rather than patterns. Twelve categories are presented with a mix of content and functional subjects.

Summarizing the classification types

From this analysis three main types of classification are present — content subject, functional subject, and delivery platform.

Content subject classifications normally specify an application genre (for example, ecommerce and supply chain management). Examples of content subject based classifications can be found in the Design of Sites collection under “Site Genres” and in Welie’s collection under “Site Types.”

Functional subject classifications are based on logical breakup of functionality (for example, shopping cart and two-panel selector). This is the most common prevalent classification type and is found in all the collections sampled.

Delivery method is used to describe the platform on which a pattern has been designed to operate. This classification type opens up the possibility for unique patterns to be developed for the same subject classifications across platforms. This classification type has the potential to provide more resolution for developers looking to offtake a pattern within a specific UI delivery platform such as mobile, desktop, or web.

Based on the publicly available pattern libraries available today, there is no clear indication as to whether “delivery method” is a valid classification type. An argument could be made that the process of binding a pattern to a specific technology is will reduce the life of the pattern as platforms develop. However, the timelessness of a pattern is of little consequence to developers whose primary goal is product delivery rather than pattern lifecycle.

Another Classification type – Level

This author would like to include an additional classification type: Level.

The level classification would further divide patterns into the following areas of concern:

  1. Navigation architecture: Patterns relating to the navigation of content within an application
  2. Screen architecture: Patterns which position functionality and content within a screen
  3. Site furniture: Patterns for formatting functionality and content

In the case of the collections previously reviewed, the great majority of patterns would be classified as falling under the “site furniture” level type. However, it is this author’s view that considerable potential remains to develop patterns within the proposed navigation architecture and screen architecture level types.

A proposed classification system

Cropped version of the classification system

The above diagram (click image to enlarge) describes a potential pattern library classification hierarchy. In this case, client classification nodes are presented at the top of the tree similar to that of the Welie collection; the proposed new level classification nodes are added above subject.

Content and functional subjects would be implemented as tags because these classifications would occur across levels.

Why have a classification hierarchy — aren’t filters or tags more useful?

In many cases, being able to filter by classification node as required is more flexible than drilling down through a preset hierarchy. However, a present classification tree is also useful to:

  • Automate the generation URLs to enable cross linkages within the UI pattern library.
  • Provide a simple drill experience for end users who have no specific problem to solve but rather just wish to browse to learn and or generate ideas.

UI pattern Documentation Proposal

The value of a standardized UI pattern documentation to developers is a single interface for search tools. Such tools hold the potential to streamline the off take of UI patterns by developers with specific problems to solve in a world with hundreds and potentially thousands of UI patterns to choose from.

UI patterns are by their nature visual. It must be noted that strong support for pictorial content would seem obvious and reduce the necessity for long verbal descriptions that add little value next to their visual equivalents.