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.

IA Classics: Tools of the Trade in Comic Book Form

Written by: Dan Willis
Click image to download “Classic IA Tools” (PDF, 592K)

On March 21st, in a crowded conference room at the Portland Hilton, I was listening to Rashmi Sinha and thinking about comic books.

This isn’t to suggest that Ms. Sinha, a psychologist, researcher, and user experience consultant who presented at AifIA’s Leadership Seminar, wasn’t keeping me interested on that day in Portland. In fact, I was enjoying her discussion of free listing, card sorting, and other tools so much that my brain was running at double speed. While I was listening to Ms. Sinha, I was also thinking about how much easier my work would be if I could get some of the people I work with (and for) to attend similar presentations. But that would be impractical, and it’s also unlikely that the same people will ever read the work of Rosenfeld, Morville, or Krug.

What I need are highly condensed overviews, I thought, like those comic books that convert great literary works into a few illustrated pages. They condense Moby Dick down to 12 pages and provide a version of Great Expectations that can be read in 15 minutes.

So I created these one-pagers (it took me two pages to cover personas). I did treatments for the tools that could be done well in this format and skipped the ones that couldn’t. My hope is that these pages help make the tools of our trade more accessible. They require little investment from the reader and they’re goofy as hell. (It’s been my experience that people open to whimsy also tend to be open to new ideas.)

These overviews don’t replace the fine work that I used as my sources, just as 20 panels of a comic book can’t replace James Joyce’s Ulysses. But they may be able to spark interest in — and support for — information architecture in a new, viral way.

Dan Willis is a web consultant in Northern Virginia. He’s spent the last eight years launching internet products for major media companies after almost a decade of developing, designing and editing newspapers and magazines. He has more personal websites than he really ought to, including:

http://www.dswillis.com (a shameless pitch of his consulting services) and http://www.dswillis.com/draw (another shameless pitch, this one a showcase for his illustrations and cartoons).

The Tool Makes the (Wo)Man

Written by: Erin Malone

The other day at work, we were planning some new processes for bringing work into the team. One team member suggested we use a product that another group was using to track our projects. The suggestion on the table essentially meant we would force fit our way of working into this tool “because we already had the tool.” This was proposed instead of doing the work to figure out how we needed to get our jobs done and then doing the due diligence to find the tool that best matched our needs.

The tool we should be cultivating here is our brain—our skill for problem solving and providing value to our clients and companies.This scene resonated with me because it is an example of not understanding the problem at hand. Jakob Nielsen’s exclamation “Flash is 99% Bad” is another example of barking up the wrong tree. He is now working with Macromedia to make the tool more usable—as if that was the source of the problem. What I can’t understand is why more people aren’t getting riled up about the fact that the problem isn’t the tool.

The SIGIA list occasionally erupts into the “Which tool do you use?” or “Which tool is best for information architecture/best for flow mapping/best for wireframing” conversations. Even Steve Krug noted this at the IA Summit in his Top Ten list of what IAs talk about. These questions arise as if the perfect tool would make the perfect IA. We lose sight in these discussions of the fact that we already have the perfect tool: our brains. The knowledge, expertise and skills to solve problems are right between our ears.

The visual manifestation of a solution—whether done in Illustrator, Omnigraffle, Visio, HTML, Flash or even on a cocktail napkin—is beside the point. If the solution is appropriate to the problem and the end user, then it doesn’t really matter how it is implemented.

But, you say, “the best, the right, the perfect tools will help us.”

“It will make us more efficient and give us more time to think, to solve problems.”

And I would say, you are right… to a degree.

Solving the problem will come from a deep understanding of the issues, of the users’ needs, of the task—from research, from analytical thinking and then sketching out solutions. Sketching these solutions can be done in any way—on a whiteboard, on paper with (gasp) a pen or pencil, or on the computer with the tool of choice.

My concern and angst over these types of discussions, as well as the kind of proclamations that Nielsen and other gurus make, is that focusing on the tool—either finding the right tool or badmouthing the perceived “wrong” tool—moves our energies away from the real problem at hand: design solutions that are inappropriately or poorly executed.

In all the talk of Flash being bad, I have never seen Nielsen and others offer to work with design schools or to help craft curricula, lessons or workshops that will teach the appropriate skills to the generation of designers who are being taught tool after tool rather than how to appropriately solve problems. So what’s my point? The tools of the trade that we use to solve our problems are mostly irrelevant. They come down to personal preference, to comfort level, to speed of learning and what others in the group are using, which is generally a concern when sharing documents. The tool we should be cultivating here is our brain—our skill for problem solving and providing value to our clients and companies.

The tools used to implement solutions (as opposed to the tools used to design solutions) also matter a little less than we’d like to think. Of course, the solutions need to be appropriate to the medium, to the end users’ needs and should solve the problem in the best way possible.

So even if Nielsen and Macromedia succeed in making rich media best practices 100 percent “good” (Macromedia press release, June 3, 2002), or even if someone comes along with the killer app for IA work, it still won’t matter much if designers and IAs don’t understand the medium or how best to solve the problem.

We have a responsibility to kick things back—to our bosses, to our clients, to our colleagues—when the recommendation to use a certain tool or technology just because it is there doesn’t fit the needs of the task, whether that task is designing a solution or implementing a solution. We have a responsibility to be smart problem-solvers and use the one tool that we all have—our brains.