I have enjoyed paper/white-board prototyping for a long time, even made it my teams’ one of first “rules of engagement”. I have also been a big fan of Balsamiq Mockups, and today I would like to introduce you another great quick prototyping tool: WireframeSketcher.

In a nutshell, WireframeSketcher is, as its home page says:

WireframeSketcher is an Eclipse plugin for creating wireframes, screen mockups and UI prototypes.

Having tried it out on two small projects in the last two weeks, I am impressed. It’s a neat, and pleasant tool to use and fits very well with both my personal and my team’s development process.

First, a screen-shot showing it in action:

wireframesketcher-screenshot

Being an Eclipse plugin, it means

  • developer friendly, as it’s right inside an environment already familiar to many developers (80% of my team uses eclipse on a daily basis), there is no extra software or framework or platform to install, and developers can just svn up project’s design mockup folder, then open the mockups in the same IDE, very neat and appealing experience compared to that of other prototype tools;
  • cross platform;
  • enjoys the benefits Eclipse plugin infrastructure brings, like update mechanism

Highlights I want to mention:

  • The fastest and most responsive prototype tool I have tried and used;
  • Mockups are stored as xml documents instead of image files, that means it’s friendly to scm tools like Subversion and diff;
  • Has annotation support, good for asynchronous communication;
  • Grouping of UI elements can be nested, i.e. I can group a label and an input box first, then group them with a button as another group, when ungrouping the latter, the first group of label and input box is still intact;
  • Presentation of a mockup or a storyboard is handy, it’s right inside Eclipse. There is no need to export them to images first then pasted to a .ppt file in order to just show the mockups or the sequence of the mockups;

The most pleasant surprise to me is “Master Screen”, which allows me to pick any existing mockup as the base of a new mockup, this helps save time particularly when many of a site pages share the same header and footer. And there’s more. When I later make changes to the master screen, all screens that are “derived” from it automatically get updated without their xml files being modified (again, very friendly to Subversion and the like).

A close look of my sample mockups:

wireframesketcher-1

Storyboard example:

wireframesketcher-storyboard

Some nitpicks or features I would like to see in the future WireframeSketcher:

  • annotation does not provide link from notes to the annotated element
  • I strongly believe url is an important element of user experience, but currently there is no way to specify the url on the browser control (I would suggest it takes two lines of input, the first being the page title, and the second line for the url);
  • I couldn’t find a way to reuse a group of UI element, my idea is to allow user to have a collection of custom built (e.g. Paginator, Chinese version of “Loren Lpsum”) or assembled controls or control groups (e.g. a text input field always comes with a label and input box) as a separate category, this would help productivity among a project team at least;
  • colors support in more controls (e.g. form validation error, and different colors in progress bar, red for slow progressed, and green for complete or near complete)
  • One feature I particularly like about Balsamiq Mockups is the command line script to batch process (e.g. export to image files), I use it in my Ant build script to export mockup images. I hope this feature is coming to WireframeSketcher soon;
  • Hopefully, a community could grow out of this tool, like what Balsamiq has achieved with Mockups To Go;

Conclusion? I would strongly encourage any developer or any development team that live and breathe in Eclipse to give WireframeSketcher a serious try.

Oh, did I mention a tiny problem with it being an eclipse plugin? RescueTime now can not tell if I am actually using a Dev Tool or a Design Tool … But heck, I sure can live with that given such a great prototype tool.

平时工作中在界面设计的时候,我总是要求工程师先在纸上画图,初步确定后,仅仅用HTML+CSS做出静态的界面再次与用户(主要是其他业务部门)确认后,再动手写实际的代码。

纸上的原型设计是经常使用(至少我自己)的初期设计方式,办公室里用白板(空间大,而且环保些)和马克笔。这种办法不仅快,能尽早发现在文字和口头的沟通上理解不一致的地方,同时也尽可能减少开发成本和因为理解不一致导致返工的情况。纸上的原型设计在可用性上能起到很大作用,也有专门一本书介绍和探讨,这就不多说了。

但是这也有它们本身的不足。首先是没法很好地保留设计和讨论的内容,我曾经尝试用数码相机把白板上的内容拍下来,但仅仅是为了保留,没法有效地在后续的讨论和工作中继续使用。

几年前发现过一个做网站的设计草图的工具软件,Denim,这是一个大学的项目,学术性和尝试性的味道强了些,界面设计上有很多新颖的地方,但毕竟不是从每天蹲在“战壕”中的工程师的角度出发,玩玩可以,实际工作上还是不大可能用上。(附:Denim的截图)。

前阵子发现了一个新软件:Balsamiq Mockups,用下来发现它真正抓住了原型设计的核心与平衡点,既能快速设计草图,又能比较好地进入到平时团队工作的流程和工具中,可以说是击中了原型设计的Sweet Spot,强烈推荐。

先看看截图:
balsamiq markup screenshot

再说说功能和亮点:

  1. 操作方面,拖拽,控件分组,甚至元素之间的对齐都做得很贴心;
  2. 预制了很多界面元素,从简单的输入框,下拉框,浏览器主要元素,到经常用得到的导航条,日历,表格,到复杂的Tag Cloud,Cover Flow, 地图,WYSWYG的格式工具栏等,有了这些不用从头画起,往往比用白板都快;
  3. 界面元素的修改很简单,比如导航条的几个标签页的label,就是用逗号分隔的文字,下拉框的选项就是分行的文字;
  4. 使用xml语言来记录和保存界面元素和布局,
    1. 这使得每个设计都能被很好得放进SVN,Git,和CVS等工具中进行管理和跟踪;
    2. 可以设计复杂的界面元素,保存后,以后可以重复使用(包括修改);
  5. 可以将设计导出成PNG格式的图片;
    balsamiq markup exported to png
  6. 可以用命令行进行导出操作,这样就能让我写个脚本,从svn里checkout某个目录下的所有设计文件后,导出图片,打包后用邮件发到项目经理,工程师甚至客户那;
  7. 跨平台,Balsamiq Mokups是用Flex和Air实现的,所以在Mac OS, Linux和Windows下都能使用;
  8. 不仅仅有桌面版本,还有能集成在Confluence,JIRA,和XWiki中的版本,使得异地在线协作更方便有效;

据作者说,现在这款软件的设计就是用它自己来设计的,经典的“吃自己的狗粮”,这也让我对其更有信心,因为它是开发者为开发者写的软件

更多信息,大家可以到它的网站上了解。

还有值得一提的是Balsamiq Mokups的在GetSatisfaction上的用户支持和服务,作者Peldi对问题报告,新需求的回应很积极和及时。而且根据这个讨论上看,到月底就会有一个专门用来分享界面控件设计的社区网站了,很期待。

再要说的一点是这款软件是要付费的,79美元(也可以免费,具体如何免费,请看网站上的说明),相对于它能节省下来的时间和提高的效率,是很值得的。Peldi说在2008年,这款软件就从1,322位付费用户那获得了162,302美元的收入(其中仅12月份就有39,000美元),这令人鼓舞地证明了只要是提供真正价值的服务和软件,就能够创造很好的收入,即使在经济萧条的寒冬里。

另外说一句, GetSatisfaction也是一个很不错的服务。

WebDev @ 26 July 2007, “2 Comments”

雅虎今天推出了YSlow插件(这名字不错:Why Slow? ),需要先装Firebug,YSlow其实是它的“插件”。YSlow从Firebug收集当前网页和该网页的访问信息后进行分析,如有必要则给出如何提高页面加载速度的建议,比如减少DNS查询,使用外部并压缩Javascript等。这些建议是根据13个提高网页速度的指导原则,其内容已经在Yahoo Developer Blog上系列连载了一段时间,最近更新速度快了很多几乎每天一篇(是为了配合YSlow的推出?)。除此外还有专门一本书:《High Performance Web Sites》,内容就是这个系列(多了一个关于Ajax的专题),应该有更深入的分析和解释(这本书是Rough Cut,所以有O’Reilly Safari帐号的可以先睹为快了)。

这个High Performance系列说明网站开发者(包括我自己)非常需要深入了解HTTP和HTML。对Java尤其尤其是J2EE程序员来说,不要只是build around the web, 而是build for the web。很多程序员(尤其是刚毕业的大学生)不在意HTTP的细节,从所谓的“企业级开发”的角度把HTTP请求仅仅当作作一种函数调用,导致能提高性能的所有HTTP的特性都被“抽象”掉了,也就不了解或者利用这些属性。比如,我常在面试的时候问:HTTP GET和POST的区别在哪里?大部分的回答只有参数大小和位置的不同。

YSlow上的指导原则里的内容还有些可以补充的(很多东西应该都放到那本书里去了吧),比如在High Performance Web Sites: Rule 13 – Configure ETags里,作者建议在Apache上把ETag关掉,实际上只需要告诉Apache不要用Inode信息生成ETag就可以。还有其他一些,回头写上来。这里这里,和这里也有很多非常好的建议。

另外要注意的是,网页速度跟网站性能是不同的概念,网页在浏览器上加载得快,并不能保证网站的性能就好,虽然二者之间有密切的关联。

P.S. 关于网站的延展性(scalability)和速度(performance),O’Reilly已经出了两本,另一本是《Building Scalable Web Sites》,都是雅虎员工写的,在这要赞一下雅虎对Web开发社区的贡献。