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Are wireframes, paper prototypes, and other design outputs simply reflections of the cost of developing a real UI?

I wonder how much of the current design process would go away if building real, functioning, deployable UI code were cheap and easy.

The conventional wisdom of the UI design industry generally espouses a process in which a design proceeds through a series of increasingly sophisticated representations: starting with hand-drawn sketches, then wireframes, paper prototypes, simple interactive prototypes, and finally high-fidelity images (often PhotoShop) or movies showing the desired result. Most of these outputs are often completely static or otherwise reduced (less than fully functional) representations of the desired result. Much of them are thrown away when the real coding begins. Are those steps really necessary, or are they just a way to minimize the risk of spending time and money building the wrong UI?

Over the last two years, my own design process has changed radically. In 2006, in a post titled Matching design sketches to the desired level of design feedback, I outlined a fairly standard design process that started with hand-drawn sketches and proceeded from there. At that time, I felt that it was vital to receive critical feedback on a design concept before it got too far along. That post offers two reasons to recommend that practice:

  1. A minimalistic representation of the UI focuses reviewer attention on deep content instead of surface details.
  2. People feel more comfortable criticizing a crude representation of the UI because they assume it didn’t take long to create, and so they won’t be asking you to waste too much investment if you have to throw it away.

The post does not mention a third, implicit reason I created sketches: developing a real, functioning UI was, in comparison, at least two orders of magnitude more costly. I could sketch in one hour’s time enough UI complexity to consume several weeks of an engineer’s time. Worse, the cost (to the designer) of a design change often has a non-linear relationship to the cost (to the engineer) of the implied architectural change. Pixels can be pushed around like so much fingerpaint; changing real UI code can be like trying to the change the framing for a house. Once you pick an architectural direction, you may not be able to simply change your mind without tearing it all down and starting over.

Surely that’s not a given, however. Surely someday we’ll have dev tools that let us tinker with the whole UX stack as easily as we tinker with pixels in PhotoShop. It’s not even like a computational breakthrough is required for that to happen—all that’s probably necessary is a much, much better model for the UI, and a corresponding set of tools.

So assuming we someday do have better coding tools that let even fundamental design decisions be reconsidered at any stage—what would our design process look like then? Would we really still have wireframes and paper prototypes and all?

It’s not too hard to imagine all the paper stuff going away. If you could write real code as fast as creating a paper prototype, why bother with something that’s not as close as possible to the final UX? Static wireframes probably go too, for the same reason. It does seem like there still might be a point to creating stripped-down representations of a UI to focus user attention more on the content of the interaction (point #1 above), although even that I wonder about.

Let’s assume you had the UI componentry to quickly assemble a UI whose very first representation already looked drop-dead gorgeous. Who’s to say that you’d get more meaningful results by showing users something less than beautiful? And, if that really were the case, would people still bother to create stripped-down UIs that looked like they were drawn on napkins (something deliberately crude, to hit point #2 above)? If everyone knew you could whip out something amazing in an hour, surely they’d recalibrate their reluctance to give you their honest opinion. And, ultimately, wouldn’t the whole idea of reviewing a UI change radically, moving away from off-the-cuff reactions to PowerPoint presentations in a conference room and more about watching the real performance of real users test-driving a real UI?

I can’t wait for that day. Although such tools still aren’t here yet, my design process these days focuses a great deal more on UI coding at the very earliest stages, with an eye towards creating something interactive right away and refining from there. I’ll try to cover that process in more in detail in a separate post.