What are prototyping tools?
The early Stone Age witnessed what archeologists in the Modern Age identified as the very first tools to be used by humans ever. Fast forward 2.6 million years and the crude stone tools used by hunter-gatherers in the prehistoric period have now given way to tools that are mostly mechanical and digital in nature.
Mechanical or not, one thing that has however remained constant throughout the millennia is design. Without design, neither the prehistoric stone-based hunting tools nor the feature-enriched 21st century iPhone that you simply adore could have served their expected purpose.
Of course, the difference between the stone age and this age is that tools are now manufactured WITH the help of tools - a clear sign of how the world is gradually moving towards an eminent robotic future, which would lead to more unemployment. But that’s a discussion we don’t want to get into…for now!
For now, we’d like to talk about the latter kind of tools, the ones that help us design and build better products and services to make our lives just a little more easier. The products and services in question being anything from an application to a website to even a feature in a product.
These tools are what are known in the world of design as prototyping tools and designers just looove them. So, what exactly is a prototyping tool and how are they so indispensable in our everyday lives?
The best definition of a prototyping tool would be something that helps designers in creating a tangible representation of their designs to give them valuable feedback on what's working, not just in terms of visuals but also interactions. It can be used for testing navigation systems or even how certain elements will behave when clicked by a user - giving all sorts of insight into future design work before it gets too late.
For marketers entrusted with the delicate responsibility of brand development and all marketing activities, these tools can be extremely instrumental if you're looking for an opportunity to make your app or website stand out with a new look and feel, especially if you’re thinking of a rebranding exercise.
Prototyping tools are an essential design element that can help generate theory and testing and are used in tandem with other tools for wireframing, visuals, navigation elements/interactions, etc., which can give you more insight into how your UI will feel before implementing it onto screen or paper.
Speaking of paper, one of the processes of prototyping a design idea is paper prototyping, which is a cheap, quick and easy way to create a paper-based representation of an interface. It's useful for testing out different ideas or assumptions before you invest time in coding, because it involves less technical expertise than live mockups on screen.
What is a prototype?
At this point, let me say that I believe the most comprehensible way to understand prototyping tools would be to first know what a prototype is. Which leads me to declare with great certainty that most of you may have heard of the word on the fly while watching some documentary or a sci-fi movie or may have read an article with a mention of it.
In any case, I’d like to make a quick run through the basic definition nonetheless, so it makes more sense in line with our discussion here.
In the design world, a prototype is basically a mockup or representative model of a design concept before it goes into actual development. Designers use it to ensure that they are getting necessary feedback on every interaction and view, which will help them shape their final product or solution before investing time and money in development.
Mockups give designers unparalleled insight about what they're designing by allowing them early access for testing purposes without engaging actual developers. This means no wasting precious hours waiting around wondering if something has been programmed correctly when there are so many other things demanding their attention.
Naturally, tools that help a designer in creating these mockups are known as prototyping tools, which are extremely essential in today’s competitive and tech-oriented world.
Why are prototyping tools essential?
The right tools can make any project a breeze. From the sketchy beginnings of an idea through construction, prototypes are built with various types and styles that range from simple design templates for designing screens or wireframes all the way up to integrated product development.
This can also include stakeholders' access to collaborative features in order to help in feedback gathering while also including ideation tools so they don't get stuck on what's already been said before, giving them more options when it comes down to making final decisions.
Interestingly, the act of designing an app or website is no different than the act of designing any other product that humans will use. In both instances, one needs empathy for their customers in order to create something desirable, functional and useful.
One thing I love about prototyping as a mechanism for creating UI/UX solutions are all these little moments where you're able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Just imagine how challenging everyday life would be if everything around us didn't work properly (as if there aren’t enough challenges already).
The beautiful thing about designing software is that when we do it well, our customers feel like our designs speak for themselves. A successful prototype can help create empathy for the customer and clarify what they need.
Designers who understand their clients' needs will come up with a product that not only looks good on the outside, but also has features that are useful for the users. Without customer empathy in design thinking people are likely to create complicated workflows or unclear screen text, which will make using them an unpleasant experience.
A designer's success is measured by how well they empathize with customers when creating designs because this helps them ensure there isn't any unnecessary complexity within the final product design. Its beauty comes from functionality rather than style alone.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it"
– Harper Lee
How to choose the right UI/UX prototyping tool
When choosing a prototyping tool for your UI/UX design project, there are certain factors that you need to keep in mind to make the right pick. These factors are:
- Value: How effective is the tool in solving problems?
- Usability: Does the tool qualify as an easy-to-use tool in your daily work?
- Collaboration: Does the tool make it easy for you to share your work and collaborate with other team members?
- Integration: Does it allow integration with third-party tools and easy transition between different design phases?
- Budget: Is the tool cost-effective?
If the tool that you’ve zeroed in on fulfils all of these expectations with ease, then you can be sure that it it right for you. On a side note, your primary focus should be on the collaboration factor since there will be more than one person working on the project and a smooth workflow depends on them being able to share the progress of the work simultaneously.
Also, it’s important for you to know about one basic detail here. These tools come in two specific ranges of prototype fidelity - low-fidelity and high-fidelity. Fidelity of a prototype generally denotes how the final product would look and feel like in terms of content, interactivity and visual design.
1. Low-fidelity prototyping
Low-fidelity prototyping allows designers who may not have access to expensive tools like 3D printers at their disposal to get quick feedback on early stage concepts through tangible models, which act as prototypes without costing too much time and money.
Two very popular types of low-fidelity prototyping are paper prototyping and clickable wireframes. The first technique is based on hand sketched representations of the user interfaces of the product, making it easy and quick to create. Clickable wireframes, on the other hand, are static wireframes linked together to form a low-fidelity interactive prototype of an app or website.
As opposed to paper prototyping, which is useful in early testing stages, clickable wireframes are more preferable for testing interfaces that will be more complex and interactive. Low fidelity prototypes are perfect for product and UX teams to get their heads around the functionality of any given design before it's finalized. These quick sketches allow them rapid iteration, which will contribute toward future designs with input from users outside an agency too.
2. High-fidelity prototyping
Creating a high-fidelity prototype is like creating a a near replica of the final product. This type of prototype helps teams test their designs on real users or get final design approval from stakeholders before launching into production, and can even save money on actual manufacturing costs by using simulations instead.
High-fidelity prototypes are almost entirely digital in nature and serve the purpose best when it’s about creating prototypes of products with highly complex and interactive features.
Now that we’ve given you a fair idea on how to choose the prototyping tool that best fits your design requirements, let’s get into the main event of this article. So, here’s a look at five of the most popular prototyping tools that UI/UX designers preferred to depend on in 2021, with a special emphasis on their pros and cons to make your decision easier.
1. Adobe XD
Adobe XD or Adobe Experience Design is a powerful, creative design tool developed by Adobe Inc. to help UX designers create clickable prototypes for your web apps and mobile app ideas. This vector-based tool offers the ability to wireframe websites and create click-through prototypes while also providing users with an interactive experience that previews their favorite designs before they're sent for development.
The flagship UX tool from Adobe, which is available for macOS and Windows, has gone on to become a highly popular platform ever since its release, favored by 23,148 companies that use this tool. As expected, the US leads the pack of countries when it comes to customer share, while the computer software industry is at the forefront of the industries where it is used.
Currently the company has two pricing plans on offer besides a 7-day free trial - USD 9.99 per month for single app prototyping and USD 52.99 per month to prototype multiple apps.
- Flexible and easy to use: Adobe XD makes designing your app easier than ever before. It has features to help get you started, including custom-sized canvases and UI kits for iOS, Material Design (Google) and Windows devices right out of the gate.
The best part is that there's an easy tutorial on how everything works so you can quickly learn any necessary tools for your project.
- Minimalistic and clean UI: If you're coming from a design program such as Sketch, the transition to Adobe XD might seem like visiting an unlocked room. The interface is clean and uncluttered and if this type of work style appeals to your natural flow then it should feel very familiar in XD’s UI.
- Interactive prototypes: When you want high-fidelity prototypes that don’t require any extra tools, Adobe XD is the place for it. With this simple tool and some header images from their library of designs complete clickable and interactive prototypes can be created in minutes.
- Easy integration: Adobe XD is perfect for those who work in the field of design. It integrates easily with other creative tools from Adobe, including Illustrator and Photoshop, while allowing you quick access to photos that can be used as reference material without having to switch over between programs or take time out from what they're doing mid-session.
- No real-time collaboration: In spite of making headways in a lot of areas, Adobe clearly missed out on offering users one vital feature - real-time collaboration, which could have been a huge plus for projects where many people, including stakeholders are involved.
- Limited and ungraceful plugins: Adobe XD doesn’t nearly have as many plugins as Sketch had, which is a bit weird because the plugins are not native anyway.To make matters worse, the plugins are clearly unimpressive or come at an extra cost.
- Limited onboard image editing: One of the biggest disadvantages of this tool is a limited image editing functionality, which forces designers to take the help of other Adobe suite tools like Illustrator, Lightroom or Photoshop for designs that are more than just basic.
Developed by Figma, Inc. and released in September 2016, Figma is mostly a web-based prototyping and vector graphics editing tool made available for macOS, Windows, Linux and Chrome OS. The features of the tool lean heavily towards offering designers the ability to collaborate in real-time.
MacOS and Windows users have the option to use supplementary offline features while Android and iOS users have the option to view prototypes in real-time on their mobile devices using the Figma Mirror app. With 26,537 companies, including Expedia and Nike, using Figma, the tool is a serious contender, thanks to a wide range of useful features.
The Figma prototyping tool is available in three pricing plans, with a free forever starter plan that supports 3 Figma and 3 FigJam files, Figma Professional for USD 12 per editor per month and Figma Organization for USD 45 per editor per month.
- Great for collaboration: One of the most hailed features of Figma is real-time collaboration, which makes it extremely convenient for team members working on the same project to collaborate and share work smoothly even when they’re at different places.
- Simple and intuitive: It’s very easy for work on Figma as designers can simply link UI elements to create a highly interactive UI without the need for any coding.
- Advanced transitions: The Smart Animate feature allows designers to initiate transitions between matching layers to create multiple layers.
- All-in-one tool: Figma is an all-in-one tool that lets designers prototype, design, share and collect data all at one place without depending on any external tool.
- Fast and easy to use: Figma is relatively simple and easy to learn. Plus building, navigating and deploying have never been quicker than on Figma, which is what most designers swear by.
- Inconvenient PDF import: Unlike Sketch, Figma doesn’t allow designers to conveniently drag-and-drop a PDF file to edit it. Instead, you have to take the help of an external tool for that, which slows down the process and makes it a bit cumbersome.
- No internet, no Figma: If internet connectivity is something that you struggle with, then most likely Figma wouldn’t be of much help for your project.
So far, working on Figma in an offline mode is fraught with risks, one in which you might end up losing all the progress that you made in your work if internet gets knocked out and jumps back after a while. That’s what web-based means folks!
- System requirements: You can use Figma only if your computer / laptop has at least 4GB of RAM and a graphic card of high specifications. Not something that small businesses depending on entry-level freelancers would fancy, eh?
Balsamiq is a low-fidelity wireframing tool that focuses on the simplicity of UX. It’s easy for beginners to use and it simplifies your designs by ensuring you don't get distracted with more complex features or layouts, which would only confuse you further rather than create an elegant outcome.
Used by 10,444 companies, Balsamiq is pretty handy when it comes to arranging pre-built widgets, thanks to its drag-and-drop WYSIWYG editor. Collaboration is easy with Balsamiq, whether you're collaborating on designs or sharing mockups.
Available as Balsamiq Cloud the web app, in a desktop version for Windows and macOS, and also as a plugin for Google Drive, Confluence and Jira, Balsamiq makes collaboration a piece of cake for its users. The tool enables users to make changes and track their progress in real time so they know what's working best for them before implementing it live.
The pricing plans of Balsamiq depend on which version you’re interested in. Here’s a detailed look at the different versions and pricing plans of Balsamiq.
- Easy to use and learn: The clean and simple interface of the tool makes it extremely easy for designers to use and learn, even if they don’t have much prior experience, especially the drag-and-drop and resizing functionalities.
- Easy integration: An easy integration with components like Bootsrap icons and buttons makes your prototype as real as the final version, thus making prototyping a pleasure to perform.
- High on collaboration: With Balsamiq you can always choose the number of collaborators depending on the pricing plan you pick. In other words, you can choose as many collaborators as you want to share mockups, edit and leave feedback.
- Quick mockups: Balsamiq makes it possible to create mockups and edit them real quick, which can be a big plus for agencies who have to deal with urgent projects.
- Download as PDF: Imagine being able to download your design prototype as a PDF in a jiffy and send it off to your clients for feedback instead of getting them aboard to view it as a webpage or sharing your tool’s login details with them. That’s Balsamiq for you.
- Not ideal for complex prototypes: Balsamiq is great when it comes to creating simple mockups. But, when it comes to creating interactive mockups to transition to design with a more extensive palette, Balsamiq clearly falls short on expectations.
- Bit overpriced: Considering the amount of features that its competitors are offering for the full commercial versions at lower prices, Balsamiq does come across as pricey, especially for newcomers into the world of UX design.
Developed by Dutch company Sketch B.V., Sketch is by far the most popular vector graphics editor and prototyping tool, even though it’s available only for macOS. Although, the developers did make it possible for Sketch designs to be viewed on other platforms with the help of third-party software and design handoff tools. On that note, here’s a look at the top 10 handoff tools for designers.
Used by 35,740 companies, including IBM, Sketch was first released in 2010 as a tool for user interface and user experience design of mobile apps and websites. With a slew of shortcuts made available to make prototyping very user-friendly, the tool has a whole lot of features to help designers compose high-quality images.
One of the best things about Sketch is its pricing, which is suitable for individual designers, team of designers and even an entire organization. Plans start at USD 9 for a standard plan stitched for individuals and teams, and a customized business plan for organizations based on their needs. Here’s a detailed look at Sketch’s pricing plans.
- Tons of plugins: Sketch allows designers to take advantage of a huge collection of plugins, including third-party plugins and extensions, thanks to a burgeoning community.
- Large community: A big community of designers and developers means there will be lots of free resources to help you in your projects every now and then.
- Great support: If you’re using Sketch, you can be rest assured that you won’t get stuck since help is always at reach. Other than tutorials, there are support staff ready to help you with any kind of situation that you might get stuck with.
- Intuitive: Easy to get used to, Sketch’s panel is quite clean and intuitive, making it quite simple to get started with the well laid lout features very quickly.
- Heavy on your device: Sketch can be quite a strain on your computer’s RAM, especially if you’re working on a complex design that will require you to take the help of third-party tools and library of plugins/extensions.
- Single platform: Since Sketch is available only for Mac users, it leaves out those that use other platforms, which is both not good for business as well as for the design community.
- Not the best in collaboration: Sketch is not the most ideal when it comes to team collaboration since file sharing can hit roadblocks if team members are using different versions of the tool.
Webflow is used by 45,190 companies across multiple industries, including Dell and CBS and is extremely popular, owing to its all-in-one nature, which features a built-in CMS and native plugins. From allowing designers and developers to build, host and market their apps and websites with the help of a heap of products, the company is a serious contender in the design and development market today.
Other than a free forever plan, Webflow is available in a wide range of pricing plans that you can look up here.
- No code required: The biggest advantage of using Webflow is the ability to start off with the visual editing without the need for any coding, as the tool translates your design to clean, semantic code that’s ready to publish.
- Pre-built UI elements: With Webflow, designers can simply drag and drop HTML elements or pre-built UI elements to stylize the UI as they like, which makes it rather user-friendly to manage.
- Clean interface: All the app and webpage elements can be viewed and organized (also reorganized) in the Navigator as per your convenience, and all of it easily shareable between all the team members.
- Steep learning curve: One of the disadvantages of so many advanced features is that it makes it challenging to get the hang of the tool for beginners.
- High price, poor support: Even for the high price at which the tool is available, the support offered by the developers isn’t what you’d expect, with many users raising the issue of little to no technical support from them, leaving you in a crisis if you’re working on an urgent project and are faced with some technical issue.
- Limited customization: If you wish to customize or tweak a certain HTML code for the desired results, you might be in for a surprise as it may not allow you to do so.
Besides these five tools, we’d like to give a shout out for some more prototyping tools that deserve special mention, including FlowMapp, InVision, Marvel, Axure RP, Origami Studio and Framer. Each of these tools has its own set of advantages and disadvantages that are purely preference and project-oriented.
Since every tools has a near uniqueness to it, it’s best if you focus on them to decide how best they serve you in the long run, especially when there’s a decent amount of investment and learning curve involved. Our advice would be to not let the scale tip either way between your requirements and the features of the tool that best match those expectations.
In case you have tried any of these prototyping tools, we’d love to hear about your experience. On the off-chance that you’d like to take advantage of any of these tools but don’t have resources, our seasoned UX designers at 0707 are always ready to help you in your projects if you only reach out to us.