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First Sketches of an App: Planning the Design of a Mobile Application

You won’t need a hammer or a screwdriver; maybe you’ll need a tape measure—though preferably one in digital form on the top and side of your computer screen. Like any job, there’s an established set of tools that most interaction and interface designers use to create their projects. Programs such as Photoshop, Balsamiq, xScope, and others are critical components of the interface-building process. In this chapter you’ll find a general strategic outlay for planning the design of a mobile application. Using the steps and techniques presented, you’ll be prepared for the different phases a design evolves through during its infancy, before a programmer writes the first lines of code.
This chapter is from the book

What Tools Do You Need?

A mechanic is only as good as his or her tools, or so the saying goes. The ones that care about their work the most are the ones that most significantly invest in their tools. It’s true for auto body shops, and it’s true for design shops as well.

Before making a serious effort to create an app, designers need to make sure they have the best equipment available at all times. When starting out, this can be a bit difficult, as new computers and professional software are often quite expensive. To avoid wasting money on improper tools, it’s important to get the best bang for your tech buck.

Many of the tools and tips recommended in this chapter developed from labors of love: fondness and expertise forged over a couple of years and a hundred apps worth of experience. But it’s important to note that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to choosing tools or selecting a process to draft a design. The following recommendations come from a process that has led to the creation of several successful apps, but if you come across a piece of software better suited to your task at hand don’t be afraid of going your own route. Likewise, the tools available to designers grow and evolve at a lightning-quick pace, and new products are constantly hitting the market that make design faster, easier, and more efficient. It’s always worth giving new products a try, as any learning curve involved may pay off significantly down the road.

The first tool needed in a designer’s supply kit is one that’s essential to everyone from elementary school students to rocket scientists: a quality notebook, journal, or word processor. Being a successful interaction designer requires taking notes consistently and excessively. Everything from trends in the industry seen in other apps to thoughts on personal work should be documented for future reference.

Interaction design focuses on the constant development of a product in order to increase usability and value, so there’s always room to improve a work. As is also true for painters and comedians, inspiration doesn’t always strike at the most convenient moments. Some of a designer’s best ideas will come when he or she isn’t working; they’ll arrive while walking down the street or in the middle of the night. Always having a notebook or phone-based word processor handy is a great way to quickly jot down thoughts as soon as genius strikes. Try Field Notes by Draplin Design Company and Coudal Partners. These handy, portable notebooks come in a standard size that’s roughly the same aspect ratio, width, and height as a smartphone screen and, likewise, work well to approximately portray a scaled-down tablet screen. They fit well in a pants pocket or purse, and they’re great for scrawling out quick ideas or sketching out design prototypes.

When it comes to computer hardware for a designer’s utility belt, it’s tough to suggest anything other than an Apple laptop running OS X, preferably the most recent version available so there are no issues with compatibility for Apple’s development applications. There’s no denying that all iOS development and interface design implementation and most Android development takes place on computers running OS X. Access to Windows is required, however, for Windows phone app development, so designers planning on taking that route will need to keep that in mind.

If you don’t plan on doing any coding at all and most of your work will be focused on creating visual designs, you could be perfectly fine with a Windows PC. Do consider using a machine, however, that will allow you to commit code for the projects you plan on contributing to, even if you don’t see yourself as the programming type. It can be very valuable for designers to have access to source code for modifying art files or making basic code changes, typography selections, or color choices. If you plan on developing for iOS, it will be well worth your while to have an Apple laptop or desktop so that you won’t be limited in case you want to tinker with code in the future.

The most frequently recommended computer for mobile design is Apple’s MacBook Pro, ideally one with a Retina display. The benefits of the mobility a laptop provides far outweigh the added power provided by a desktop. Apple’s most recent laptops with Retina display are great for designing work that looks fantastic on the high-resolution displays found in most phones and tablets. Designing on a low-density display can be difficult, because in some cases you may not be able to preview app designs from Photoshop or a similar program in full resolution. If cost is an issue, the MacBook Air is an excellent laptop, but steer clear of the 11-inch model; such a small screen size will make design work difficult.

If a stationary computer is preferable based on your personal needs, a designer can’t go wrong with an iMac, either. These need to be capable of professional-level functionality, so it’s best to purchase the most well-equipped computer you can afford. If you’re low on budget, Apple’s Mac mini is a more than capable machine for design and development. The biggest and best system isn’t always essential; for most practical purposes, Apple’s recently redesigned Mac Pro is probably overkill for the type of work you’ll be doing.

Preferences for design software can vary greatly based on personal taste, but there are a few essential tools to look for in any program. First and foremost, designers need some sort of wireframe or mockup function that can take interaction ideas and translate them into a visual element programmers can use to begin their work.

Balsamiq by Balsamiq Tools LLC (see Figure 4.1) is the multiplatform industry standard for quickly creating visual wireframes. The application is built specifically for digital design work and comes equipped with many templates and styles that cater to building Web sites and mobile software. Balsamiq balances speed and style and also quickly visualizes interaction thoughts into something others can see, understand, and offer feedback on.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Creating attractive, quick wireframes with a tool like Balsamiq is rather simple, as designs take just minutes and can be extremely helpful in the visualization process.

Two other valuable sketching and early prototype applications of note are OmniGraffle by The OmniGroup and MindNode Pro by IdeasOnCanvas GmbH. OmniGraffle is a wireframing and digital prototype application in the same light as Balsamiq, but OmniGraffle focuses more heavily on creating work that looks close to reality. Such a feature offers output that’s visually appealing for clients or stakeholders, but it does add time to the concept process. MindNode Pro, shown in Figure 4.2, is a mind-mapping application that’s used for creating general text outlines. It’s a fairly simple tool, but it allows a designer to take a simple idea, spread it out into actual words and thoughts, and then transform those thoughts into patterns that outline a more complete thought process.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 MindNode Pro offers a simple, clean interface for creating mind maps.

MindNode Pro is a favorite tool of designers due to its ability to easily and quickly visualize ideas. It’s also useful for a variety of non-app-related tasks. For one example, look no farther than this very page; MindNode Pro for iPad and OS X was used to visualize and outline each chapter of this book.

When it comes to rendering anything in pixels, meanwhile, Adobe’s Photoshop is far and away the most popular choice for computer graphics creation and editing, and it’s a piece of software that’s used heavily in interaction and interface design. If it’s something visual and not something done in code, odds are it’ll need to be done in Photoshop. Adobe recently made a major model shift to its Creative Cloud platform, which is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet for their products. For a monthly fee ($50 currently), users have access to Adobe’s entire Creative Suite. This is a great shift for designers who previously found the high cost of each Adobe program prohibitive, as they are no longer limited to one program but can instead now use other Adobe products when creating software, such as Illustrator for vector art creation or Audition for audio editing.

Still, there are other options available for small app-creation teams who find that monthly expense to be a creative barrier or for designers who simply want a product not offered by Adobe. Several strong—and extremely affordable—competitors have emerged recently, including Pixelmator by Pixelmator Team Ltd. and Sketch by Bohemian Coding. The downside of going with less popular products, though, is losing out on the wisdom of the crowds. Countless online tutorials, books, and instructional videos have been developed to walk users through basic and advanced Photoshop techniques, so individuals not experienced in visual design may have some trouble instantly mastering alternative programs.

Finally, a software gem that’s absolutely imperative to have in a designer’s tool kit is xScope by The Iconfactory. It’s essentially the Swiss Army knife for interaction designers, offering a variety of magnification and pixel-measuring tools to use when analyzing an application on the iOS simulator or an Android virtual device. The tool is priceless because designers sweat to make sure every pixel is in exactly the right place while debugging and testing software.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe what xScope does (or appreciate how well it does it) without using it. Essentially, the application makes it simple to measure a variety of important on-screen metrics when designing and developing apps. In Figure 4.3, you’ll see an on-screen ruler and magnification loupe being used to inspect the visuals of a Web site.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 xScope helps designers measure a variety of on-screen metrics.

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