is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
If there’s one reason why the category of design tools feels so rich with possibility right now it’s because UX prototyping software is in a truly germinal stage. So much about how prototyping should be done remains open to interpretation; no one has yet figured out a a set of best practices that can be unequivocally declared “the best.” This is very different from more mature categories of software like, say, spreadsheets or blogging systems where even the most innovative contenders tend to be essentially the same as the incumbents.
With every new entrant in the category we, as users, as designers, are treated to novel attempts at establishing new, or at least variant, ways of doing things—vocabularies and syntaxes, essentially, that try to capture the flurry of motion in procedural form. The central contribution that each new UX prototyping tool tries to make is to establish a workable system for describing how interface elements move, transform, signal intentions, react to user inputs. Taken as a group, the contenders of the past several years are notable for their disparate approaches; some are simple adaptations of familiar tools like presentation software; others are ersatz development environments; still others let you play the role of a switchboard operator in an old timey movie, wiring things together incomprehensibly.
What they have in common is that they all feel, to varying degrees, as limiting as they are empowering. Each one must formulate its own specific equilibrium between the competing priorties of speed and ease-of-use, on the one hand, and power and control, on the other.
What makes this process of figuring out best practices particularly difficult is that we as users and customers think we’re all waiting for that idealized app that can finally balance the two ideas perfectly, like a seesaw with identically weighted children on either end, but that’s not quite the case.
In reality, we’re all engaged in a conversation with the makers of these apps, learning from one another what it means to give preference to one or the other side, feeling out the respective drawbacks of favoring intuitiveness or fidelity. Each new app builds on what we learned from the last, as ideas bounce between developers, mutating and molting along the way. Similarly, as users keep trying new ways of doing things, common knowledge accrues, feeding continually escalating expectations. If we step back, it becomes obvious that what we’re looking for isn’t the perfect balance at all, but rather the right kind of imbalance, a balance that is likely not knowable without a lot of trial and error.
When we eventually achieve a workable notion of “best practices” they will almost certainly tilt more towards one side of the fulcrum, maybe dramatically so, rather than leveling steadily. We may never get the ability to prototype anything that we can dream without having to hack some heap of counter-intuitive code, and we may never be able to sufficiently empower the greatest number of creative UX thinkers without sacrificing the ability to tweak every parameter.
Put another way, will the winner of this category—“The Photoshop of prototyping”—look more like InVision or more like Origami? The first comes from the camp of decidedly simple but frequently infuriating precursors like Keynote and the masochistic joy of editing a document on your phone, and the latter literally hails from the brain trust that brought us such complex wonders as Asana and figuring out your privacy settings within an omnipotent social network.
Luckily for us, the need for an answer is not yet pressing. Prototyping as a craft, or even as a subset of the craft of user experience design, is still young enough that it would be premature for us to try and settle a winner in the short term. This somewhat awkward, highly formative stage in which we basically get a brand new prototyping app every month or so is actually one of those rare necessities that feels like a luxury. All these independent attempts at figuring out how this new discipline should work are good for our craft, not to mention tons of fun, and there’s no reason it has to end soon. Barring a butterfly flapping its wings the wrong way on a trading floor in China, it may in fact turn out to be a good long time until we need to declare a winner at all in this space. To be sure, a winner will be crowned eventually—that’s capitalism, folks—but until then, it’s a wonderful time to be a designer.+