Unless you’ve been camping solo in Outer Mongolia for a few months, you can’t have failed to have heard about the new Apple iPad. Though to my shame I haven’t yet managed to get my grubby paws on one, I’ve thought a fair bit about what it represents and where it fits. To wit, it’s a compelling alternative to, rather than evolution of, the portable computing device.
So, with all that in mind, where does it take us UI designers?
The fundamental thing that it offers a very direct interaction between user and device. More so than a mouse, which although familiar is still somewhat indirect. Certainly more so than a keyboard, trackpad or stylus. It’s also highly portable, but less ‘obvious’ than a sub-notebook. It’s also not constrained by the conventional requirements of a desktop device – the impressive multi-touch screen allows elements to be sized using pinch movements, rotated and very easily organised in an extremely tactile way.
In normal UI design, it’s historically been quicker to sketch general ideas on paper or on a whiteboard, which allows the designer to provide immediate visual feedback to customers there and then. However, it’s a bit limited and there is always a trade-off between speed and fidelity – the more detailed a design is, the longer it takes to draw. Pretty obvious really.
Modern wireframing tools such as Balsamiq have tipped things in favour of doing this in software. Drag and drop techniques, pre-defined element libraries and easy organisation of UI elements means that it is, for the first time, far quicker to use a software tool to work through a conceptual UI design ‘in the now’. In other words, in the meeting, not several hours after the meeting.
The benefits of this are pretty profound: design feedback loops are shortened almost to the point of insignificance. The designer can almost immediately reflect a page layout to a customer and try it out for size. This incredible responsiveness means that it is dramatically quicker to reach a consensus on a basic UI design. It’s also incredibly empowering: the customer really feels that their ideas are being incorporated right there, and this means that they buy-in to the design at the earliest opportunity. We call this ‘adding magic‘.
So, given that such tools exist now, where does the iPad take us? Well, it is once again a huge leap forward in terms of how easily one can interact with a software application. The operation is intuitive – drag things around, anyone can do it. With suitable software, a designer can create a prototype UI design right in front of the user, easily sizing or moving elements with instant visual feedback. The customer can also take the iPad and ‘drive’.
All the while, with the benefits of modern ‘cloud’ based applications, these designs can be shared with team members wherever they happen to be. And, with the 3G versions of the iPad, this fully immersive design dialogue could feasibly occur anywhere and at any time. With dramatic speed and full customer buy-in.
Whether this really is a game changer for software prototyping remains to be seen; at the time of writing nobody has really created the ‘killer’ prototyping app for the iPad, but I am certain that it is only a matter of time. It’s going to be an interesting time for the software designer!