Review: JustProto

JustProto is a compelling alternative to conventional prototyping solutions.  Designed to be collaborative from the start, it’s a pretty clever web application which runs on most modern browsers, although they recommend Firefox 3.5 or later.

There are three packages on offer, but for the purposes of this review I went for the entry-level package which would normally set you back £13 per month (roughly $20US).  That gives you up to three users, ten projects and more than enough storage to create some pretty huge prototypes.  There is also a free, single project plan but I believe that the price-point of JustProto seems pretty fair so unless you’re really on a budget, the paid-for versions make more sense.

The registration process was straightforward – a 30 day trial on all packages is offered, giving you plenty of time to try JustProto out and decide if it’s the option for you.  What you get is your own subdomain under the domain, which is handy.  It’s also possible to configure your own domain to map to this subdomain should that be important to you or your company.  I didn’t play with this aspect, but I’d say that’s a useful feature.

Getting Started

Once you’ve logged in you’ll see a control panel as follows.

I wasn’t entirely sure what the box on the top-right hand side was meant to do – it looked like it might perhaps contain an applet so I went to a different browser to see if perhaps it was a quirk of Google Chrome.  Turns out I was right – the logo uploader applet seems to have problems under Chrome on OSX.  Not to worry, I can live with this.

Creating a new project is pretty straightforward – what is interesting is the fact that since this is a collaborative prototyping tool, you can have multiple users assigned to your projects.

There’s a handy little popup to allow you to assign people to your project, subject to the limitations on collaborators (which depends on the plan you are on).  I didn’t investigate too far here as I was trying JustProto as a single designer, so I’ll gloss over the collaborative element in this review.

Having saved your new project, you then enter the main workspace, which is quite similar in layout to that used in Axure RP Pro if you’re familiar with it.  I have to say that I was very impressed with what JustProto have achieved in what is still a web application.  It looks – and feels – just like an installed application, which is no mean trick to achieve.  I’m not entirely sure what JustProto is written in (viewing the source didn’t really tell me much) so I will assume that there’s some JQuery black-magic going on behind the scenes.  Of course, this won’t concern you too much as a user provided it all works, which is the acid test…

Creating a Prototype

I decided that I’d create a mock-up of a simple website get me acquainted with the ways of JustProto.  So, the first challenge was to find out how it all works.

On the right of the workspace there are a series of elements that you drag onto the main ‘workbench’ and then modify.  There is a good range of element types to allow you to create a fairly ‘rich’ interactive prototype.  This contrasts quite well with a wire-framing tool such as Balsamiq, in which the emphasis is on rough approximations of websites (without being concerned about functionality or cosmetics).  I can see a strong argument to use both; starting with Balsamiq (to flesh out a concept and play with layouts) and then refine into a specific design and ‘breathe life’ into the prototype.  Which, of course, can then be used to sell the concept to business stakeholders, users, investors, your parents…

Within the workbench you can also organise the various elements in your prototype and do the normal things, such as change their properties (either by adjusting them directly, such as for position or size, or by using the property pane to change things like opacity, colour and the like).  I did find that, after years of using non-web-based prototyping tools such as Axure, I am accustomed to right-clicking on elements and this is one area that unfortunately the limitations of the medium created some difficulty – right clicks within Chrome, for example, result in the Chrome popup window rather than any context-sensitive menus for JustProto itself.  It wouldn’t be fair to criticism JustProto for this, however, as it’s a limitation that apples to all web-applications but I felt that because the interface is just so, well, slick, I kept forgetting that it was a web-app at all.

Navigation Support

Being an interactive-prototyping tool, navigation is supported.  It’s quite easy to create menus of different types which actually work.  The menu editor allows you to create flat or nested menus easily, and it’s fairly intuitive and actually better than the way that Axure does it in my opinion.

Small Frustrations

As mentioned previously, it’s often easy to forget you’re actually using a web-application; I found myself occasionally hitting delete to remove an element but finding the browser navigating back to the previous page instead.  I’m not sure if it would be possible to fix this in the javascript but it would be nice if it didn’t do this.  A similar difficulty presented itself when I wanted to make a copy of an element – I simply couldn’t see how to do this at first, then realise that I needed to use an icon on the workbench toolbar:

As it happens, there are shortcuts that can be used, but for some reason they didn’t work for me.  I am sure this is probably something peculiar to my own setup, though.  Edit: after a bit I tried this again and it now works.  I can’t explain this, but the main thing is that it does work.

The Design Experience

In practice I found JustProto to be pretty slick, although the prototype I generated (using the export to html facility) was very clunky in appearance.  I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing – with some effort and care I am sure you can make an authentic-looking web prototype in JustProto – although at times I found fine-tuning the appearance to be somewhat fiddly.  I think this was largely down to the way that multiple-selection works, which in my case would trip me up from time to time when I realised that for some reason the previously selected element would remain selected despite my clicking on another.  I’m sure that this is something that the user would learn to live with over time but it did slow me down.

I was also a little confused about where JustProto actually fits into the array of prototyping tools available today.  It’s certainly more fully-featured than Balsamiq and the like, but also considerably slower to use.  On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to offer quite the richness of Axure RP Pro, but then that is a £500+ installable application whereas JustProto is a highly affordable web-application.  The question in my mind is not so much where the application ‘lives’ – desktop or cloud, I am not too concerned – but what kind of prototyping it aims to support.  In my mind it’s an Axure-Lite (in the cloud) rather than a Balsamiq-Pro.  I can see its appeal to Balsamiq users looking for a more fully-featured tool than Axure users looking for an alternative.

Comparing JustProto to Balsamiq

This was never going to be easy; Balsamiq is quite the poster-child of the wire-framing world.  Easy to use, affordable and reliable, it is one of those rare tools that simply ‘gets out of the way’, giving the user a clear path to express their ideas in the quickest way.  Being a ‘sketch’ tool, it doesn’t concern itself with the aesthetic (beyond layout and functional form) and so is a great tool for exploring ideas and alternatives.  JustProto is a slower tool to use but does offer something more closely resembling ‘real life’.  With JustProto you can create a semi-functional html version of your prototype and there’s a sense of ‘integration’ into a project that you don’t really get with Balsamiq.

Comparing JustProto to Axure RP Pro

I found JustProto to be an interesting and quite compelling alternative to Axure, albeit without some of the more advanced features in that tool.  For example, Axure would seem to have a greater control of events and actually modifying the properties of elements at ‘runtime’.  However, JustProto is a fraction of the price and you can easily forgive the fact that it doesn’t go quite as far as Axure.  My worry would be that Axure lets you build richer interactive prototypes than are possible with JustProto, which seems to be in the middle-ground between Axure and Balsamiq in what it offers.


JustProto is a fine achievement, marrying what would seem to be a near desktop-app like interface to a powerful and collaborative cloud-based prototyping engine.  What it might lack in comparison to established desktop tools such as Axure are more than made up for by its temptingly low price.  It might just be all the ‘interactive prototyping’ tool you ever need.

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The User Feedback Secret Sauce…

Building great websites isn’t easy. Not only do we have to struggle to make them work well, we’ve countless other things that we need to keep in mind.  We really have to make our sites work well for our users; it’s hard enough attracting people’s attention without then losing them because our sites are difficult to use.

Software prototyping most definitely has a very important role to play in ensuring that our designs actually work, but as designers and developers we need to be able to make those prototypes work toward something.  That something is all about making sure that the designs don’t just work but work in a way that fits in with how real users think.

From time to time I’ve talked about the value of getting immediate and insightful feedback from users throughout the design and development stages of all software projects.   Some project teams do this but the sad truth is that this is one area that’s often skipped when the budgets get squeezed and as we all know, if you don’t listen to your customers (the users) there’s a good chance you’ll end up building entirely the wrong kind of thing.

the horse designed by committee...

The real problem is that it’s often quite difficult to arrange to get real users in to provide feedback on a design.  Firstly, you have to find the users and persuade them (somehow) to participate.  This could involve bribes or general coercion, or at least appealing to their kindly nature… wait… anyway, assuming you can find such users you then have to find a suitable place to let them loose on your design.  This is sometimes easier said than done, as you’ll likely have to deal with booking a room, sorting out a machine (or several machines) and then once all of this is sorted you have to somehow get the users into the room – with travel expenses and so forth.  Not to mention the time taken to actually oversee the user feedback session and then deal with the feedback afterwards.

Yes, it’s traditionally one of those sorts of tasks that grows arms and legs and becomes a right pain in the… well, you get the picture.

No excuses

Despite all of this hassle it really is very, very important to engage with real users often within the design and development of a software project.   Doing so helps steer the design in the right direction, and ensures that not only do the users feel involved in the process, they also feel valued and therefore will love your final product all the more.  Well, that’s the theory.  Luckily for us, it’s largely true – getting the right user feedback (and acting upon it of course) tends to result in better and more useful software.  Which in turn ends up being used.

So, we can’t accept any excuses for avoiding user feedback.  It’s vital.  Which brings me to one of the really cool things about our connected modern world…

Distributed User Feedback – a solution

What if we could ‘outsource’ the whole user feedback process for a modest fee, avoiding all of the hassles and the (much higher) costs of doing in-house usability feedback?  What if we could get ten or twenty real users to give insightful reviews for less than the cost of one ‘expert’ usability analyst?

In recent times, this has become possible.  Over the past few years several companies have introduced services which offer just this kind of thing.  Many customers have realised the real benefit of user testing at all stages of a website’s design and development, and we’d like to introduce another.

Kupima logo

Kupima, which means ‘testing’ in Swahili, is the latest in a series of great web-based user testing and feedback services.  How it works is that anyone who has a website (either under development, completed or anything inbetween) can get insightful user feedback (in the form of questionnaire responses and video footage of the user using the website) for not a whole lot more than the cost of a takeout meal.  Yes, you heard right: it’s really affordable

Kupima Video Popup

When the customer creates their user test, they select the number of users that they wish to perform that test, and what demographic characteristics they should have.  For example, “Females aged between 25 and 35 who are at least advanced in their web experience”.  The customer can also create a custom questionnaire which each user would complete during their test…

Kupima user test questionnaire

…and of course there’s a video review from each user as well.  This, although optional, is (in my opinion) one of the most valuable parts of a user feedback session.  Even doing things the traditional way involves observing users using a website.  It’s easy to underestimate just how valuable this process is; not only can we watch what the user does, where she places the mouse-pointer and so on, we can also hear what she is thinking as she does this.  The little, off-hand remarks (for example, “oh, now I could see that search button a moment ago but where is it… oh, bother, is it there?”) can reveal problems that real users would face.  You therefore get a chance to spot these things and deal with them before they start costing you and your company sales or whatever.

Repeat and Rinse

Running a single feedback test is fine but the true value comes with repeated test and measurement cycles.  What Kupima does is makes it much easier to manage successive feedback test campaigns…

Kupima Test Dashboard

This is important because the significance of a change may not be visible from a single test alone.  Its impact will need to be tracked over time and the ability to view two or more tests side-by-side means that the effectiveness of a change can be measured and aggregated across a single test and then compared visually against another.

Kupima Chart Summary

The integrated charting is another powerful feature which makes it very easy to spot a trend in feedback.  This feedback is currently limited to summaries across the discrete questions as defined in a customer’s test questionnaire, but there are plans to extend this considerably.  It’s certainly powerful in its current state and reduces the time a customer would have to spend looking at the actual responses to questions.

What to do with all of this?

Gathering insightful feedback is all fine and well, but the real key is that feedback only becomes the ‘secret sauce’ if it is actually added to the overall mix.  In other words, you need to pay attention to the feedback and spot the messages that it is giving you.  This might mean that you need to adjust the layout of one page, or change the wording of another.  It might mean that you should think carefully about the sequencing of fields, or (if you are very lucky) it might simply give re-assurance that your design is on the right path.

Whatever the outcome, knowing where a design is less than perfect is half the battle.  It allows you to prioritise improvements and fine-tune your design so that it works better for your users.

And happy users are the best kind to have.


We’ve now launched, so if you’d like to give our service a try, use the following code for a 1/3 discount (enter at checkout):  KBPROM62K11

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Is the penny dropping?

On my last posting here I asked the question ‘How do you convince companies to use software prototyping techniques’?

It was somewhat provocative because I am pleased to say that I am seeing increasing amounts of evidence that an ecosystem of small consultancies specialising in working with companies to create prototype designs that work effectively is growing rapidly.

Perhaps the penny is dropping…

This is highly encouraging, but if I’m not mistaken there are still opportunities for specialising in combining conventional business analysis with prototyping techniques and working closely with customers as opposed to having a design project ‘farmed out’ to a consultancy who will work in relative isolation from actual users and stakeholders.  I feel that this is a missed opportunity and something that is preventing some of the real wins of prototyping from occuring.

As advocates of software prototyping it is our duty to continue to spread the word amongst our customers and colleagues; too often is the activity of prototyping belittled as an ‘optional’ exercise with a time cost but little actual benefit.  This is entirely wrong but it’s quite easy to see why, if prototyping is performed half-heartedly, it might fail to realise its potential to deliver real benefit.

All this said, the fact that more and more firms are offering interactive prototyping of designs suggests that the market is growing and markets generally only grow if there is an increasing demand from customers.

Which is hugely encouraging indeed!

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How do you convince them?

A recent conversation with a respected software entrepreneur resulted in the following question: “How do you convince companies of the benefits of software prototyping?” and it’s a good question.

The difficulty is, in my experience, that many companies – or should I be more specific and say project managers within companies – don’t really understand that although adding a prototyping phase to a project is another step to think about and manage, it’s one that generally has a positive influence on the whole project lifecycle.

So, what obstacles have you faced when trying to argue the case for using software prototyping in your company?  How did that go?  Do you have any tips or tried’n’tested persuasions that the rest of us might find useful?

This is open to you – we all know the benefits, we’ve all seen how it works for us, but how do we convince those ‘pointy-haired bosses’ that, actually, you know, prototyping is a really good thing

Posted in General Business, Prototyping | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The baby is due, soon…

Hey folks, I thought it was about high-time I posted something else here.   I’ve been a naughty boy, promising much but delivering very little (of blogging interest) for a while – but I have my reasons.  You see, I’ve been working very hard to build a new product, which I am hoping to launch within the next four or five weeks.  It’s been a hard, slow slog, with numerous hiccups along the way, but the end is finally in sight.

I have to admit that it’s a bit scary, too… so much time, effort and, yes, money has been invested in this that a lot rides upon it.  It’s not a totally original idea, either, but this is a good thing as at least there is a market for this kind of thing, but the objective was to do it better than everyone else.  Whether I’ve managed to pull that off, only time (and customers) will tell, but at least I’m going to manage to do one thing: deliver.

Yes, delivery.  It’s often assumed, and sometimes entirely over-looked.  Fact is, it takes a whole lot of effort for someone to actually push a product forward, from the early conceptual stages, though initial prototyping (in my case using Balsamiq extensively) and through many revisions and set-backs, into development and now on the home straight, as it were…

And what of the product?  Well, it’s a web-based user testing service, done with a bit of (orange) flare!  At some point, when this puppy is out in the big, bad world, I’ll post a couple of articles showing the historic designs (from Balsamiq) and the evolution of idea into proof-of-concept and on into actual product. Perhaps some of you will find that interesting, I certainly hope so.

So, if you work with websites and would benefit from some user feedback, please consider using Kupima for your user feedback and usability testing needs.

You can sign up for updates now, or check back in around a month to see the live site (and follow #webfeedback or #kupimatest on Twitter and I’ll ensure you get access to the fantastic introductory offers I’m planning).


Posted in General Business, Uncategorized, Usability Feedback | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Is your Apple Magic Trackpad giving you RSI?

This isn’t a review as such, because I believe such things are so subjective and personal that it’d be meaningless for me to recommend it or otherwise.

However, when I received my shiny new iMac i7 (with monster spec) just before the end of last year, I had opted for both the magic mouse and the magic trackpad.  I really didn’t get on with the mouse but persisted with the trackpad (despite intermittent jumpiness in the mouse pointer when clicking – a story for another day) and in many ways really took to it.

A few months in (and having put up with that jumpiness – later folks ;-) ) I am starting to suffer from pain in my right hand which I am wondering might be due to the use of the Magic Trackpad.

I took some time to observe how I use the trackpad and noticed that I’m always forced to use it with fingers curled and using my second finger as the scrolling finger and index finger as the clicking finger.  Maybe that’s crazy but that’s how it’s ended up working for me.

Or not working: you see, whilst the thumb acts as a kind of ‘anchor’ for the hand, the remaining two fingers don’t do much, and I am wondering whether that might account for the increasing levels of discomfort I am finding.  To be fair, I don’t spend all day using the trackpad – much of the day is spent actually at the keys – which makes me wonder whether the use of a trackpad for day-in, day-out use is actually quite a bad idea.

You might be wondering what the point of this post is – well, really I’m looking to see if anyone else has suffered any such ailments as a result of using a stand-alone trackpad – maybe I’m an isolated case, but I do wonder whether it might be a more widespread problem.

If you’re a Magic Trackpad user, and you’ve suffered, do leave a comment – it would be interesting to see how widespread this actually is.

Meantime, I’m going back to my ergonomic Logitech mouse.  It might well use a wire and look a bit out-of-place next to the shrine of aluminium that is my Mac workplace, but it’s never let me down…

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Some useful wireframing resources

Some of you might find this useful – it’s a collection of useful templates and resources that you can use for your prototypes.

Here’s a link – and thanks to SpeckyBoy design magazine for putting this together.

Posted in Prototyping | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting the right feedback

Looking back over the past two years of, um, intermittent blogging, I’ve realised that I spend most of my time talking about the various benefits of using prototyping techniques and not so much time looking at the role of feedback and how to get the right kind of feedback at the right time.

We all know that it’s harder than ever to get the attention of users (new or existing) for our online creations, and so it’s becoming increasingly important to ensure that we really listen to what those users tell us and learn from any feedback they give us.

Over the coming weeks I plan to write a series of short articles about the value of getting effective feedback and some of the tools that can help you achieve this.

In the meantime, get in touch if you’ve got a relevant feedback-related story to tell; perhaps you’ve had to fight your corner to push for a usability review, or you’ve had the fun job of herding – I mean, organising – users in a feedback lab.  Whatever, let me know how it went, what tools/techniques you used and whether it worked out in the end…

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After a long gap…

Greetings to everyone and welcome to the re-launch of after a nine-month-ish hiatus.  Sure, I can put up some excuses if you’re interested – in fact, yeah, I will.  What basically happened was other stuff.  Been working hard on the business, developing some ideas, doing a bit of consultancy and of course the best job of all, being a dad to my two boys.

However, at the back of my mind I always had a little demon urging me to jump-start the old blog.  So, after a minor wrestle trying to migrate from the old (hosted) site to the new server, I have got this puppy (shakily) back onto its legs and I’ll start adding in some content to fill in the (embarrassing) gap.  In the meantime, I’d appreciate any and all help you can give to help me get this out to anyone who has any interest in software design, development or simply wants to help.

Okay, thanks for reading this far and I hope to be able to get some decent blogging done soon…


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Credit to Crucial and a rant about the OSX Finder

A bit of a departure, but given my temporary World Cup induced break I thought I’d try to remember to give a little bit of credit where it was due.

Back in November last year I bought a Macbook Pro, and upgraded the ram via Crucial to 4Gb.  The machine never really ran properly, however: it always felt very sluggish when swapping between applications and even simple things like Dashboard or even accessing menu items resulted in the ‘spinning beachball of despair’ for a few seconds.  I tried everything – reinstalling OSX and all apps was the final straw, but even that didn’t cure things.  I really had no clue what was up, but a chance loan of a friend’s Macbook (with 2Gb ram) made me curious about whether I had some defective memory.  Inspired by how fast a contemporary Macbook was, and how sluggish my (theoretically faster) Macbook Pro was in comparison, I decided to dig out the original Apple ram, and re-installed it.

Bingo: instant zippiness.  For sure, there was something wrong with the Crucial ram.

So, this is where I want to thank Crucial for a totally no-fuss replacement.  They handled my warranty claim with great efficiency and professionalism.  I don’t know what the actual problem with the ram was (it had always tested fine in various hardware tests that I tried) but it was no longer my problem: a new pair of 2Gb chips arrived within a few days and since then the Macbook Pro has got its mojo back!

On the subject of Apple, I’d like to take a pop at the Finder.  How is it that, in 2010, following ten years of iterative enhancement to OSX, we are still saddled with a buggy and inconsistently designed file manager.  The Finder, quite frankly, is the elephant in the room where the Apple system is concerned.  It’s prone to crashing when accessing SMB based network shares and when it goes, you’ve often no choice but to power down (software restarts frequently don’t work).  This is not a good thing in an otherwise class-leading operating system.  I simply don’t get why Apple don’t look to what’s going on in the third party file manager market and learn a few lessons.

Case point: Path Finder, an affordable and really well put together file manager, offers so much more, with tabs, a drop-stack and loads of useful features.  Ordinarily, I prefer to stick with the supplied ‘core’ applications, but I thoroughly recommend any Mac user to try to minimise their use of the ‘Flaky Finder’ and give Path Finder a try.  No ties to Cocoatech, who make the app, apart from being a very satisfied (paid up) customer.  Go try it!

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