Storyboards or Prototypes?

What is the best method for a designer?  Storyboards or Prototypes?

Storyboards
These are used to tell a specific story.  You can not click wherever you want.  It’s just a series of screens in a chronological order. I have used Visio, PowerPoint, Photoshop, Whiteboard, Paper and Balsamiq to make these in the past.  They are usually quick to produce, low-fidelity and are designed to communicate to engineering the requirements of a feature.  It’s never pixel perfect, in fact it’s often sketchy at best.  The advantage of this approach are that you can control the conversation.  It’s limited in scope to just the feature described.  It works well when presenting to others.  No programming is ever needed.  The downside of storyboards is that they often don’t have consistency or re-usability.  Plus, you can’t test the end-to-end experience in storyboards.

Prototypes
These are used to create a realistic looking illusions of a product that you can interact with, but doesn’t actually work.   Tools like JustinMind, Axure, Expression Blend, Flash Catalyst and literally dozens of others are available for various prices, but often around $500 per seat.  Back in the 90′s, one could make an HTML/JS version to accomplish this goal.  The benefits of this approach are that you have a realistic version of the product in alot less time that it would take to actually build the real thing.  It can be used for testing in a more realistic environment.  Usually, these tools have learning curves that border on real programming.  A prototype is a much more time-intensive enterprise than a storyboard, but you end up with a more flexible end result.

The right tool for the circumstance
I was an a conference once talking about prototyping tools and a dozen people presented their methods.  All 12 people showed a radically different way of doing it and each person thought their way was the best.  Clearly, people find a groove that suits them and they stick with it.  Personally, I have switched tools or methods every single time I switched jobs.  Each circumstance required a slightly different methodology or possibly, I just love using new software and techniques and do this to myself on purpose.

Either way, I have found that each technique/tool has pros and cons.  I know a woman who used Expression Blend in one company and literally designed the actual Silverlight objects in that tool and engineers were never involved.  I know companies that define everything in a wiki and then engineers make all the design decisions.  It’s a crazy world out there.

The only real “design” is the actual product.  That’s the thing that can be tested best and has the most flexibility.  Everything else is a pre-cursor.   Again, I didn’t help you make a decision, but hopefully this is more food for thought.

One point of data:  I’ve almost completely used storyboards in the past.  My experiment with Axure is my first “prototype”.  So far, it’s slow going.

2 thoughts on “Storyboards or Prototypes?”

  1. I’ve been evaluating mockup/wireframe/prototyping tools lately and ran into your blogs about Axure. I’ve got a project where Axure might be a good fit and, if so, I’ll give it a try. I see you’re still using Balsamiq. I tried out Mockingbird, Pidoco, Balsamiq, Hotgloo, JustProto, FlairBuilder, MockFlow, Cacoo, and iPlotz. From that I’d say that Balsamiq has kind of had it’s day but there are now better alternatives. Mockinbird was the only tool I found that would be fast enough to capture notes in near real time. Flairbuilder is probably the nicest tool of the bunch and even has basic prototyping features. Unfortunately, it’s weak on collaboration. I’ve been using MockFlow heavily with several different groups over the past few weeks and, so far, it’s been enormously helpful.

    Thanks for your blogs on Axure and such, thought I’d return the favor by recommending MockFlow and Flairbuilder. (I’m not associated with any of these products, etc., etc.)

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