Storyboards or Prototypes?

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

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.

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.

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