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I'm Thibaut Sailly, an independant interface designer based in Paris. Say hello on twitter or by email at bonjour ✉ tsailly ◦ net.



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Interface sketching

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During a recent project, I put together a tactile interface sketching tool allowing to quickly evaluate layout and behaviour ideas. This post is going through the why and how it came to be, explains how it works, details pros and cons, and ends with a few practical advices.

More and more articles explain to us the primary role of time and kinematics in the production of meaning for tactile interfaces. But as of today, it isn't really easy for a designer to quickly sketch out an interface behaviour for a smartphone or a tablet.

Some existing tools help in this regard by allowing you to link static images one to another using hot spots and animations, recreating a desired experience. For example, taping a menu button on the main screen would slide this screen to the right with a nice ease-out, making room for the menu itself to appear, items fading in one after another.

These tools might provide you with the possibility of manipulating a rough idea of an interface on a device, but they offer a limited choice of behaviours. Only the most “popular” are presented, the same ones developers can implement with little effort when they build an application.

For time and ressources constrained projects, these tools are perfect to get you to a very high fidelity prototype in no time. But if the set of constraints is somehow a bit exotic, and if you would like to experiment new interaction models to answer to them, these tools loose their advantages.

Asking a developer to sit next to a designer to produce interaction sketches which for the most part will be mercilessly discarded - it's their goal in the design process - is a possibility, but it's also a luxury only a small number of companies can afford. For projects where ressources are slim and budgets tight, this comfort is not affordable. Does it make it acceptable to our colleagues that we carry on with explaining our ideas through paper sketches associated with elaborate gestures and sound effects? Probably not.

Origami (graciously shared by one of these almost infinite budget companies, many thanks) seemed very promising to this regard when it appeared. But also very intimidating. The learning curve getting you from total novice to confident in Quartz Composer is a bit steep, and this learning time isn't always justifiable to produce soon to be discarded sketches.
Another pitfall found in Origami is the mouse driven nature of the interactions. To properly evaluate a tactile interface, you should manipulate it directly so you can discover when active zones are too small or too close, or when the hand hides useful informations to complete a task - small but important details that could go un-noticed using a mouse cursor. On the other hand, this tool seems ideal for fine-tuning an animation and transmit its attributes to developers. But if the quality of an animation is crucial to get an interface right, this is not our concern here: we're talking sketching, not finish.

While I was looking for a solution to economically produce interface sketches, Keynote for iOS was a good candidate. Documents can be edited on the OSX version and transferred to an iPhone or an iPad. Direct manipulation is a big win, but where it's deceiving is that you can't actually manipulate the prototype anyway you want. Forget pinches, list scrolls or carousel swipes: any touch on the screen and you're off to the next slide.

But Keynote brought a very consistent advantage on the table: no effort in the production of a transition between two screens. Whatever the shapes, their colors, orientations... as long as the objects are present in the starting and ending slides, the transition is fluid and relatively predictable. It's the well named “Magic Move” transition. I could not let go the time savings this feature allowed so I made concessions on two fronts: holding the interface in my hands, and the relative spotlessness of my screen. The speed I could produce work and the kind of deliverables I could produced were great compensations to these losses.

my smudge covered laptop screen
Designing tactile interface also means touching your screen

It took me about an hour and a half to get from a new document to the prototype shown on the video above, made of 14 slides. Keynote can export a video from the slideshow so you can share your ideas with your colleagues, adding notes using the timecode for specifics.

preview of the slides composing the example prototype
The bare truth of a Keynote prototype

How it works

Everything happens in Keynote, so having a Mac at hand will be a good start. From all the transitions available in this software, the only one used here is Magic Move. A really good name, as in most cases, this is what happens. You build a start state, an end state, you apply the transition and you're done. The time saved compared to solutions where you can edit a timeline is enormous, because there is no timeline to edit.

Where to start



Some advice


With a few hundred slides done since last february, colleagues (designers, developers or project managers) having validated this technique value, I thought it was ready to be exposed and shared here. I would be interested in having your feedback, and see if this idea could be pushed a little further so we can all get better at quickly explore interface ideas.

Download the file, tell me what you think. If this has teached me something, it's the importance of bringing an idea to reality as far as possible before asking a developer his time and talents. It might be easier for us designers to visualise mentally, but this ability goes only to a certain point, and a number of small important details can slip through our ideas. It's important to get them out of the way, and this tool helped me a lot in this regard.

The iPhone frame used in the example file is from Pixeden.

If you download the Keynote file, you'll need the Blokk font to read it correctly. It's a great font for placing neutral text in zoning with no effort.

2014.09.03: as @louije reminded me on twitter, Apple had a session about app prototyping during the last WWDC. I saw a mention of this session on twitter the week before, and was quite disappointed I couldn't be there to know if Keynote was part of the recipe. I had forgotten about it until yesterday, and I have looked at the session. It turns out they use Keynote as well, only with much more talent. Take the time to watch it, it's far more didactic and enjoyable than what I've written here. They choose to use Keynote for iOS in their process which I decided to avoid, but the guiding principle is the same: how to decide as fast as possible if an idea is worth exploring further or not.

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