The Livetyping Blog

  • A Thing for Showing Your Design on an iPhone without an iPhone

    So. I wanted a thing that would let me show people what my designs look like on an iPhone, but in the desktop browser. Especially HTML prototypes that only live on my machine. So I cobbled this together:


    (Open in a new tab.)

    Note: If you're viewing this on your phone, the above probably looks a bit rubbish. But it's not meant for use on a phone, so that's OK.

    I know it's not the same as viewing stuff on an actual device (or even on an emulator). But it's perfect for me.

    If you think it's useful, you can grab it off GitHub and use it too.

    (Thanks to 99designs for the transparent iPhone image.)

  • How to Steal

    "Good artists copy, great artists steal."

    So said Steve Jobs, attributing the words (incorrectly) to Picasso.

    It's my firmly-held belief that stealing is A Good Thing. I don't mean you should try to saunter out of your local supermarket with a bottle of expensive Scotch secreted in your trousers. Nor do I mean that I think it's OK to rip off the entire visual design of a site and use it on the one that you are designing.

    I mean that stealing a good idea and using it your own design is good for you and good for the idea. This is how good ideas spread. Take the archetypal example: pull down to refresh, first introduced in Tweetie by Loren Brichter. Twitter bought Tweetie and it became the official Twitter client for iOS. And the pull-to-refresh pattern has been copied by just about every feed-based app out there.

    Another example is the swipe-from-edge gesture that many apps (including Apple’s own Mobile Safari) use to let you go back to the previous page. This gesture (originally from Blackberry, I believe) has become so ubiquitous that it’s downright annoying to come across an app that doesn't use it.

    How ideas spread

    Of course, it's not just gestures. Every commonly-used control, widget, or pattern started off as an innovation that spread by copying. Others never really worked well enough to be copied, and died out. It's like Darwinian evolution. The fittest ideas live to reproduce (get copied), while the weaker ideas become extinct.

    So how do we find out about these new species? And how do we go about copying one once have discovered it?

    Finding good ideas

    One way is to expose yourself to new things as much as possible. Try out new apps and sites. Look at what people are doing on Dribbble. (It's mostly visual design stuff, but if you dig, you can find some interesting things, such as this.) Follow other designers on Pinterest and see what they are pinning. (Like this.) And when you come across something interesting, grab it and stick it somewhere. Bookmark it. Take a screenshot and put it in a dedicated Flickr album. Put it in Evernote or Dropbox. You could even Pin it.

    Another way is to regularly check out some of the many pattern libraries. See the new things that are being added. (There are quite a few libraries like this.)

    But then what? You're working on a design and you think “That new pattern that I saw on <wherever> would be perfect for this!” How do you actually go about incorporating it into your design?

    Using a good idea

    Well, it depends. If you’re at the sketching stage, it’s only limited by your sketching abilities. But if you're wireframing or making a prototype, it really depends on the tools or technology you’re using, and the platform you're designing for. If you're using OmniGraffle or Photoshop, you can probably make a visual representation of it, maybe in the form of a storyboard of some kind. But it's not ideal.

    If you're using something like Axure, you're going to have to try and find the widget or pattern in one of the existing libraries, or figure out how to make it yourself.

    If you're designing a mobile app, you'll probably want to get cozy with a developer who can put something together in code. (Though Facebook's Origami looks promising for this sort of thing.)

    But if you're designing something for the web, and making prototypes in HTML, then you're in luck. Especially if the thing you want to copy also lives on the web. That means that it's been done. It's technically feasible. And because web sites and apps work the way they do, you can pick them apart and see how they work.

    How, exactly? Read on, friend.

    The web makes stealing easy

    Every browser lets you view a web page's source. And these days, all browsers include tools that will let you dig into this source code and really figure out how it works. (Chrome has its Developer Tools. Safari has its Web Inspector. Firefox has its Web Developer Tools. And even Internet Explorer has its F12 Web Developer Tools.) There is also a large number of browser extensions that provide similar or additional functionality (such as Firebug for Firefox).

    So let's run through a quick example.

    Stealing: a practical example

    Mailchimp is a service that lets you send email newsletters. One thing that sticks out about it for me is its form controls. Instead of the standard browser controls (which look different on different operating systems), it uses custom elements. As well as looking nice and being big and easy to click, they look the same on PC, Macs, phones, whatever.

    So how do they do it? I opened up Mailchimp in Firefox (where I already have the Firebug extension installed). Their radio buttons look like this:

    Nice, eh?

    I right-clicked on one of the radio buttons and selected "Inspect with Firebug". The CSS for the <input> element didn't tell me much, but I noticed that when I hovered over the radio button, some extra classes were being added to the <div> that contains the <input>:

    (Firebug highlights things that have just changed in yellow.)

    This suggests that they're actually using this container element to make the radio buttons look and behave the way they do, rather than trying to do anything to the <input> element itself. And the classes that are being added all start with dijit. What the heck is Dijit?

    Well, it turns out that Dijit is the UI library for Dojo, a JavaScript framework (kind of like jQuery, which has the jQuery UI library). Poking around on the Dojo site, I found something called the Dijit Theme Tester. It has nice-looking radio buttons (that don't look like system radio buttons):

    But they don't look like the ones in Mailchimp… Looking in Firebug again, I can see that the <div> in question is getting a background-image applied to it:

    This image is what's called a sprite. It's a single image file that contains a number of separate images. Here, I can see that it contains images for all the different states of the radio button, as well as the same for checkboxes. Here's how it looks full-size:

    If I go back to Mailchimp, I can see that they use a different sprite:

    Here's what that looks like full-size:

    As you can see, this is how they make the same Dijit radio buttons look different (that is, better).

    Enjoying your ill-gotten gains

    So if you wanted to do something similar in your own prototype (or production site/app for that matter), you now know that you can use Dijit and make your own sprite image to customize the way it looks.

    But please, don't just steal the Mailchimp one. That would be wrong :). (Especially as Mailchimp are nice enough to explain how their forms are made over here.)


    If you're interested in HTML prototyping (because so many UX job postings are asking for front-end coding skills these days), you should check out Livetyping, my HTML prototyping course for UXers.

    And if you like stuff like this, you should sign up for my newsletter:

    Sign up and get a free sample lesson by email

  • Sharing Is Caring: the Best Ways to Share Your Prototypes

    Someone asked me the other day how he could view his HTML prototype on his phone. (It was only on his computer at that point.) He asked if using GitHub was a good approach. It is, but it's not the only one.

    There are two main reasons why you might want to be able to make your prototype viewable on a computer or device other than your own. First, if you want to check how your design looks and behaves on a different sized screen. (And much of the time browser wanking just doesn't cut it.) Second, if you want to show your design to someone else. This might be a colleague, a client, or a user in a usability test.

    These are two very different things, but they are two things I often find myself need to do, and some of the solutions apply to both scenarios, so I'm lumping them together for the purpose of this post.

    So, there are a bunch of different ways you can do this. Here goes!

    Emulators

    An emulator is an application that runs on your computer and pretends to be a particular device. There are emulators for both Android and iOS, but these are both aimed at developers, and are supplied as part of each platform's development kit.

    For just checking out prototypes, they are probably overkill. But there is a simpler alternative: the Opera Mobile Emulator.

    A prototype in the Opera Mobile emulator, simulating a Samsung Galaxy Note

    This lets you see what a prototype (or any site, for that matter) looks like in the Opera Mobile browser on a wide variety of smartphones and tablets. And it plays nicely with prototypes that are just a bunch of files on your computer—you can just paste the file path into the address box. It's not exactly the same as using a prototype on an actual device with that device's own browser, but it's pretty close.

    Adobe Edge Inspect (and similar tools)

    If you just want to be able to check out your design on your own phone or tablet, Adobe's Edge Inspect is a useful tool. It has three components: an application that runs on your computer, a browser extension for Chrome, and an app for your iOS or Android device.

    Once all three are up and running, you can connect from your device and see the same page that is open in Chrome, and if you interact with the page or reload it, it is updated on your device as well. It's handy, but I have experienced connection problems on occasion.

    Edge Inspect is currently free if you just want to connect one device (though you need a free Adobe Creative Cloud account). If you want to connect multiple devices, you need a $9.99/month subscription.

    The are several alternatives, such as Ghostlab (paid, Mac only) and Remote Preview (open source, cross-platform), that look like they're worth a look. (I've only used Edge Inspect, so I can't comment on whether these two are any good or not. If you've used them, let me know :)

    Dropbox

    If you copy a prototype into the Public folder of your Dropbox, you can then share the link with anyone (including yourself, so you can view the prototype on your phone).

    Note that opening it from the Dropbox app on your phone won't work. You need to paste or type the link in your browser.

    This is probably the easiest option on this list.

    Use an online code editor

    There are a number of online code editors available, such as JS Bin and Codepen. (JS Bin is my fave.) You can copy and paste your prototype's HTML, CSS, and JavaScript into one of these, then open it up on your phone or share the link with someone else.

    For example, it just took me about two minutes to paste the code from a simple prototype into JS Bin. (I also added Foundation from JS Bin, and deleted the bits that referenced my local Foundation files.)

    This is the result:

    A prototype in JS Bin

    Now I can open http://jsbin.com/kaqira/3 on my phone (or email it to someone, or whatever):

    The same prototype in JS Bin, viewed on my phone

    One advantage of this approach is that if you’re discussing the design with someone, you can make changes right then and there and see them reflected in the output.

    GitHub Pages

    GitHub's Pages feature lets you host static websites inside GitHub repositories. GitHub is free (unless you want to do things like have private repositories). All the prototypes I create are static—they don't rely on a server or a database. So this is quite a handy way to put your prototypes online so you can share them with others (or look at them on your phone).

    There's a bit of a learning curve, but this page does a pretty decent job of explaining what you need to do. Just select "Project site" on that page, and it will guide you through the process. I followed their instructions, then used the GitHub desktop app (Mac, Windows) to add my prototype's files and commit them to my repository.

    Here's what that same prototype looks like, hosted as a GitHub Page.

    Amazon S3

    Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) is typically used by web applications for storing files (for example, photos that users have uploaded). But you can also use it for hosting static sites. Which means you can upload your prototypes to it for viewing anywhere, by anyone.

    Now, this option is not free, but it is ridiculously cheap. To give you an idea, I host this website on S3, along with a few other things, and it never costs me more than a couple of dollars a month.

    Getting it set up is not exactly simple, but if you follow the instructions to the letter, you'll be fine. You do need a domain name, though. Otherwise, you won't have a URL through which to access your prototypes. You also need an Amazon account (but who doesn't already have one of those?).

    For me, setting up additional storage for prototypes in S3 was easy, as I already have the capcloud.com domain name. I just set up a new storage area (a "bucket", in S3 lingo), set up a subdomain called projects (through my domain name provider), and linked the two together. Here's that same prototype, yet again, on my S3-powered project site.

    To upload files, you can use S3's own upload page, which is pretty good, or if you're used to using FTP, you can use a service like Cloud Gates to upload with your favorite FTP client.

    Other options

    These aren't the only options open to you. Others include setting up a web server on your own computer. But this is a bit of a hassle, and making it so that people outside your local network can access it is a pain.

    Another is to pay for web hosting and (for example, here or here) and upload your prototypes to the web host (usually via FTP). But it's still a hassle and costs more than the most of the other options we've covered.

    Privacy

    All the options I've described (except for emulators and Edge Inspect) put your prototype in a place where anyone with the right URL can access it. This may not be desirable. Sure, you can give the URL only to the specific people you want to share it with, but there's nothing stopping them giving it to someone else, whether intentionally or not.

    If this is important to you, a couple of the options are going to be better bets for you.

    If you have a paid GitHub account, you can make repositories private. This lets you control who can access them. They do need to have a GitHub account though. The cheapest plan costs $7/month and lets you create up to five private repositories.

    If you pay for web hosting, your site's administration panel will usually let you make individual directories password-protected.

    And the winner is…

    The simplest and easiest option has got to be Dropbox. If you're already a user, you just copy your prototype into your Public folder and you're done. And even if you don't already have a Dropbox account, setting one up is easy and gives you 2GB of free storage.

    If you're already using one of the other services, like GitHub or S3, then you're already past the initial barrier to entry, so using it for hosting prototypes as well is an easy step to take.

    I hope you found this useful. If you know of any other ways of doing this that I've missed, ping me on Twitter: @martinpolley.


    If you're interested in HTML prototyping (because so many UX job postings are asking for front-end coding skills these days), you should check out Livetyping, my HTML prototyping course for UXers.

    And if you like stuff like this, you should sign up for my newsletter:

    Sign up and get a free sample lesson by email

  • Wind of change: are we finally starting to agree on how UX should be done?

    I originally sent this out as a newsletter, but I think it deserves to be a blog post too.

    A few weeks back, I sent out a newsletter about some of the great stuff Peter Merholz has been writing recently on the best ways to "do UX" in a organization. (Should UX be a separate function? Or should designers be embedded in product teams?)

    In the last couple of days, I've seen a few more posts that address the same issues.

    Dan Brown (of EightShapes) wrote a piece on Medium about the importance of design systems, and wondered why many organizations don't seem to have such systems in place. He asserts that the biggest barrier is designers' position in the organization. And then goes on on to say that the typical "service bureau" model, while effective, is ultimately limiting. That the whole organization needs to "get" design:

    To have a design system is to have a pervasive language of design, one that everyone in the organization speaks natively.

    This put me in mind of the fantastic stuff Leisa Reichelt has been writing recently about strategy. A lot of her writing comes from her experience working at the UK's Government Digital Service, the team tasked with the "digital transformation of government". No small task, but one that they seem to be doing incredibly well.

    GDS has its own blog, where Ben Terrett recently wrote a post that echoed Leisa and Dan's points. Here are a couple of choice quotes:

    We don’t have a UX Team.

    ... user experience is the responsibility of everyone in the team.

    These things all seem to be pointing to one thing, despite the diversity of types of organizations they relate to: that UX is strategic, and it needs to be the concern of everyone in the organization.

    Something else caught my eye in that GDS post:

    We don’t make wireframes or photoshop mockups ... We’re making a Thing, not pictures of a Thing.

    And, directly related to this:

    All of the designers can code or are learning to code. ... it’s important to belong to a group with shared skills and experiences. This helps people develop their skills, support each other and build a strong culture with shared standards.

    Which aligns with what I've been banging on about for ages: that UX designers should learn how to code, and by the way, here's my course that will teach you to do exactly that :)

Page 1 / 7 »