Wireframing and the iPad
A week into having an iPad in my tool (and toy) lineup I’m still sussing out what aspects of work this new beast can take on, and what parts are still best suited to my main workhorse, a 15″ Macbook Pro. As my work involves a fair bit of wireframing, I was keen to see if the touch interface could serve as an effective design tool.
Two early contenders have popped up in the App Store to meet that need and I’ve spent a few hours with each of them, with some mixed results that other iPad early adopters may find useful: Omnigraffle and iMockups.
The reviews here have been updated to reflect recent developments.
Before talking about the app itself, I have to pause and take in just how quickly Omni Group moved onto the iPad. Their decision to pause regular development in favour of porting OmniGraffle, a mature desktop app, to a new platform was surprising for a company that usually marches steadily and undistracted. It was also very good strategy: the prohibition of Flash and Adobe Air apps on the iPad takes the usual suspects of online diagramming, like Balsamiq and HotGloo, out of the picture (no pun, honest). It’s really a strange twist: a desktop product threatened by scores of upstart web-based products ends up on a hot new platform that just so happens to block those competitors. Ain’t life funny.
Overall the port is comprehensive and well thought out. After working through the basics – the welcome screen pictured above is actually a small tutorial – more advanced features like layers, multiple canvases and the full suite of inspectors, started to emerge. The core interactions that used to happen through the mouse and keyboard shortcuts have been re-thought to keep many of those interactions hidden until they need to be used. Omni has really followed the ‘look like a viewer, behave like an editor’ mantra that dominates Apple’s own iPad apps, but this doesn’t come without some usability overhead.
The kind of productivity that OmniGraffle invites us to do on the iPad shines some light on the difference between ‘doing stuff’ on the iPhone’s touch interface and ‘doing work’ on the iPad. On the latter I need to reveal some features quite frequently, especially the Edit popover with a tap+momentary hold. The difference between this action and tapping to select for resizing or moving is subtle, and I often find myself moving a shape when I want the Edit menu and vice versa.
By contrast, on the iPhone I very rarely invoke that menu and that menu is rarely competing with anything but selecting a text field, so mistakes are rare. Having said that I have found that a two-finger hold on an object makes moving and resizing possible in a single flow rather than a series of repeated taps and drags. Baby steps, but it does make me wonder whether Omni should consider providing keyboard invocation so that a series of actions like position nudging and unlocking or re-locking could flow together more nicely. I know, heresy unto the new age of touch, but it comes to mind using the app more than once. Let’s move on.
Beyond the good stuff, OmniGraffle for iPad still a very 1.0 release. Dragging and resizing shapes lags terribly even in small documents, and freehand drawing lags so much that it’s all but useless for now. Even text resizing lags; text! File transfer uses the clumsy one-way push provided via iTunes, which is a really poor substitute for the ‘working document’ lifecycle that Omnigraffle docs usually live. Again, baby steps.
The final hurdle, and maybe a fatal one for a lot of people, is the price: $50. Erica Sadun described the price as an investment and I have to agree. You don’t get all the return on your purchase at once, but you can plainly see that Omni Group is dead serious about making this work and it will be fun to see how they pull it off. While not perfect, OG on the iPad is the real deal, though you may want to wait for a couple updates before clicking down a cool fifty.
I almost always cringe when a non-Apple product gets named as “i-something”, but iMockups gets a pass for doing quite well on its debut. Focussing strictly on interface wireframing, iMockups is planted well in the feature-range of those OmniGraffle competitors mentioned earlier who can’t make it to the party.
The potential of the app is found in its stencil, which provides a lineup of standard web interface elements, and a pop-up dialog to customize labels, which is a nice touch. In just a few minutes you can get put together a concept for a relatively simple web page, just enough to keep a conversation going or catch a good idea.
There is a real lack of polish when held up against OmniGraffle. Moving and selecting is sometimes hard, especially with smaller stencil elements like drop lists. I end up resizing when I try to move these smaller items. It makes me crazy and is the single biggest complaint I have about iMockups. A good if incomplete touch is the use of a popover to nudge a shape’s position or rename labels, but comes up short when wanting to change the position of a highlighted item in a navigation bar or tabbed panel. It’s good, but not great, and that gap hurts the product more than you’d think when you run into it.
The stencil is also locked down, so you won’t be adding your own shapes or making minor adjustments to any of the ones that iMockups includes. Sharing wireframes leads to a non-editable dead end with PDF or JPG exporting, but like many other aspects of the app, it’s serviceable and can get the job done.
And that’s where I think the sweet spot is for iMockups. It’s not OmniGraffle, doesn’t pretend to be, and ends up with a $10 price point that I think will do very well for its makers.
No Clear Winner, but Clearly Not a Tie
Both apps are currently on my iPad’s home screen for now, as they each have their strengths: iMockups does less but does it faster, while OmniGraffle does much more and is better suited to deeper or more complex wireframing exercises. I used the phrase Baby Steps a few times here, and it applies to both the making of apps for a platform that is new to real productivity uses, as well as to the learning curve inherent in moving off of almost 30 years of mouse and keyboard and into something new. With apps like these available so early, what we’ll see in a year or so will go far beyond.