How much wire?

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In my role at Public-i after the recent shake up, I have been tasked with integrating and managing the technical interface with our European partners. These partners effectively sell our products within their own regions.

Whilst they were all over in Brighton a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to our newest partner from Sweden, Imcode. It was a father and son team from an island called Gotland – looks an interesting place! His name was Hillar Loor and his son is Jonathon.

Hillar’s company is relatively small (I think) and therefore he utilises all available resources. He uses a main developer in Finland plus other developers in Estonia. What intrigued me, and has always intrigued me, is how this relationship works with offshore developers. I mean, who specifies what needs done? How do these developers know exactly what they are producing? Personally I was thinking this needed to be a water-tight requirements/specifications process for this to work efficiently.

As part of our discussion, Hillar gave me a demonstration on his Mac Book Pro of the tools he uses to define his requirement, and I was fascinated by it. Firstly, he showed me Axure, which is a paid-for product for both Mac and Windows. Basically, it’s a wireframing piece of software – nothing new in wireframes, but what fascinated me was how easy it was to create wireframes and prototypes. In my experience at BT and the BBC, I had countless specifications to write which usually took about 2-3 man-days. And at the BBC I had to produce proper wireframes with images and edited graphics – they took ages to do (I suppose the output was the objective and the better the wireframe, the better the idea on development). What amazed me was how quickly Hillar could produce a quick specification for a web application. And he could output his work as images or even HTML.

Axure, as I say, requires a commercial licence (which surprised me from Hillar, as he is an Open Source advocate!) and the licence fee, for me, I felt was slightly steep. I researched a free alternative and came up with Pencil. I believe Pencil started out as a Firefox add-on but you can also download the stand-alone version and it’s full of features. I am impressed with how quickly I can create requirements from this tool.

He next showed me a Mac-only application called Skitch. Skitch allows users to capture a screen or portion of and annotate it with notes to pass back to developers – so useful in ensuring developers know what you’re talking about when there’s say a space too big in the page or something similar. Unfortunately, Skitch is Mac-only but there is a Windows alternative called Jing. Jing has a free version and the only thing I can see that is limited in the free version is you only get to save images as PNG’s – no big deal.

So, that’s my view on tools to create wireframes and then report on issues with development. Personally, I don’t think we do enough of it at Public-i, or we don’t do it well enough. And I include me in that weakness!
But I believe they should form part of every project in order to get a common understanding of what is required. You can go through several iterations of a wireframe until everyone is happy, and these tools make it so easy to amend the wireframes. Its 10 times better than trying to produce a written spec which ultimately leads to several pages that people are not interested in reading!

There’s a great post at Boagworld on wireframes which details the “7 wonders of Wireframing” – nice post!