UX Design Tools

By Janet M. Six

Published: February 18, 2013

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to select UX design tools, as well as some tools that you might find useful in a couple of typical project scenarios—working on a lean UX project and getting assigned to a UX design project late in the development cycle. They provide answers to the following questions from our readers:

  • What capabilities and attributes should you consider when selecting a UX design tool?
  • What UX design tools are critical to facilitating lean UX?
  • When you are assigned to a design project at a later stage in a development cycle, what tools can help you to make the best of your available time?

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers in this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Leo Frishberg—Product Design Manager at Intel Corporation
  • Tobias Komischke—Director of User Experience, Infragistics
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist

Choosing UX Design Tools

“The right tool is the one that lets you get the right answers to the right questions and takes your situation into account as well.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“All of these questions are really very similar,” says Whitney. “They’re asking about how we consider the context of our work when determining how we’ll do our work. The right tool is the one that lets you get the right answers to the right questions and takes your situation into account as well. For example, if you have just a few days in which to complete your work, you won't want to launch into a project taking an approach that would take weeks to complete. On the other hand, if you’re asked to do a deeper investigation, a quick answer won’t be good enough.

“Caroline Jarrett and I have thought about how to look at a design in a hurry, when we’re asked for an instant evaluation. But, for us, it’s best to start not by looking at the form, but by taking a few minutes to think about who will use it and what they will be doing. Then, with those ideas in mind, we try to use the design as a real person might. Instead of getting bogged down in our own perspective, this helps us to see the user experience.”

Whitney and Caroline Jarrett have written an article, “How to Look at a Form—in a Hurry,” that relates to this topic.

The answer to all of these questions could be rapid prototyping and presumptive design.”—Leo Frishberg

“Note that our article describes an approach to thinking about a quick review—a technique, more than a tool,” continues Whitney. “It borrows from personas by creating a quick sketch. It borrows from usability testing by trying to actually use the product and observing what happens.”

“The answer to all of these questions could be rapid prototyping and presumptive design,” states Leo. “Rapid prototyping—including paper prototyping, junk prototyping, and the like—is fast. You can create prototypes in a matter of minutes, depending on what it is you’re trying to figure out. Now, of course, rapid prototyping and presumptive design are just two of dozens of tools that you could choose. But if you need fast, provocative tools, nothing quite beats them—especially during early engagements.”

Selecting UX Design Tools

Q: What capabilities and attributes should you consider when selecting a UX design tool?—from a UXmatters reader

“Tools answer different questions and fit into a project differently. They are all valuable, but have different advantages and constraints.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“When selecting a UX design tool,” answers Whitney, “think about the following:

  • time—Are you at the beginning of a project, in the midst of design iterations, or wrapping up?
  • people—How can you get access to participants? How much time will you have with them?
  • goals—What are the usability or design problems that you are trying to solve?
  • resources—What budget, staff, time, and facilities do you have available?

“If you are clear about the answers to these questions,” continues Whitney, “it becomes a lot easier to sort through the available tools and choose the one that will fit into your project best. For example, I would consider all of the following UX research or usability tools:

  • five-second tests—to get quick input on users’ first reactions to presentation design
  • remote usability tests with no moderator—to learn about success rates for a few key activities
  • moderated, remote usability tests—to reach participants in different locations
  • usability tests in your lab—to let the product team observe sessions
  • visits to users’ location—to learn about their context
  • diary studies—to understand usage over time

“But all of these tools answer different questions and fit into a project differently. They are all valuable, but have different advantages and constraints. With all that said for the first question, the remaining questions in this column are really asking about UX tools that fit into fast-moving projects.”

Design Tools for Lean UX

Q: What UX design tools are critical to facilitating lean UX?—from a UXmatters reader

“Combine fast tests within sprints with user research that looks at the product and the users’ context more broadly.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“Rapid prototyping and presumptive design are the closest I’ve seen to a standard toolkit for lean UX,” replies Leo. “While we can argue the nuances of lean UX, presumptive design is inherently lean;

  • It is rapid, requiring the minimum effort necessary to elicit user reactions.
  • It requires only low effort for maximal output.
  • There is little in the way of waste.”

“For usability testing,” responds Whitney, “the ‘Rocket Surgery’ approach that Steve Krug describes in his book is a great solution: fewer participants, everyone watches, immediate decisions, fix the problems, and do it again. Combine fast tests within sprints with user research that looks at the product and the users’ context more broadly.”

Tools for the Later Stages of a Project

Q: When you are assigned to a design project at a later stage in a development cycle, what tools can help you to make the best of your available time?—from a UXmatters reader

“I’ll focus solely on tools that enable you to assess the current state of screen-level designs for a user interface….”—Tobias Komischke

“This question covers a wide field,” answers Tobias. “But, because I’ve just given a Webinar on this topic in relation to user interface design, I’ll focus solely on tools that enable you to assess the current state of screen-level designs for a user interface on which a client has requested your help. My reply won’t answer the question of whether you’re designing the right product—but it will help answer the question of whether you’re building the product in the right way. I’ll assume that, when you’re brought in late in the game, screens have already been designed. All of the following tools are available online and are free:

  • Colors on the Web’s Color Contrast Analyzer—This tool lets you check for color-contrast issues—even when you’re not designing a Web site, so it doesn’t need to comply with WCAG or Section 508.
  • Vischeck—With this tool, you can check for color-perception issues.
  • Eric Puidokas’ Grid Fox—Use this tool to check whether a layout is consistent, and if it’s not, use Grid Fox to create a grid-based design.
  • Feng-GUI—This tool lets you see what screen areas draw the most visual attention and compare the results to where you actually want users to look. This site employs a SAS model, but you can get one heatmap a day for free.
“We quickly need to assess the following: What are the highest risks? What areas would most benefit from UX design?”—Leo Frishberg

“Before you continue someone else’s design effort or start redesigning things, these tools will allow you to see where things currently stand with the product under development.”

“When we find ourselves being asked to contribute to a development effort late in the game,” replies Leo, “we quickly need to assess the following: What are the highest risks? What areas would most benefit from UX design? Where should we cut bait? Once again, using the presumptive design method, we can quickly assess the state of a project, get user reaction to proposed designs and feedback on desired designs, and so forth. With this information in hand, we can redirect our design efforts wherever necessary and possible, provide risk assessments to management, and inform marketing where the user experience will likely fall short.”

1 Comment

I use Evolus Pencil. It’s free, XML-based, and has great-looking, sketchy lines. Using wires for our IA and interaction design has been very effective in managing client expectations every step of the way.

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