if only such a button existed.

UI: It’s Not the Tool.

When good mock-up tools go bad.

There are many times in professional life when those who are not UI/UX designers are called upon to do the job of one. It may be that your team lacks the resources to hire someone specialized in that field, or you’re an indie app or game maker who just needs to find a way to get the job done with limited resources (i.e, you).

When I encounter someone who is or has been in this kind of position, they inevitably ask me, “so what mock-up tool do you use?” If they’re cocky, there’ll be a little bit of an edge in their voice. A note of, let’s see what kind of UI designer you really are. It’s like asking someone at the gym, “so what do you bench press?” It’s a test.

Sometimes they’ll follow this up with, “I use Balsamiq.” Or, “I’m an Omnigraffle person.” There are some developers who’ll say this proudly, as if to show that, despite the lack of the title on their resume, they know the lingo, and they don’t need some fancypants UI designer to do what they think they already know how to do, thank you very much.

And they’re sometimes surprised when my answer is, “I actually don’t use one.” As the discussion gets deeper, it usually becomes apparent to me that, for most people outside of the UI/UX field, the Holy Mock-up Tool has become the entirety of their relationship with UI design.

But tools like Balsamiq and others don’t make UI; people make UI. UI is not a page of boxes and buttons and text fields laid out Tetris-style to make it all fit; UI is made of decisions and choices. It’s made of research and experience and a hell of a lot of work that got thrown away.

We live in a world where the tools to make anything are at everyone’s fingertips. User interfaces have become an area of design in which many people feel confident enough to roll up their sleeves and sink their hands, especially when tools that purport to make it just so easy are a download away.

But tools like Balsamiq and others don’t make UI; people make UI. UI is not a page of boxes and buttons and text fields laid out Tetris-style to make it all fit; UI is made of decisions and choices. It’s made of research and experience and a hell of a lot of work that got thrown away. UI is not what you add to the page; UI is, very often, what is left when you sculpt away the marble that reveals the right design choices.

It’s easy to overestimate its power and conflate a mock-up tool with the experience and knowledge required to make a good, usable user interface.

Mock-up tools lack this foundation of experience and understanding, so they can only take you so far. They can be a rope that helps to pull you out of the quicksand you might find yourself suddenly standing in when a project manager says, “we don’t have a UI designer, so…I guess you’re doing it.” But along with the sense of security they offer in providing ready-to-use widgets comes the danger of being too constrained by the limitations of a tool — even a meager attempt at sketching something cool and different with just a pen and paper can yield something you might not have thought of while just placing boxes. It’s easy to overestimate its power and conflate a mock-up tool with the experience and knowledge required to make a good, usable user interface.

Make your time, your skill set, and your product more valuable, and spend time beefing up your UI and UX design principles instead of mock-up tool tips and tricks:

  • Spend some time with basic books on design.
  • Instead of writing your ideas down, sketch them. Do it even if you think you can’t draw.
  • Read up on the latest UI and UX design articles. (I happen to keep an Evernote shared notebook of articles on this subject, and I add to it almost daily.)
  • Study why a game’s UI works if it’s noted for its UI. Don’t just study the look; look deeper into the usability and flow.

Break out of the mock-up tool cage and see where these skills can take you.