Prototypes are important for all sorts of endeavors that pit a creative component against technical requirements—including, of course, software development. Before full-blown development starts, simplified models of a product help insure that all the parties involved are on the same page from the very outset, instead of finding out many months—and dollars—later that everybody was running in a different direction.
Briefs (Mac App Store link), from MartianCraft, aims at bringing powerful and easy-to-use prototyping techniques to iOS. It allows designers to build dynamic models of their apps that can be tested directly on a mobile device without the direct involvement of a developer.
Three years in the making
If the name "Briefs" rings a bell, it's because its history is as colorful and picturesque as its feature set. Originally demoed at the 2009 C4 Conference in Chicago, it was initially meant to run entirely inside iOS, allowing users to create working mockups of apps directly on their mobile devices.
After nearly three years—and, apparently, much interaction with Apple's App Store review folks—the final version of the app is split in two separate programs: Briefs proper, which runs on OS X and is where most of the design work takes place, and Briefscase, which runs on iOS devices and "plays back" the mockups created by its desktop-based cousin.
The split works in the app's favor. OS X allows for more accuracy in positioning and sizing the graphical elements that make up the various parts of a user interface, and the makers of Briefs have found some excellent creative ways to make their Mac app work well alongside its iOS counterpart.
Scenes, actors, and transitions
A Briefs project consists of a collection of scenes, each representing an individual state of the mocked-up app. The software supports both the iPad and the iPhone, and you can orient individual scenes in landscape and portrait as needed.
Scenes act as containers for assets, the individual graphical elements that are part of the interface, like buttons, backgrounds, and so on. Each asset can have multiple attributes, such as text, and is capable of supporting different states, like "disabled," "tapped," and so on.
Briefs includes two libraries of assets for each of the two main device types (phone and pad). The "blueprint" library contains graphics that look like sketches (designers use this style to help stakeholders focus on the substance, rather than the form, of their interface sketches), while the "iOS" group plays home to elements that look like their real-life counterparts.
Naturally, the app also allows you to use your own assets, which makes it easy to create custom interfaces and to refine the look and feel of an app until it's as close to the final product as possible. It even provides a "user" library, although the only way to get assets into it is to add them after they've already been dragged on to a scene. This can be problematic because it forces you to continuously import individual files from the Finder, which is time-consuming. It's a problem the developers of Briefs are aware of and working on.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.