Sketch Flow and go
What a month it’s been for exciting products for web designers and application builders, two of them previewed at Microsoft’s Mix09 in Las Vegas. I had to watch these via live web feed, as the UK press had to pay its own fares (Microsoft UK is feeling the crunch), but all sour grapes aside, Bill Buxton and Jon Harris provided compulsive keynote presentations. Bill, as usual, offered inspirational views and design approaches that made you sit up and want to try them out, while Jon showed off Expression Blend 3 and a first preview of Sketch Flow, the new free-form UI design tool. The aim of their presentations was to explain the first stages of designing a web application using Microsoft’s new tools.
When prototyping a new web application, few of us will start coding straight away – most people either sketch some ideas on paper, or perhaps visualise the structure as a flow diagram using a tool such as Visio. What’s needed is something with the flexibility of pen and paper plus the ability to collaborate and add interactivity, which is what Microsoft has provided in Sketch Flow, but it goes that extra step further so your initial scribbles can be refined all the way into a full working web application, thanks to complete integration with Visual Studio. I thought the demonstration of a workflow using this tool was just amazing – several years ago, Microsoft promised a set of tools to enable people with different skills to work on a single project, and this looks like the delivery.
Sketch Flow will even import Photoshop files with all their layers intact, and allows editing such images in Blend. There’s a full presentation of its capabilities at http://videos.visitmix.com/MIX09/C01F. I’d recommend that you take a look, as it could transform the way you might want to design future projects.
Of course, Blend will produce only Silverlight web applications, and while these will run on many modern browsers, users with older non-Intel processor Apple Macs will not be able to view them. This problem, along with the limited performance of Silverlight on many mobile devices, and the prevalence of locked-down company networks where users aren’t allowed to install the Silverlight player, are good reasons for not selecting this technology for your website. Okay, so Flash has similar shortcomings, but Flash has been around for a lot longer and even most corporate PCs already have its player installed nowadays. This competition between Flash and Silverlight is often resolved more by the skill sets of the developers, or their preference in design tools, than by any particular ability of one technology over the other. It would be a brave company that produces a Silverlight-only, or for that matter a Flash-only application without an accompanying conventional website for non-Flash or Silverlight users. For some time we’ll still need to produce conventional HTML-based websites, and there’ll always be certain types of website that are best built as a sequence of separate pages rather than a monolithic application.
Xara Web Designer – fast and cool
Slick and visually compelling design tools such as Blend may beckon, but there remains a need for something to design HTML web pages and CSS stylesheets. Normally, one would reach for Dreamweaver, but I’ve always felt that Dreamweaver is more a tool for maintaining and adding content to a site rather than a free-form design tool. Most of us will do the initial visual designs in Photoshop, then via a variety of kludges convert these into graphics and stylesheets – a time-consuming process that demands a good deal of skill to get pages looking the same in all potential browsers.