Extremely Rapid Prototyping Tools

Perhaps you’re competing in a hackathon or you’re trying to deliver a minimum viable product in a compressed timeframe. This list of prototyping and development resources might help you crank out wireframes, demos, and even full products quicker and cheaper.

Interface Mockups: Balsamiq

Balsamiq is the first tool I use when trying to design a UI flow for an application. It’s is a simple layout tool that lets you drag sketches of widgets, controls, and other UI elements on a canvas to quickly build mockups of interface screens.

The best thing about Balsamiq is that the end result looks like a hand drawn sketch. This way it’s clear to the UI artist that the design is just for layout and flow, not for the actual look and style. I’ve seen horrible GUI designs delivered as a result of prototyping tools that use actual widget images for mockup layouts. This can confuse artists and clients, making them think the mockup is how the interface is actually supposed to look.

The original Balsamiq mockups for Brick Buddies

Brick Buddies as mocked up in Balsamiq

Icons: iconfinder.com

If you need interface graphics or even a simple app icon for a prototype, just use this search engine. It contains a large amount of royalty-free icons you can use right away or massage in Photoshop to your liking. Iconfinder is invaluable for delivering professional looking interfaces with no graphic designers in a hackathon crunch. I wish I knew about it before doing NTheMiddle!

Sounds: freesound.org

Freesound.org is a great resource for free sounds and much easier to use than professional sound libraries you pay thousands of dollars for. The sounds here vary in quality greatly, but most have pretty loose terms that allow you to use them commercially or otherwise. If I can’t find what I’m looking for here, then I drop a few bucks on Soundsnap for more professional sound effects.

Server Back End: Parse

It seems you end up writing the same back-end code over and over for most mobile apps. In recognition of this pain point, a bunch of cloud APIs for common mobile back-end functions have popped up this year. I’m still evaluating them, but from a cursory glance I think Parse is the best.

Parse has the clearest billing terms, the easiest to use API regardless of platform (including a Unity3D plug-in!), and a solid feature set. If you need to make a user account system, send out push notifications, or store and query geolocation data, Parse is pretty easy to use. For anything real-time, you’ll need another solution.