This Year’s Model

Nick Phillips, Consultant Business Analyst at RDF Group, reviews the latest online modelling and wireframing products, sharing his pick of the best tools on the market.

Appropriate modelling is central to successful developments. But models can be a rude word to some people, especially those keen on agile, so I’ll call them ‘diagrams’ (the dictionary definitions barely differ). Some view diagrams as something cumbersome or static: to be ignored or fall out of date, or be slavishly updated as systems progress, apparently as ‘waste’. Then there are the agile modellers’ believing that diagrams should be used when needed, to just the sufficient level of detail, discarded or maintained as fits their purpose.

That debate will rage on, but here at RDF Group we will continue to choose the diagram, and the modelling tool, for the job in hand, to meet the customer’s need.

For several years Enterprise Architect has been our mainstay for larger and more formal projects. We’ll continue to use this for projects requiring a high level of precision, strong version control and strict confidentiality. We also use Microsoft Visio, where clients have preferred a less technical tool, sharing the drawing files and embedding them in Microsoft Word documents, and for those agile models.

Now there are new kids on the block, providing online collaborative tools, offered ‘freemium’ (free to use up to a point, then paid for). We took a look, and were impressed.


Cacoo Wireframe Image

Cacoo stood out. You diagram online using templates and stencils for a variety of popular business and IT genres, including wireframes and UML. The free edition provides 25 diagram pages and enables export to clipboard as PNG. With familiar drawing behaviour it is easy to learn and use, and it is no drawback that it lacks some of the sophistication familiar to Visio and Enterprise Architect users. With multiple drawings per file, any element can be hyperlinked to another drawing or external URL. For example in a UML diagram, I hyperlinked each use case graphic to its use case document on SharePoint. I have also made mind maps to share project and solution concepts, as well as UML diagrams to support analysis and application design.

Collaborative wireframing was key for RDF Group, so we took a deeper look...


Cacoo did well at this but POP was best in this niche. POP or ‘Prototyping on Paper’ sounds like a retrograde step, but is a stunningly simple modern way of creating a basic UI prototype. You quickly sketch some UI pages on paper, maybe with your client, photograph them and animate the images to show the navigation. You share it, either on the device (iPad for example) or remotely via a browser, for viewing or collaborative changes. Targeted at mobile app creation, we see much wider application – say when you snap existing artwork (a Cacoo or Balsamiq wireframe) or use screenshots. We have used it to design a mobile app from scratch, and also for changes to a PC application, by annotating screenshots.


Balsamiq Wireframe Image

I mentioned Balsamiq, well we also use this now, when we need a UI design to be maintained as a UI evolves. More sophisticated for wireframing than POP or Cacoo, it lacks free online collaboration. Its drawing palette and smart stencils allow quick construction of realistic designs. These stencils can have specific behaviour, such as parameterising a tabular list stencil to contain the columns, rows and data you want. Where relevant, stencils can hyperlink to another drawing or external URL. For sharing, PDFs of the drawings support these hyperlinks, and there is output to XML.

Google Apps drawing tool looked promising, but we found it clunky and not as well implemented as those above. We also checked out our Microsoft tools. PowerPoint custom slideshows could work for ‘happy path’ UI demos, but falls way short of the other tools. Visio fares better, but lacks the control over animated navigation found in the others. ‘Horses for courses’ is the maxim I guess, meaning POP, Cacoo and Balsamiq are the tools in this corner of our stable.

By the way, RDF Group is not endorsing these products, but expressing opinion. We did not review all tools on the market, just those we have come across and considered worthy of review. The search continues…as nothing in IT stands still...

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