Axure RP Pro: Rapid prototyping and documentation tool for website applications

I don't do as much formal specification writing these days as I used to, but I've been noticing some promising software for prototyping and specification writing lately. Could be that I've become so entrenched in the Visio world that I never pick my head up to take notice any more.

I downloaded the demo version of Axure RP ($589 for Pro, $149 for Lite version) after quickly viewing their Flash demo. This Windows only tool allows you to build a page hierarchy for a site and then design the pages by dragging and dropping widgets (like Visio stencil objects) onto the wireframe pane. As with Visio, you can link widgets to other pages and then generate the document as an HTML prototype. What intrigued me most was the Microsoft Word specification document that it produces, providing the wireframes with notes for all of the page objects.

Software like this seems like a real time saver for rapid development, which is the kind of work I've been doing a lot of lately without the actual prototyping bit. That is to say, I turn over informal specs and wireframes on short schedules. To be able to handle all of these tasks in one tool seems great. Anyone have any experience using this or similar tools? Which do you like best?

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I've used Axure since v. 1

Hey Michael,

I've used Axure since v. 1, but only started using it on production projects with the most recent release.

Things that could improve:
Better drawing tools (I want it to work like Visio, or Illustrator, not a drag and drop every time I want to put something on the screen)

Filtering elements and pages from the spec:
There may be a way to do this, but I haven't found it - all page elements get put into a requirements table in the spec, creating a lot of clutter. I'd like to only include elements with annotations. Along with that, all pages go in the spec - this creates a *ton* of redundant pages if all you need to document is a dozen page types, and you've created a prototype that has three or four dozen pages with content. Not so much an issue if you're designing an app where every screen has its own requirements.

Reordering elements in the spec:
The order of elements in the spec seems to be assigned by the program, somehow related to the order they were placed on the page. This makes it very difficult to group annotations into functional sets of related elements.

Difficult to model RIAs - doing AJAX or Flash apps that don't use the page model is difficult.

There are other things, but those are the big ones. All that said, I think that Axure is doing great stuff - I invited Victor Hsu, their product manager, to come to the Future of IA retreat last year, and he was good, though I think a bit overwhelmed by 40 eager IAs wanting to hear about IA tools. Axure definitely doesn't have a deep connection to the LIS side of IA, so content integration is a bit of a blind spot.

Anyways - another tool, list $3000 / seat is Serena ProcessView Composer. It's worth looking at if Lucent would foot the bill. It has a similar prototyping environment to Axure (though it *cannot* export a standalone prototype, which is a deal breaker for me). Again, it doesn't model RIAs or Desktop apps - and it's actually less able than Axure to handle content sites. ProcessView's target is the 'collection of multiple HTML forms that we call a web application' rather than anticipating the needs of rich UI development (instead it's aimed squarely at the 1999 state of the art). The reason for the additional cost is that it includes data modeling, flowcharting, light requirements, and other things in a very well integrated stack. For people building vanilla HTML web apps, it's very interesting. Sadly, since it's an integrated set of tools, it inflates the licensing cost for a cross functional team, since someone may only use a specific part of the feature set to do their job before they pass it on to another team member. They would probably respond that the time wasted moving from Word to Visio to HTML outweighs the licensing cost.

Finally, I've never used iRise since it seems to involve six figure budgets, but it's a similar prototyping tool.

Thanks for the feedback

Thanks for the feedback, Jess. I agree that the ability to customize the output of the spec order and selection of what should appear is definitely needed in Axure. That would annoy me to no end. But it does seem to be working in the right direction.

I actually spoke to someone at Serena who sent me a link to download the Flash demo. When the URL failed and I contacted him, though, he never responded. So I gave up pursuing them. Still, doesn't sound perfect for me either.

I'll bet in the end that while all of these tools help make the process of prototyping and spec writing simpler, they all are a bit rigid in regards to customisability of output, especially when compared to the types of documents we're used to producing.