12 top prototyping tools

null

Prototyping is an essential part of any digital design process. It helps us simulate our designs, explore different user experiences, and test out journeys and user flows within our projects. Long gone are the days of printing and providing PDFs of designs.

There are plenty of web design tools around, but prototyping tools have really come into their own in recent years. With these prototyping tools, you’ll be set to meet any design challenges you might face, whether you want to create something beautiful or technical from an idea. With any prototype, it’s important to test and play with your interface so you can validate the experience.

Most of these tools come with a price tag but some give free access for a single project or limited pages, letting you find the right application for your project.

Main illustration: Newton Ribeiro

01. Proto.io

Price: From $24/mo (free trial)

Pros:

  • Record user tests
  • Sharable prototypes
  • Mobile app available
  • Supports VR prototyping
  • Add-ons available

Cons: 

  • Not great for offline use

Proto.io is an incredible contender for creating lifelike prototypes from rough ideas right through to fully fledged designs. The tool also provides many possibilities for your projects, including creating detailed animations and custom vector animations.

It’s certainly one of the front runners when you’re assessing tools to help create your prototypes. With Proto.io, starting a project is as simple as you want it to be. With only a rough idea sketched out, you can get cracking right away and start using predefined assets to evolve your concept quickly.

Once you’re happy with your ideas, these can then be turned into more polished and presentable wireframes for further validation and reflection. The next significant step after that enables you to tweak the design of your prototypes so they are as true to the end result as possible.

Proto.io is a web-based tool and comes with a bucketload of add-ons and features, which include the importing of Sketch and Photoshop files, VR prototyping, UI Libraries and even screen recording for user testing. This can really help if you are transitioning to and from other applications.

Ultimately, you will need to take some time to get to grips with this tool. There’s a lot that can be done with it and there are a great number of options and menu items to play with. Once you’ve learned your way around it though, it will be a hard one to put away. The prospect of creating detailed animations really does make this an excellent tool to use and the perfect way to execute your ideas in as realistic a manner as possible.

02. Adobe XD CC 2018

Price: $9.99/mo | £9.98/mo
Try a free trial: US | UK

Pros:

  • Add interactions with just a few clicks 
  • Clean UI
  • Run and export prototypes for easy testing
  • Create prototypes with very few restrictions

Cons:

  •  Animation options are limiting

Adobe XD offers the best environment for digital projects under the Adobe Creative Cloud collection of design tools. Although if you’re a keen Adobe user and new to XD, you may not find the interface very familiar to begin with but it does stack up against the other leading tools out there. It is a jump if you’ve been designing in Photoshop for a while. However, it is worth it if you are a big Adobe fan.

This tool enables you to create high-fidelity designs and prototypes with very few restrictions. It will certainly always be among the armoury for the more visual projects. It’s very design led and is very easy to use with some really neat features to make the design process more efficient and satisfying.

There are two modes to your canvas: these are Design and Prototype. Once you have created a set of interfaces and artboards, you can start to draw relationships between clickable elements and pages. You can decide between transition styles like sliding, pushing and dissolving. XD then lets you to run and export prototypes so you can test them and show them to clients.

03. Axure

Price: From $29/mo

Pros:

  • Great for complex sites and ideas
  • Excellent at handling dynamic data
  • Conditional logic
  • Able to export as HTML files
  • Very functional

Cons:

  • Not ideal for prototyping a high-fidelity designs

Axure has managed to build up a reputation as being one of the best wireframing tools on the market, and the perfect choice when it comes to dealing with more complex projects requiring dynamic data. With Axure, you can really focus your attention on mocking up projects that are both more technical and require more attention when it comes to structure and data.

Although it’s not necessarily the first choice for prototyping a high-fidelity design, it is nonetheless great at quickly taking the larger projects / software platforms through the first stage wireframe concepts.

A major benefit of Axure is that it handles dynamic content really well, enabling you to change and alter it according to certain user journeys or interactions. This is achieved through a combination of conditional logic and manipulating pages, content blocks or text by setting variables and parameters.

But the potential of what you can do with Axure doesn’t stop there. It’s a great option for visualising flow charts and diagrams, which is just the thing for helping you to articulate some of the more technical journeys you might come up against.

And talking of the technical aspects of a project, Axure should be top of your shopping list for tackling technical aspects of design, as well as data-led or dynamic platforms, whereby design is a mere cosmetic overhaul at the end. Function over form comes to mind.

04. Origami Studio

Price: Free

Origami was originally developed by Facebook to help the team build and design products. Now it's available for free: you can register as an Apple developer, then download and install Xcode with Quartz Composer to get Origami to run on a Mac.

This tool does require more work to install than other prototyping options. However, once it is installed, you can begin creating design concepts that simulate scrolling, taps, swipes and page links. Origami's documentation, tutorials and how-to videos make it easy to get started.

Sketch and Photoshop designs can be imported into Origami, and your project layers will be preserved, ready to be linked, animated and transformed as needed. Origami is not mobile design-centric either: you can design responsive websites and simulate features like text input, FaceTime camera and OS X drag and drop.

You can export your prototype components (including animations) with just one click, so engineers can copy-and-paste into the project. Origami includes a presentation tool that enables you to add a custom background to your design, view in fullscreen, and simulate different devices.

As a free prototyping solution, Origami has a lot to offer. However, one drawback is that it doesn't yet let your clients or design team comment directly on the project or versioning history.

05. Webflow

Designing prototypes is fast and seamless with Webflow, but where this tool really shines is when your prototype is all finished. You can turn your finished prototype into a production-ready site with the click of a button.

Recently, Webflow has introduced a game-changing new feature: a CMS for your prototypes. Webflow's CMS is completely visual, allowing you to create powerful, dynamic sites without writing a single line of code. Another particularly useful feature is its ability to create a blog using your blog page prototype concept.

If you're a freelance designer and have had difficulties finding a developer to turn your designs to production sites, Webflow may be for you. You can even set up user accounts or designate an admin to manage content, and your clients will be able to visually make changes.

Alternatively, it's easy to export the prototype into code. Webflow's clean, semantic code can save your engineers hours of code clean-up.

Webflow comes with site templates and web components that can be dragged and dropped into your prototype. These speed up the prototyping process, as they mean you don't need to recreate commonly used design assets.

If at any time you're stuck and need help, you can check out Webflow's detailed documentation or watch its helpful how-to video courses. And of course, if you're using Webflow for the first time, this support will help minimise the learning curve.

Webflow is responsive by nature, so your website layouts will be optimised for all devices: desktop, mobile and tablet. If that wasn't enough, you can design animations that will work on mobile devices and all modern browsers. And it still doesn't end there: Webflow has extensibility built in, which makes it easy to connect your live prototypes to Slack, MailChimp, Google Drive, and more than 400 other services.

06. Sketch

Price: $99/year (free trial)

Pros:

  • Uncluttered UI
  • Very flexible in terms of functionality
  • Easy to build prototypes
  • Build symbols and reusable assets
  • Add-ons available
  • Easily share your prototype

Cons:

  • Animation options are limiting

Sketch is an application that’s well loved within the design community. It’s simple to use and gives you everything that you need to create beautiful interfaces. Up until recently, Sketch relied on third-party extensions to prototype with InVision but it now provides an environment all of its own.

Using predefined artboards, you can get going with Sketch quite quickly with very little effort; simply start loading in graphics or type. Designing in this tool is lovely and easy.

One of the features that works really well within Sketch is how it handles symbols. This is a neat way of packaging small or even large interface objects and reusing them over and over again. With your symbols, you can also edit them in a non-deconstructive way. For example, you may have a button element packed into a symbol that uses text, an icon and border. You can reuse the symbol around your design and change the textual element if required. If you edit the symbol at source, you can change things like font style and colour and it will update all your symbols around your design. Very neat and often a big time saver.

As for the prototyping, you can draw relationships between objects on your canvas and pages. These relationships will provide you with links between your pages that you can start to connect and enable you to simulate your users’ journeys as they navigate through your site. Within Sketch you can also share your prototypes with a unique link and make any updates to the project as and when necessary.

Sketch is a favourite to many and definitely worth a look. It’s a very clean and versatile design tool. There are a number of extensions available for it that help make the design process even faster or easier. 

07. Framer

Price: $15/mo (free trial)

Framer is one of the most popular prototyping tools. It's based on the premise that with code it is possible to prototype anything, resulting in novel and groundbreaking designs.

While this may be true, the tool's proprietary coding language for designing and animating prototypes could be a barrier. There are those who may not see the reward at the end of the steep learning curve, especially for a language that can't be used outside Framer.

However, for those who do want to take on the challenge, the documentation of Framer's coding language is very well structured, with plenty of examples to demonstrate how the language works. There are how-to videos, as well as courses on Udemy and O'Reilly.

This approach is particularly useful for designers that are new to coding. It offers a first-hand view of how flexible and powerful code can be. In addition, Framer's Mac App is well designed, and provides live previews as you write code, which is encouraging for those who are writing code for the first time.

That's not to say it's no good for designers with coding experience who prefer writing HTML/CSS to prototype their designs. Framer may be just the tool you've been looking for: you won't be limited by the drag and drop tools of other apps. Furthermore, because Framer uses code to build prototypes, you can incorporate real-time data into your prototype, from sources like Twitter and Parse.

Like other tools, Framer supports Sketch and Photoshop projects, and will also preserve your design's layers. Another benefit is that – unlike most other tools – you can also import After Effects files. When you're ready to share your prototype, Framer can generate a URL that can be shared with your clients. These shareable URLs can be opened on mobile devices for live previews. Framer also lets you prototype VR.

08. Vectr

You can design your prototypes on Vectr's web or desktop apps

You can design your prototypes on Vectr's web or desktop apps

Price: Free

You can design your prototypes on Vectr's web or desktop apps for Mac and Windows, which is impressive considering the app is free. The prototypes stay synced whether you're working on the desktop or web browser, freeing you to work whenever you're ready and ensuring you always have access to the latest changes.

Vectr prototypes can be shared with a URL and integrated into apps like Slack for powerful collaboration. As an added bonus, those you share your mockups with can annotate and edit them.

At the moment, Vectr isn't as feature-rich as many other options, but this shouldn't deter you from getting familiar with it. A roadmap for the app has been published, detailing an impressive list of slated features. These include: fully-offline desktop apps, more platforms, built-in version control, a built-in design assets marketplace, full collaborative editing, image effects, plugins, clickable mockups, built-in feedback and annotation tools, and offline desktop apps.

Read on for 5 more great prototyping tools...