#UX101: Tools of the Trade

There are quite a few tools that you can use to create designs and then test said designs with users, and in my many many years as a UX professional I’ve tried out most of them. First, let’s cover design and prototyping tools:

Adobe Creative Suite

My “go-to” design tool, the Adobe Creative Suite is a “must-have” tool for design professionals for a reason – it lets you do everything, from print and web design to interactive and sound editing. If it only had Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign… it would be indispensible. It’s a lot more than that. Depending on what “set” you buy, it’s either expensive or VERY expensive, but it’s worth it.

(Adobe has recently gone to a “subscription” model – which I don’t like. I recommend buying the packaged software, which should still be available through services like Amazon, etc.)

Axure RP

Axure is one of my personal favorite design tools, because it allows you to do many things at once: You can create and document the UI design and also add interactive elements to make a functional prototype (which is rendered in HTML). It’s available for both the Mac and the PC, and is fairly easy to use and learn. It’s not cheap, but for what you get from the tool it’s worth it.


A mac-only design tool, Omnigraffle allows you to design user flows and journey maps as well as user interfaces. The ability to add interactivity is limited, and only when you export the design to a PDF. It, too, is pricey but incredibly versatile.

PowerPoint and Keynote

Yes, you can create interactive prototypes in presentation programs such as PowerPoint and Keynote. It won’t be as engaging or as interactive as some of the prototypes you can create in Axure but if you are designing a simple kiosk-like UI then these tools can definitely help you build out something to test with.


An extensive suite of functionality in iRise allows you to make a very interactive prototype. That deep feature set comes with a price, however: A steep learning curve and a high price. I’ve worked a little bit with the tool, and it’s not a bad product… it’s just too pricey for me.

Expression Blend

Now a part of Visual Studio 2012, Expression Blend is a great tool for mocking up screens if you are designing Windows Apps. It also allows you to work with versioning and developers to execute that design. It’s got a learning curve, but if you have experience developing it may be the right solution for you.

Balsamiq Mockups

Balsamiq Mockups has got a lot of fans in the UX community, and rightly so: it’s a simple easy to use design tool that allows you to quickly mockup wireframes and, because the default design looks like a sketch, stakeholders don’t get fixated with visual design elements. It’s also inexpensive and well worth trying out.

Usability Testing Software and Services


My favorite tool for usability testing, Morae allows you to capture the desktop of the computer and an additional video source (either the built-in webcam or an external camera) and the tool will transmit the video and audio of the test session in almost-real-time to another computer on the local area network. The software allows for remote note taking and “tagging”, so that you can have a log of perceived usability issues to analyze later (with some great built-in analysis tools). It’s a great suite from TechSmith, and a great alternative to an expensive usability lab.


This is the OS X equivalent of Morae, sans most of its features. It allows you to record the webcam and desktop from a computer and that’s about it. Please note it is also MUCH cheaper than Morae, so you get the core functionality both share at a lower price.


Usabilla is an on-line “remote” usability testing tool that allows you to have three active tests at a time. The $89 a month fee does not include participant recruiting and incentives, so you’ll need to pay those additional costs. It’s a fairly simple service, but it may align with your needs better than…


UserTesting.com costs $39 per participant, and that cost includes recruiting AND compensation, so it’s a flat rate for everything. The drawbacks are you will have to host the design you are testing on your own server and they only offer limited screening capability. Once the participant tests your designs, you will have access to the video of their feedback to review afterwards. It’s the best solution for the “budget-minded” design team.


If cost is no object, then Loop11 is the best remote testing solution for you. It costs $350 per project, or $9,900 for an unlimited license. It offers much more interactive and richer user testing, and allows you to host your designs on their servers. Be aware that, like Usabilla, you will have to pay for your own recruiting and participant compensation.


Ethnio is an online recruiting tool that pays participants Amazon Gift Cards. The service costs $49 a month and allows you to post a link to screening questionnaire from Twitter or other social media sites. You can recruit up to 250 participants a month for the one flat rate. The best thing about the service is you can integrate with Usabilla, Optimal or UserTesting.com to redirect participants directly to the tests you are housing through those services. It’s a great alternative to paying an outside agency for participant recruiting.


There you have it, some of the many design tools available for you as a user experience professional. As I have said before, there is no “right” tool… use the tools that work for you and best aligns with your needs. And no tool will make you a better designer – only talent, practice, and time will do that.