Why I like Flash Catalyst more than Expression Blend for interactive wireframe prototyping

November 24, 2009

I sometimes build “interactive wireframes.” These are screens that you can click through, to explore main parts of navigation in some app. And you could also construct them in higher fidelity to get a feel for the final app, before actually engineering it.

Two previous players on the market were iRise and Axure, but I didn’t need it so much that I would have cared to invest in them. But recently Microsoft and Adobe have entered this market with Expression Blend and Flash Catalyst.

I know EB and FC are not 100% equivalent products, but they are roughly in the same space for the purposes of this post, which is, creating interactive prototypes. Flex may be familiar to some; EB is roughly the same tool as Flex (with better prototyping capabilities), whereas FC is more focused on interaction design and one layer above Flex. It still builds Flex applications in the end and if you want, you can monkey around in Flex code if you know what you are doing, like I needed to do.

I have used Flash Catalyst to build a medium-complexity prototype, but I can’t post it here, sorry, proprietary. But I did do a very simple example project which illustrates why I like FC more. I made a very dumb project in both: an application that has two views. And in the first view, there is a button; click the button, and a transition happens to the second view. As simple as can be, but plenty to get your feet wet in the tool.

Here are the screenshots of developing this application in Expression Blend/Sketchflow, and Flash Catalyst.

My first reaction to the EB view was “whoa, what exploded here?” Look at all these controls. I am sure they are all useful and necessary, but all these controls feel like I had accidentally detonated something and they just flew all over the screen. Somewhat difficult to get around. See also Brandon Walkin from a while ago about managing complexity, especially the “Alignment & Visual Hierarchy” section.

Flash Catalyst feels much more welcoming. Granted, some of the functions don’t work that well since the product is not even out of beta yet; for example, text engine needs improvements (although it has got better in beta 2, compared to beta 1). But even with all these missing things, I feel much more welcome in Catalyst. It is a more focused tool and I feel it is easy to get around.

This is definitely unscientific and biased. I have used Adobe tools much more than Microsoft Expression, so maybe I am just used to them. And I do not know how well these tools fare for complex prototypes; it may very well be that EB can handle complex things better. This is just my first run impression.