Review of Tools for App Prototyping

[“Prototyping a new App” by Pascal Maramis is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

There are many reasons why students design and prototype apps, before coding a fully functioning app. In ACARA Digital Technologies, students:

  • analyse problems and design, implement and evaluate a range of digital solutions
  • consider the functional and non-functional requirements of a solution through interacting with clients and regularly reviewing processes. They consolidate their algorithmic design skills to incorporate testing and review, and further develop their understanding of the user experience to incorporate a wider variety of user needs.

An excellent course, that covers this is Code.org’s CSD Unit 4 – The Design Process. In this course, students learn about solving problems with technologies and iteratively design and test a paper prototype before coding a digital prototype in their App Lab environment.

In other subject areas, such as business and enterprise education, students design a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as a prototype solution only and rarely code a fully functioning solution. An excellent example course is Apps for Good.

I have a senior Applied ICT class and their project was to design a prototype app for a local business. Part of the assessment was to identify the software that was best suited to the task, so we set about trying, testing and reviewing the following:

App Lab (code.org)

This was their number one pick as it is very easy to drag and drop elements and with guidance, create multi-screen apps.

From a teaching point of view, the learning curve for setting up access is a bit steep, but well worth the effort.

The big advantage with App Lab is that you can start and end with prototyping if you want (which only requires one line of code to navigate between screens) or go on to build fully functioning apps. When I used App Lab with another class, we completed  CSD Unit 4 – The Design Process one term and then dived much deeper into javascript App programming in CSP Unit 5 – Building Apps.

appshed

Our next pick was appshed as it came with an easy to follow course , was easy to register and testing a live version on student phones was easy.

We used the free version, which meant that there were ads everywhere; but this was not actually very noticeable. The paid version is very cost effective and is a good idea if you want to expand beyond prototyping. I notice from the comparison page that there are javascript, PHP, SQL and IoT technologies for Raspberry Pi and Arduino; must explore further.

Blippit

Another similar App builder was Blippit. This was not well received as the interface was a bit confusing and students needed to be registered and could only work on one project with the free version.

We were only experimenting with bare bones prototyping, so I can’t say how the blippit blocks or purecode python works.

Unlike Appshed, you really need to upgrade to one of their plans to get full functionality and I think Appshed is probably better value for money.

App Inventor

Although there are a few clones, such as AppyBuilder and Thunkable that have become popular, I notice that App Inventor is still the goto App builder for most IoT projects.

In terms of basic prototyping, App Inventor is much like App Lab and easy to create digital screen designs and code basic navigation. Just like App Lab, it is also very extensible.

App Inventor is probably still the best supported technology, with a large volume of tutorials and guides available. Of course, at the end of the day, it only ports to Android.

AppyBuilder

AppyBuilder is a clone of App Inventor, so very similar features. One big disadvantage was the need for a google account and then it probably only ports to Android devices.

Thunkable

Thunkable is another google sign on, but can be published to Android or iOS. The downside is that this is not an entry level App builder and is not well supported with tutorials and guides. However, you could use the tutorials and guides for App Inventor and rig them for Thunkable.

Marvel

Marvel is purely a prototyping app builder. We didn’t test this out and this is an afterthought. According to its splashpage: “With the Marvel design platform, access all the core functionality you need to build digital products – wireframe, prototype and generate design specs in one place.” Another similar one is proto.io. An other similar one is build.me. This stands out because it also has built in guidance for User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design.

 

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