Working in Context with Axure 8

By Jeff Harrison

The Axure 8 beta dropped yesterday, and as always there’s a lot to take in. Some of the new features are pretty flashy: updated animation options mean you can finally flip and spin things—at the same time! There are tools for creating custom shapes, repeater updates, and lots of other improvements that will help you make fancier prototypes, if that’s your thing.

The changes I’m happiest to see are the ones that promise to improve the way I work in Axure by allowing me to work on things in their context, instead of having to switch to one mode where I’m editing in isolation, and then back to see the results of what I’ve done.

There are three examples of this that stick out at me right away.

Fewer dynamic panels!

Dynamic panels have always been the workhorse of Axure interactions, but it’s tedious to constantly have to drill into one of the panel states to edit the things inside it. And, once you’re inside a panel state you can’t line up its contents with the stuff on the rest of the page.

There are still lots of reasons to use panels, but some of the big ones go away with the change in how Axure handles grouped widgets. In earlier versions, grouping widgets was just a way to keep them together while you worked on them. It’s still that way in version 8, but it’s much more: you can show, hide, move, or do a number of other things to a group as a whole. In earlier versions you had to encase these components inside a panel, which made them difficult to edit. Now, a double-click on the group gives you a group-editing mode that leaves the rest of the page still visible:

groupMode

In Axure 7 and earlier, you would have to encase each of these sets of items in its own panel to allow you to easily show and hide them as groups. Axure 8 groups give you the same benefit without making the contents hard to edit.

The other reason you won’t need panels so much is that rectangles can now be resized dynamically. Instead of creating an empty panel and then going into the state and setting its background to blue, you can now just use a blue rectangle (which can have borders, shadows, rounded corners, and so on) and resize it with an interaction.

Style management!

Custom styles have been around for a while, but there are a few changes that make them easier to manage without opening the widget style dialog. Every kind of widget now has its own default style already applied, and the names of these styles appear in a menu in the widget style pane.

style menu

The asterisk next to the Paragraph style name in the illustration above means I’ve applied some formatting on top of the default style (I changed the font and color.) See the “update” link in that menu? Click that and the Paragraph style is updated to match what I’ve done. Click the “create” link and it does open the style editor but only so I can give my new style a name.

This change is more evolution than revolution, but it means that more style tweaking is done while I’m still looking at how my changes look on the page. The new UI makes updating the style feel more like an afterthought once I have it the way I want it.

Less Microsoft Word!

I have a tepid relationship with Axure’s Word documentation. It’s highly configurable, yet it comes with the limitations of the templated report that it is. For some kinds of specifications (one containing a lot of notes and data about individual page elements) it can be pretty good, and it’s still there in Axure 8 if you need it.

Where the Word report doesn’t shine so brightly is in creating visual explanations. I want arrows that go from a paragraph to a point on the screen capture instead of numbered cross-references. I want to be able to add annotations on top of the picture as I see fit. And I want to be able to look at what I’m working on, in context, while I tweak a description to make something clearer, rather than having to tweak data in a table and then generate a fresh report to see what I’ve done. In short, I want to be able to do this:

annotations

Axure 8 enables a new documentation approach that feels more like authoring and less like data management. Its centerpiece is the snapshot widget. It’s a widget that shows you a picture of another page (or a piece of one). You can now build a documentation page right in Axure, using snapshot widgets to place other pages or components on it, and then overlay comments and arrows to your heart’s content. You can do that in version 7 too, by making a copy of your prototype page and overlaying your annotations, but the beauty of the snapshot widget is that it’s a picture of the prototype page, not a separate copy. Change your design, and the snapshot gets updated. The snapshot widget also allows you to configure the view to show your design under different conditions.

In addition to the snapshot widget Axure has added some styled annotation markers, which are nice, and has also made its historically limited printing options a little more robust. So, for audiences who really want a printed document, you’ll be able to print your documentation directly from the annotated prototype and avoid the Word doc altogether.

A lot will probably change during the beta period, which Axure says “will last at least several months,” but this is what has me excited for now. What’s on your list?