Introduction to Microsoft Expression Blend

By Brennon Williams, Sams |  Development, design, Expression Blend

The Benefits of Expression Blend

Besides working with a really cool product, you will probably inadvertently start using more and more cutting edge applications to keep in line with the requirements of not only Visual Studio, but also the changing landscape of the .NET Framework and the various operating systems.

You will also pick up new, fresh ideas for designs and methods of working because you will see how working with Blend and WPF has inspired others to reach for new ground in ease-of-use control designs. Expect to see user experience discussions increasing. Those discussions should also generate greater understanding of what is important, as opposed to what was never perceived to be so.

Blend will have different levels of engagement for the different types of roles played by those who use it. Interactive designers will use it for one purpose, while a developer will use it in an entirely different manner. In the following sections, try to see how Blend may or may not work for you in some areas and how it might be well-suited to helping in others.

The XAML Architect's View

The XA will get most of the praise from the commissioners of a project. After all, they (the commissioners) don't care if an application can split a call into 16 threads to speed up a data return by 0.0005 milliseconds. Most of the time, the big boys and girls (e.g., managers and directors) have no fundamental understanding of what it is you are doing or how it will help with their business. The most important issues to them are higher productivity within their workforce, a strong presence of professionalism, and brand projection. Higher productivity brings enormous cost benefits, which can, by themselves, justify the cost of development.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to a XAML architect is greater responsibility in projects which usually (not always) end with the XA earning more money then a standard developer or designer. XAs need to be able to speak different languages (designer and developer) effectively and act as a mediator between the designer and developer camps. Translating requirements and understanding the designers' vision will enable an XA to make sound architectural judgments about the requirements of the user interface layer.

In any environment in which the power base changes from designer to developer and back, the XA will have the benefit of being in both camps. Even if the XA can't perform as a developer, just understanding their language and concerns is enough. As long as the XA can appreciate and ultimately implement the visual goals of an interactive designer, the XA will see his or her Christmas card list expand!

Blend, along with Visual Studio, will absolutely be the tool of choice for the XA because the workflow between the two products will enable him or her to make quick decisions, test updates, and merge new resources into a solution. Blend becomes more of a XAML management tool for the XA than a visual design interface.

An Example of Power

To test how much of a benefit it is to have a producer/director-like figure (the XAML architect) calling the shots on a project, crack open a game of Call of Duty 4 and take careful note of the way in which the application has been produced. The game illustrates an immersive, state of the art design at its best. You have no confusion as to what you are -- or are about to be -- doing.

These games are developed by teams of designers (interactive and graphic) and developers, but are ultimately produced by one or two people that act in the same capacity that an XA would for a WPF solution. Immersive, emotionally driven applications should be the end result that we strive for in standard application development.

The Interactive Designer's View

Some day designers and developers will recognize the fact that unless the user sees it happen on the screen, they will never be 100% sure it actually has happened. What I am talking about is simple user psychology. As an example, I ask you: How many times have you clicked on the Add to Basket button on a website and then had to go check the basket because you were not entirely sure your goodies went in there? With Blend, you can show the user, the item actually flying across the screen and into the basket to dispel any concerns, negative thoughts, and bad experiences that the user may ordinarily have.

I know that is a very simple example -- and one that could be overcome using some special DHTML or something else wonderful. But this problem has been part of the user nightmare that interactive designers have been trying to stem, with only moderate success, for years, mainly due to project budgets (time/cost ratio).

An interactive designer might want to get down and dirty with some coding, not so much that the vein in her head will pop, but just enough to make sure the control(s) and/or UIElements perform as they are designed to.

That same designer might want to show some empathy and allow users to apply different control schemes and colors to allow them to feel where they are and how they are doing with the application. With Expression Blend, the interactive designer has the freedom to design a control that can show, for example, an ordered list of movies in thumbnails, ensuring that the listing is displayed in the application so that it fits with the overall continuity and visual perception of the project and the vision for the application.

The interactive designer also wants to be able to use his or her favorite graphic design package to create masterpieces of style and then export them into Blend. In this way he or she can ensure that design elements actually look like they are supposed to instead of having to ask a developer to try to make the elements look like the image the interactive designer just printed out.

Designers want to be involved much more in the lifecycle than they are at present. With the power to create fully functioning prototypes with Blend, which therefore expedites production lifecycles, the importance of the interactive designer's role is moved much higher up the food chain.

Going back to the games industry, interactive designers and graphic artists are the super stars, not so much the coders. Interactive designers take a leading role to ensure that the entire application is smooth in its appearance and that every animation, the music, and the fonts in the menus all come together as a perfect match of design integrity.

The Coder's View

I am sure that some of you reading this book as developers have, at one time or another, been told by a project manager or IT director that the application you have slaved over just does not look like the application they envisioned or were sold on. Another common concern is that test users complain about the time it takes to perform a certain task after taking numerous steps in order to navigate a complex screen. It's possible that your application has used controls from various third parties and that they just don't fit the overall visual perception because you can't modify the appearance or style of those controls. Even Microsoft still distributes controls like the CLR TreeView control that doesn't support transparent background colors. These are all very common issues relating to large application development solutions where designs are always changing to address functional, presentational, or usability issues.

Such issues most often occur in Agile environments, because development cycles are short, fluid, and incremental. Developers are often hamstrung by strict adherence to timelines in which they must provide functionality and maintainable levels of bug fixing. As a result, the user interface often gets the least attention, which leads to the poor user experience I keep talking about.

Blend means that developers can finally just focus on making sure that code functions as it is required to in a specification. Their objects get a value in, and then they make sure the correct value goes out. It's as simple as that. The developers can even test the object code to make sure someone else doesn't change the designed functionality. You can be guaranteed a format or a value type every time. The interface can either be designed around that format, or, preferably, the coder's objects can be designed by what they are required to input/output.

A lot of middle tier and backend developers will be extremely pleased that they no longer have to think about the user interface -- nothing scares them more. They can just get on with coding and even help with the logical client layer, all without ever seeing the UI that they are developing for. They also have the added bonus of being able to apply unit testing to the logical layer, which fits in well with the psyche of the nonUI developer.

The Workflow

Traditional workflow in the development lifecycle has always depended on the development company's work practices and is based on whether they use standards to ensure quality products. Not all businesses do, and some even think they are not big enough to go to the trouble. As a single developer, I always use standards in my everyday work to ensure that I can provide not only quality results, but also auditable paths of my work to my clients.

You may, at present, be involved with designer and developer teams. Perhaps a move to a new job at a new company in the future will put you in this position. Either way, it is important to understand how this designer/developer workflow is supposed to work.

I have previously stated how Blend will significantly reduce the production time on solutions; but until you understand the time periods that will be removed, it is hard to see that becoming reality. Many interactive designers have their own methods of producing mock-up applications or prototype designs. Some choose to use animated environments such as Flash, some use PowerPoint, some use Visio, and others like to create traditional storyboards to indicate how they see the interface working. End users are then brought in to give initial feedback. Refinements are then made based on this research.

This design process allows the interactive designer to spot user workflow issues and other process improvement opportunities that are vital to an application being accepted by the end user. The process, called the blueprint, may also require a variety of diagrams: a structural diagram (or application map), a process diagram to provide architects an essential view, and sometimes a wireframe diagram to illustrate how different screens will appear.

The only problem with the blueprint now is that almost all the work done during its creation process is wasted when it comes time to actually develop the solution. Developers may (and it's not always the case) be able to use some of the visual assets created, the static images and the color palettes; but they certainly won't be able to use any animation sequences or event-driven reactions that are so crucial to informing the user of what has occurred. Remember the Add to Basket scenario?

Applications like Flash, Visio, and PowerPoint, when used in the interactive design context, are purely conceptual, whereas Expression Design, Expression Blend, and Visual Studio are production tools. Using the production tools, you can reach the end goal a lot quicker and the integrity of the design can be controlled and maintained by the designers instead of the developers.

Using Blend to deliver the blueprint now means that the interactive designer is creating the actual user interface that will be present in the end product. Blend provides all the tools necessary to deliver the animation of objects, providing the rich user experience end users crave; and perhaps more importantly, Blend provides a separate layer of development that the code developers never really need to modify or be involved with.

The workflow between Blend and Visual Studio allows the interactive designer to quickly test object implementations in the data binding scenarios and customized controls that are present in many applications.

The interactive designer along with the XAML architect, then, have the ability to accurately describe the required object model to the development team, which will, in most cases, provide a base object model with testable methods. That allows the interface to provide data, as well as test data being returned, all before the majority of the backend code is written.

The Importance of an Accurate Test Object

We will look at creating CLR data bound objects in Chapter 13, "Data Binding," where we will look at a method for creating test data. It is important to do this so the templates we design in Blend show real-world data and so we can make adjustments to either the data object -- or the presentation of that data -- without having to involve a developer, a data source such as a database, or a valid connection to a data source to do it. Methods such as these also speed up the development process by removing the reliance of one team on the other.

The End User or Client

End users always want simplicity. The Chinese discovered thousands of years ago that it was simpler to remember topics or points of interest when those topics were displayed as a picture or icon. The old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," rings true with today's marketing gurus who believe they can sell you anything if they can show it to you. People need to see vivid imagery to give themselves perspective.

According to George A. Miller (founder of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard), we mere mortals tend to have a memory capacity of 7 + -2 items (Nelson Cowan revised this to 4 + -1 in 2000); yet, we can recall large collections of images, especially those that form part of our habits, which our brains are particularly fond of.

Why would you give the end user a static image button when you could show them an animated response to their choice? Why would the end client be happy having to rely on old data when they could be viewing the information live and in a graphical representation? The quick answer is they won't be happy. If your company's competition provides a better user experience in their products, you shouldn't expect to keep your job for much longer.

When designed correctly and composed with perfect harmony, a WPF application will give users an extremely positive experience. In some cases, people will forget they are using a computer and feel at one with the application. I have witnessed people who are single finger typists who suddenly discover extra fingers. The positive experience has added to their productivity.

You would have at one time or another experienced these really high levels of positive flow and productivity because the most common side effect is losing track of time. Time flies when you are having fun and enjoying yourself.

Again, when applications are built with the cooperation of the designer and the application developer, the end user will have no doubts as to what they are doing, what has just occurred, and how they should proceed next. With WPF there is simply no excuse for not delivering fantastic user experience. If you become a XAML architect, you could ensure the application delivers the appropriate user experience.

Having a well-designed product in terms of usability and visual appeal will ensure that your company earns development costs back in the long term because of the loyalty that a professional, easy to use, and fun application brings. Positive feelings are also transferred to a brand so, in the case of a publicly released piece of software, happy users are much more inclined to use new, different, and simple applications. Most importantly, they are likely to tell their friends and colleagues about it.

The end user demands perfection. We (the collective industry) can't expect them to keep shelling out for new hardware every 18–24 months if we are not going to make them feel good about their purchases by giving them a positive experience.

Would you buy a sports car if the seats where uncomfortable, the suspension was rubbish, and the driving experience was not up to the level that you expected -- even if the motor was an absolute beast? Maybe...maybe not.

Maybe next time, instead of buying a PC, the user will go with a fruitier choice of computer, to see what it has to offer. If this happens too often, you and or I may lose our jobs.

Join us:
Facebook

Twitter

Pinterest

Tumblr

LinkedIn

Google+

Spotlight on ...
Online Training

    Upgrade your skills and earn higher pay

    Readers to share their best tips for maximizing training dollars and getting the most out self-directed learning. Here’s what they said.

     

    Learn more

Answers - Powered by ITworld

Join us:
Facebook

Twitter

Pinterest

Tumblr

LinkedIn

Google+

Ask a Question
randomness