Basecamp: Next Shows Off Rapid UI Prototyping Process

37Signals have long been proponents of doing design prototyping in HTML, and this video is a great example of how that is more effective than a traditional photoshop method. Their lead designer, Ryan Singer, has shown this technique off nicely at various conferences and also captured it in two videos for Peepcode: UX Sketching and UX/UI Prototype

This isn’t an easy process to implement, and working in HTML/CSS as your initial mockup takes a bit of mental gymnastics and abstraction to get it right, but it can be a powerful tool if done correctly.

Creating a Harvard Rule with CSS

Having grown up with pica sheets and crop slides with wax pencils, I come from a world of print design effectively dead with the advent of QuarkXPress, Pagemaker and InDesign. I still remember learning the rule types in high school yearbook design sessions and in some cases, I’ve recently implemented what’s known as a Harvard Rule line in a design.

What is a Harvard Rule? The old yearbook publisher I worked with defines it nicely:

A standard rule line is any printed line that is less than two picas wide. These rule lines can also add variety to your page. Common rule line weights are one, two, three, six, nine and twelve points. Rule lines are intended to unite design elements, not separate them. A Harvard rule line is two parallel lines, with one line wider than the other. Standard widths are one, three, six, nine and 12 points. When used as a border, the thin line is usually inside.

First off let’s get these terms right. A pica is 12 points. There are 72 points in a printed inch. (Sorry Windows users, someone back in the day thought 96px to an inch was better than 72. Apple is 72px/inch.) There are, therefore, 6 picas in an inch.

I didn’t want to use an image to do this, and wanted to accomplish it with html and css. Luckily, there’s an HTML element called “HR” that is a horizontal rule. These, in their basic implementation, are plain and simple ugly:

but some CSS can make it pretty:

That’s not nice to use. So with some HTML and CSS hackery, we can get something that looks a lot nicer. In your HTML, you first want to call the rule:

<pre> <hr size="0" noshade /> </pre>

Since it’s XHTML we’re using here, this is a self-closing element. The CSS for this isn’t too complex. We need to define the base colors to hide the original element. We then need to apply borders to finish the magic. You can alter the margins to space it out from other elements.

<pre> hr { /* Faking a Harvard Rule */ color: #fff; background-color: #fff; height: 2px; /* this is teh white space between the lines */ border: 0; /* this removes left and right borders */ border-top: 4px solid #aaa; border-bottom: 1px solid #aaa; } </pre>

With that in place, we can give these unique styles and flip the lines as needed.

You can also accomplish a double rule this way:

These are all being used in the forthcoming MacRuby redesign.


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Either package is ideal for smaller companies and startups, and anyone who is having a difficult time loosening the purse strings for hiring usability consultants for a long-term project.

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Nota bene: We’re only budgeting the time for a few of these projects this summer. It’d be a clever marketing tactic to make that up and then urge you to contact us now if not sooner, but it’s actually true. This is something we’ll be doing in addition to our normal, larger jobs. We will of course deliver our very best (as we always do), but this is an experiment for us from a business standpoint.

1 This assumes a fairly typically sized application: similar to or bigger than Basecamp, smaller than Salesforce.