In case you haven’t heard, Adobe is about to release a new AIR-based website design and building tool code-named Muse (the actual product name hasn’t been made public yet), and it’s currently available to download in beta format. I spent some of this past weekend using it, and below are my impressions.
The promise of Muse is that it will make designing and building websites as intuitive for Web designers as InDesign and Quark XPress did for print designers. In other words, it hides the code and employs a toolbox that is very similar to other Adobe design software.
A streamlined workflow
The workflow, as evidenced by the four main sections of the program, is very intuitive: Plan is where you build your site map; Design is where you lay out individual screens; Preview shows you a working example of your site in progress; and Publish is, well, where you publish your site.
The Plan pane allows you to do high level site mapping and user flows, and it remembers all links so that navigation is automatically updated. In addition, you can create master pages much as you would in InDesign, allowing common elements like navigation to be shared across multiple pages. You can even use multiple master pages in one site plan for greater flexibility in your site hierarchy.
The Design space is very straightforward, with a surprisingly spare toolset. Perhaps Adobe will add more tools later, but I found the bare bones nature of the environment refreshing. You’ll be laying out pages in minutes, without a care in the world as to how the code behind the page is actually crafted. And therein lies a giant risk: we know from experience that you can design almost anything these days, but whether it’s a good idea or not—whether it utilizes streamlined, efficient, accessible, and cross-browser compatible code—well, that’s quite another matter altogether.
I designed a few pages in Muse and ran them through a validator and they came out pretty unscathed. However, I also designed the pages in a way I thought wouldn’t cause any problems. In other words, the fact that I kind of / sort of understand the underpinnings of coding probably prevented me from designing something overly problematic. For example, I didn’t overlap elements, and I used paragraph styles that mapped to HTML standards. In the hands of a web novice, however, it’s entirely possible Muse might generate spaghetti code in order to achieve design fidelity. Adobe says that the code Muse generates is search engine friendly, and they test that it works on all relatively modern browsers; this doesn’t mean, however, that a user couldn’t generate a design that would fall apart in different browser environments.
Nonetheless, designing in Muse is actually a lot of fun, and certainly easier than designing in Dreamweaver which is more of a coding environment with a GUI front end. And, it’s a blast to lay out several pages in short order, add interactive elements, and then see your working website in a matter of minutes. Muse comes with several canned interactive elements like accordion elements, lightboxes, slideshows, and navigation menus, all of which can be customized to your design aesthetic, and these take a lot of the pain out of creating a richly interactive experience.
As with many desktop apps that eschew OS controls in favor of an Adobe AIR environment, I encountered some interface wonkiness, and tools and features didn’t always behave as I’d expect them to. Nonetheless, this is beta software, and compared to similar tools I’ve worked with like Hotgloo, Mockflow or Balsamiq, I found Muse to be just as easy to use if not more so.
What will it cost?
Interestingly, Adobe says they won’t sell Muse as a stand alone product, but license it on a monthly basis. Adobe has started to allow customers to license other graphics app in a similar fashion, and this model is common in the wireframe and mockup space where apps like Axure, Protoshare, HotGloo, and Mockflow are billed on a monthly basis. The pricing for the monthly plan is $15 if you sign up for a year ($180 for the entire year), or $20 if you pay as you go.
Personally, I’m torn. While I don’t like shelling out hundreds of dollars for an app, I also don’t like to have a cloud of monthly payments hanging over my head. I wish someone would perfect the metered model, where you’re billed only for the time you actually spent using the software. Nonetheless, Adobe says users can license Muse without having to own other Adobe CS products, so that makes the cost of entry fairly low.
The big question, however, is whether or not I’d actually give up the wireframe to Photoshop to developer model I currently use in favor of Adobe Muse. Do I, in other words, see this as a standalone website design and implementation app, like a better version of Apple’s now-defunct iWeb or NetObjects Fusion? The short answer is that it’s too early to tell; this is beta software and I’ve only played around with it for a small amount of time. However, I’m very skeptical of using any program like Muse on an enterprise level. For throwing together small, non-CMS-based websites in a short timeframe, I think Muse could be a very useful tool.
Some (surprising) optimism
Where I think Muse, even in its current beta state, could be very competitive and useful is in the prototyping and wireframe space. I can easily envision creating highly interactive, high fidelity prototypes to share with clients, then handing those working prototypes over to skilled developers who would ensure the code was as compliant, cross-browser friendly, and as clean as possible. In other words, Muse might not be the magic bullet for building websites, but it could honestly be the best wireframe tool I’ve used to date…and that’s saying something, because I’ve used a lot of them.
Adobe says the Muse will officially available in early 2012 (under a different name, of course). In the meantime, try it out for yourself.