Wouldn’t it be great if we designers/developers could just move bits of website around visually and get beautiful, well-structured code to work with out the other end? The stuff of dreams! If this is your dream, then this might be your year! In service of The Future, I tested (or attempted to test) four of the current front-runners: Webflow, Divshot, Froont, and Jetstrap. Read on for a summary and full reviews.
Summary: 2014 is going to be a great year. Visual drag-and-drop web tools that produce valid, beautiful code are going to keep developing. At the moment, though, they’re too difficult to use and are missing critical functionality (different in each) this means that there’s a ways to go before designers abandon Adobe and devs move off their favorite text editor. But the day is coming! And (a surprise to me) out of those products I tested with their current abilities, I liked Webflow, hands down. It’s the only one that solved a problem for me, and I bet it did this by focusing its product on core uasbility – easy visual drag-and-drop and built-in dev hosting. Webflow doesn’t try to cover all the bases, but those it does it covers completely.
Methodology: I have a small, new project that needs to get going. AKA, the perfect time (the beginning of the process) to try to fit a new tool into my workflow. On to the reviews!
Webflow sez: “Create beautiful, responsive websites without code. Webflow is the top drag-and-drop website builder for designing and publishing custom, professional websites quickly.”
- Integrated hosting and preview solution. Click a little rocket button (launch, get it?) and you’ve got a fully-functioning site to share with clients.
- Custom domain name. Depending on the plan, you can pay a little extra and Webflow will take care of hosting with a custom domain. Plug and play, baby!
- Slick integration with Google Fonts and your TypeKit plan. The way Webflow deals with integrations in general is clear and easy.
- As easy a UI as possible in this field. After using several of these tools, let me tell you, Webflow’s UI is the only one I didn’t have to fight with.
- Provides ability to start with a blank slate. This is a plus and minus. I don’t want to have to override Bootstrap’s native styles all the time if I’m just ‘doodling’ my designs. On the downside, I’m not sure yet what standard Webflow is using to do its thing. Maybe this won’t matter.
- Aimed at non-devs. They do a good job of simplifying things and clearly have spent a LOT of time on user flow. Even people without much web development experience will be able to figure this out.
- Exported clean code.
- No in-browser code editing. None! Want to add a span tag inside a heading to make a cool dropcap? Too bad!
- You are limited to what Webflow has already developed. Webflow includes a solid base of parts that you can drag-and-drop onto its canvas, but the options are nowhere near as extensive as the pre-baked pieces that come standard now in frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation. And since you can’t add code…you see where I’m going here. There is a place to include external JS…I imagine you could spend a lot of time figuring out how to use Webflow to do more, but that would be a time commitment, aka, the opposite of the reason I’m looking for a visual dev tool.
- Classes are a bit verbose. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to specify something like “all anchor tags under this div shall be blue.” All you can do is add classes to specific elements. One must therefore be more verbose than one would like. Note: at least I could easily figure out how to style ALL h1, or ALL p, which is not something I could figure out in the other tools.
This was the first tool I tested, and once I figured out that I couldn’t see my code as I was working at all, I immediately scoffed and moved on thinking “no WAY is this going to improve my workflow!” Ah, the hubris! Oh, the pride! It turned out that Webflow is the only tool I tested that was quickly usable and not a pain in the ass. And what it does, while more limited than other tools, it does well. Extremely well.
The code it exported looks pretty solid. Of course, it is not structured in the way I would normally structure my projects (I use Sass and this exports straight CSS), but it created a basic, fast, functioning prototype site that I shared with my client for feedback within 4 hours (this includes me learning the tool and doing initial design). It is a pleasure to be able to ditch Photoshop and work with something more interactive! It even automatically included some niceties, like the ever-popular ease-down in-page link slide effect.
Webflow can fit in as a design and testing tool, a fast prototyper. Right now, I can’t imagine doing all of my development work in the tool, but to start projects, then export and re-factor into my normal flow, this could work (and for a basic site, there’s not too much code – I don’t think it will take long to Sass-and-partial-ify). But then…$16 a month for a prototyper? Not sure. Maybe. I’ll report back on how things go moving forward.
Divshot sez: “Fast, visual front-end development. As simple as a mockup tool. As powerful as a text editor.”
- In-browser code editing. The interface looks like the in-browser Developer Tools we’re used to. I felt very at home there.
- Really nice, interactive walk-through the first time you use it. …which you need because the UI is more complex than Webflow, perhaps necessarily so as it provides more functionality.
- I get to use my Sass. You can use css, sass or scss. It will compile…so they say. See below.
- No blank slate. You’ve gotta choose a framework to build on. There are several options, but this makes it difficult to use the visual editor as a ‘blank slate’ design tool.
- The way Divshot deals with files and file structure is a little obtuse. You have to kinda guess at how to make your files fit together, and then how to make your files work once you download them. It works out if you’ve done web development with common frameworks before, but the barrier to entry will be too high for everyone else.
- Sass compiling was buggy. After being so excited that I could set my workspace to how I usually use Sass, I spent more time than I wanted to (hours) trying to chase down compile errors. @import wasn’t working, partials weren’t working, random other stuff wasn’t working. Maybe I just hit them on a bad day, but…yeah.
- What code where? I never figured out where to track down already-implemented code. As in, when you’re working with a framework, you use Dev Tools to see what code is already creating style and then adjust based on that. I had no idea where to find that in Divshot. And so, how am I supposed to code on top of its included frameworks? Maybe I missed it.
- Text editor yes. Visual editor, not so much. In the end, I wasn’t sure what functionality I was getting. I could access all the text edit functions pretty easily, but I never figured out how to use the visual drag-and-drop part. And what I’m not looking for is someone to replicate what I already have (text editors and a server) online. this is adding.
I came into this thinking Divshot would be my favorite since it provides a visual editor plus code inspection and Sass, but in the end I never got it working, and never figured out how to use the visual editor part of site. Oh well. I don’t really need an in-browser code editor.
Froont sez: “Responsive web design, the visual way. Design websites directly in the browser with a simple drag and drop interface.”
- Looks like it should be awesome.
- The first time I tried it, I got overwhelmed/annoyed and gave up.
- I tried again. Still couldn’t get it’s drag-and-drop stuff to work easily. Kept clicking in the wrong spots, selecting the wrong thing, etc.
- What’s with the name? Let me tell you, it’s a pain to search for tips and documentation – Froont autocorrects to front, and just try looking for “froont center.”
- Price. $49 a month? Really? That’s what I pay for Adobe CC.
Webflow’s UI is a billion times better. I’m not sure if Froont would have provided more functionality (since, as explained above, Webflow is fairly limited in what it does) but I never got there. I couldn’t get off the ground at all.
Jetstrap sez: “THE BOOTSTRAP 3 BUILDER. Not just a mock-up tool, Jetstrap is the premier interface-building tool for Bootstrap 3.”
- Pass. (See ‘no free trial’ below.)
- No free trial. Seriously? I’m not paying you money to figure out that your tool sucks as much as all the others, even if I can cancel later.
- Bootstrap only. Apparently only integrates with Bootstrap, and I don’t love Bootstrap (prefer Foundation or Gumby, at the moment).
In the end, after a day full of testing and trying, the winner is (and I can’t believe I’m saying this): Webflow. I did not except to go with the option that doesn’t allow for any code editing, but it was by far the easiest to use, and the only one that actually let me get my task done. Webflow doesn’t do All The Things by any means, but it’s the only one that actually abstracts the web development process enough and is intuitive enough that it becomes faster to do mockups with it rather than just rocking on Bootstrap or Foundation on your local machine with your own server from the start. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much flexibility. If what you want to do isn’t implemented already, too bad, and I’m not sure I like it enough to pay $16 a month for a prototype tool.
Still, I’m really excited about the future of these tools! They will continue to improve. I think by the end of 2014 we’re going to have some serious changes to the web design/dev process – it will be a beautiful, beautiful day. Also, I’m really excited to see what Macaw has in store. If that Alchemy engine does what it says it can, it could be a game changer.