Yesterday we talked about the different hats that UI designers and artists wear in the industry; today, let's discuss the tools that they use. There's a wide variety of tools used in creating game UI, and experience with those tools is going to be critical to becoming a game UI designer. Let's look at the tools that every budding UI designer should be familiar with.
Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash/Actionscript
A UI designer can use any set of applications that do what the Adobe Creative Suite does, but this is the most common set of tools for the bulk of UI design tasks. Photoshop is used to create everything from full UI mock ups to the raw individual assets used within UI screens. Illustrator is less commonly used as a game UI development tool, but I personally find it useful for creating clean wireframes (more on that in a moment), and for icon work (I prefer creating suites of icons in a vector-based tool and then taking them into Photoshop to create the actual textures used in the game).
Flash is useful for two reasons. First, a designer can create quick and dirty working prototypes of UI flow and interaction without needing to create and run UI in the game (which, on some teams, might need the help of a programmer). If you have a chunk of UI that has a set of fairly complex interactions and you're not sure if it meets the design needs of the game designer, you can mock up the full interaction in Flash very quickly and have anyone on the team test it and provide feedback. Actionscript is the scripting component of Flash and is often necessary for more complex interactions.
Secondly, Flash and Actionscript together are a development environment for Scaleform, the UI system that is becoming more and more common in games. Developing UI in Flash for games that use Scaleform will allow you to be able to take well-developed Flash mock ups directly into the game, saving time.
Pen and paper
Sketching out your UI flows and screen concepts with pen and paper is the quickest way to iterate on UI. While many people will ask you what wireframing tool you use -- and you'll hear a lot thrown around -- I'll editorialize a bit and say that if you want to learn to use a wireframing tool and it makes your UI development easier, by all means use it. But I've found pen and paper to be the absolute fastest way of getting ideas out and iterated on. Learn the various wireframing tools if you can work quickly and easily in them, but it's a valuable UI designer who can do clear, informative sketches on a whiteboard during discussions.
Sketching UI with tablets like the iPad is another possibility, and can be done with sketch programs such as Sketchbook Pro, Paper, and more. These apps often integrate with tools such as Dropbox, Evernote, or sharing services, which let you quickly and easily send your UI concepts to team members without having to scan them.
If your game project doesn't use a tool like Scaleform and instead has a proprietary UI system, you'll need to at least learn the basics of that system in order to get UI up and running in the game. Fewer game and tech companies are opting to build their own UI systems and are instead moving to include systems like Scaleform. Some smaller games with downloadable SDKs (Software Development Kit), however, may have their own UI systems. These SDKs allow you to dig into the actual construction of the game, and possibly its UI, by giving you all the same content and tools that the game creators used and letting you make whatever changes you'd like to make it your own. Some games allow you to play with just the UI, essentially reskinning the default UI -- Blizzard's World of Warcraft allows you to do this by using the Lua scripting system. And if you're looking to work on mobile games for devices like the iPhone, you'll want to get yourself familiar with XCode, the freely-downloadable development environment for iOS.