The product designer’s toolbox

When every question has countless different answers, things get confusing. Fast.

Preface

What do product designers use?

As a relatively new designer myself, I get overwhelmed when searching for the right tool for a specific task. When there’s multiple answers for every question, things get confusing. Fast. Until I ventured into the wonderful world of product design, my main tools were as followed:

  • Pen and paper
  • Box cutter
  • InDesign
  • Illustrator

Granted, I was using these tools primarily for my coursework in college, which was geared towards physical craft. I pulled my fair share of all-nighters measuring, cutting and re-cutting. Gluing, peeling apart, and re-gluing. It was a painful, repetitive process, but worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I love print design, and I love crafting a design from real, physical objects. I’m not trying to knock designers that work that way, but I‘ve fallen in love with product and *~digital~* design. Unfortunately, my school didn’t have a curriculum focused on web/mobile design apart from one course (User Interface Design…with Photoshop 😟).

So, to reach the title of Product Designer, I had to fully immerse myself and teach myself the basics. As I mentioned earlier, this is a daunting task, especially to a new designerbut also a fun one. Hopefully this article answers some of the questions new designers may have about product design and the tools that come with it.

Disclaimer: There won’t be any definitive choices in this article. Every designer works differently, and the tools I recommend may not be the best for you. This article is only meant to help you find the right tool for the right job in your workflow.

Brainstorming and Ideation

Pen and paper

Pen and paper still reigns over the digital alternative in important ways:

  • Rapid prototyping: You’ll often be asked to deliver a proof of concept under a tight deadline. That may sound easy if you’re designing for one or two screens, but what happens if you’re designing for an entire sitemap, or enterprise software? Pen and paper are your best friends for quick sketches and accompanying annotation. Bonus: Check out What the hell is “Rapid Prototyping”? by Keaton Herzer.
  • Easy handoff: Notebook sketches can be passed around the conference table or scanned and emailed to your team in a matter of seconds. Collaborators can make comments, sketch their own ideas, or just trash it and tell you to start over. Now, aren’t you glad you didn’t spend three hours in Sketch?
  • Inspires creativity: There’s no worse feeling as a designer than staring at a blank canvas on your computer screen for hours on end, unable to come up with that next big idea. When you stare into the pixels, they also stare back at you. If that feeling does hit, crack open your notebook. When your hand is able to move freely across the page, and you can see the direct results of your creativity in the ink on the paper, you get motivated. You get inspired. You realize that you are a creative person, and that the pixels aren’t just staring — they’re cheering you on, waiting for you to transfer your awesome idea from the page to the screen.

For more advantages of pen and paper prototyping, check out Andrew Couldwell’s article.

Milanote

Photos: Milanote

Pinterest

Honorable mentions: Dribbble, Designspiration, Medium, pttrns.com, Muzli

User Flows and Wireframing

Whimsical

Whimsical Flowcharts

Overflow

Balsamiq

Disclaimer: You may want to read James Hatfield’s article here before committing to purchasing Balsamiq.

Photo: Balsamiq

Wireframe.cc

Photo: Fatbit Technologies

Honorable Mentions: Moqups

Low-fidelity Prototyping

Sketch

Sketch is a design toolkit built to help you create your workfrom your earliest ideas through your final work. When you launch Sketch for the first time, it will appear shockingly minimal. The first time I opened Sketch, I thought, “There’s no way I can design an entire app in this.” How naive I was.

Sketch has evolved into somewhat of a powerhouse design tool. Nowadays, there’s resources at our disposal for rapid prototyping, hundreds of plugins to increase functionality, and best of all, Sketch is compatible with some of the [other] best prototyping tools out there, like InVision, Figma, Framer, and more.

Figma

Image result for figma design
Photo: Matt Healy

High-fidelity Prototyping

Framer (X)

Framer kicks it up a notch with their implemented code prototyping. Framer runs on CoffeeScript, a lightweight programming language that compiles into JavaScript. With CoffeeScript, you can prototype almost anything: animations, gestures, and even live data requests.

Framer X was recently announced and is currently in closed beta. It’s a whole new product, and more advanced than Framer, allowing you to use components to build entire interactive design systems, all based on React and ES6.

Photo: MacUpdate

Principle

Principle offers Principle Mirror, which makes sharing your prototype with others effortless. You can also export a standalone Mac app for others to view for easy feedback and collaboration.

Sketch

Sketch recently implemented prototyping, allowing you to create interactive workflows and preview your designs as your users will see them. Sketch’s prototyping allows you to create gestures and interactions without ever leaving the app, but it is somewhat limited compared to other hi-fi prototyping toolsno custom animations and only a handful of gestures.

Photo: Sketch

InVision Studio

Studio allows you to design, prototype, and animateall in one place. InVision has its roots in prototyping, and Studio takes that to the next level, with powerful vector editing, flexible layer styling, and pixel-perfect layouts. Rapid prototyping comes easy with comprehensive gestures and instant playback.

Studio took it a step further by incorporating animations. You’re able to use the built-in preset animations or customize them with timelines and easing editors.

Another advantage of Studio is InVision’s Design System Manager, which guarantees instant access to your team’s global shared component libraries, making it easier to remain consistent and manage your designs at scale.

Image result for invision studio
Photo: UX Collective

From Prototype to Product

Zeplin

Zeplin is an app for UI designers and frontend developers, enabling them to collaborate efficiently and save time. Designers can quickly turn their designs into powerful specs and guidelines while developers can access all the resources they need in a single location and generate code snippets that are tailored to the platform they’re working on.

Zeplin seamlessly integrates with Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD, and Photoshop for effortless collaboration across your favorite design tool. Zeplin also features support for Slack and Trello to supercharge your workflow.

Photos: Zeplin

Avocode

Avocode also offers a nifty version control system. It keeps an unlimited design version history for every file to avoid conflict. Coupled with Avocode’s file management system, it’s easy to keep track of changes and file placement.

Photo: Avocode

Hotjar

Hotjar features heatmaps, recordings, conversion funnels, form analysis, and more. Whether you’re working solo or on a team, Hotjar provides necessary information about your users so you can keep iterating and improving your product.

Photos: Hotjar

Version Control and File Management

Dropbox/Google Drive

Abstract

Abstract builds upon and extends the stable technology of Git to host and manage your work. Abstract’s comical how-to guide offers a look at how easy it is to create, maintain, collaborate on, and update projects.

Abstract currently only supports Sketch files, but more file formats are expected soon.

Plant

Trunk

Trunk is another alternative for a secure version control platform, made specifically with designers in mind. Trunk takes on the automated version control approach, telling you to forget the “branches, pull-requests, and merging” jargon. This may be a good starting point for those who are new to version control.

Trunk offers support for Sketch and Photoshop files.

Honorable mention: Kactus

Conclusion

I love feedback! If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, please feel free to drop a response below and let me know what you would’ve changed or added. Let me know what tools you use in your design workflow!

Special thanks to Brandon Getty for proofreading and editing this article.

Update: Hansel Wong created a super useful resource that lists some of the apps here plus many others. Check it out at https://neede.co/

BA Photography @ Sacramento State. Habitual designer.

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