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The Past, Present and Future of Design Tools

Darryl Gray
Jan 26, 2016 · 5 min read

Digital product design has been gaining momentum since the iPhone put a computer in everyone’s pocket and changed expectations forever. Organizations are investing more money into design and consumers are more design-savvy than ever before. But while the nature of digital product design has radically changed, the tools have not … until now.

The past, present and future of design tools is something we discuss a lot at Atomic. This post shares some of our thinking about what’s been happening in the design tools space and what lies ahead.

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2015: The Cambrian Explosion

The new tools from 2015 are distinct from their evolutionary predecessors. These tools are cloud-native and purpose-built for modern design practices.

PROTOTYPING TOOLS STARTED THE EXPLOSION by making interactive prototyping accessible to the mass market. At the beginning of 2015, the best prototyping tools were powerful but difficult to use. They were useful for tasks that required precision detail, but were too heavy for exploring ideas and too difficult for team use. A new wave of tools made prototyping easier to use and available to more people. At Atomic, we chose to combine prototyping with drawing and collaboration features to make it easier to explore ideas or design in teams.

THE INCUMBENT WAS FORCED TO EVOLVE. Adobe gave a sneak peek of Project Comet, indicating a mid-late 2016 release. The announcement was pretty carefully orchestrated, so it’s too early to tell how useful the product will be in reality. The announcement provided the best confirmation yet that the design tools category is undergoing massive change.

DRAWING TOOLS ALSO SAW ACTION. New players emerged to challenge Sketch’s dominance of detailed drawing tools. Affinity Designer went deep on features, while Figma focused on collaborative drawing. These tools sweated the finer points of precision drawing but their relative heaviness (and lack of prototyping features) relegated their usefulness to the later stages of design, where every pixel matters.

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2016: The Battle for Design Workflow

As the hype of 2015 fades, the new tools need to survive in the wild. The tools that are most enjoyable to use and improve team workflow will be the winners.

PROTOTYPING WILL GO PRIME-TIME in early 2016 as Adobe and others ramp up their marketing efforts. The result will be increased awareness of design tools in the mainstream audience. Prototyping will be seen as an essential early-stage team activity amongst smart teams (“a prototype is worth a thousand meetings”), and as the preferred way to communicate product ideas to stakeholders.

COLLABORATION WILL BE THE BATTLEFRONT once prototyping becomes entrenched. Working on ideas with other team members and sharing the results will make collaboration an essential feature. Poor collaboration will be particularly problematic for larger organizations, where the cost of mistakes and missed opportunities is much greater. Web-based tools that require no installation will have a distinct advantage as more non-designers participate in the design process.

TOOLS MUST IMPROVE TEAM WORKFLOW. Innovative features and a great design experience will be must-haves, but non-designers will revolt against any design tools that prove detrimental to the overall team workflow. There will be no room for confused or janky tools, or those unable to provide best-in-class customer service and support.

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2017 & Beyond: The Emerging Leaders

Organizations will continue to spend heavily on design, and the leading tools will deliver the best measurable return on that investment. There will be a lot of venture capital, some surprising acquisitions, and fewer — but better — tools.

THE DESIGN GENERATION WILL BE A FORCE to be reckoned with. Those who were too young to remember the pre-iPhone era are all grown up and will enter the world with extremely high expectations as both consumers and producers of digital products. There will be a similar paradigm shift at executive- and investment-level as those who ‘cut their teeth’ during the iPhone era move up to more senior positions. The result will be greater demands on design at the organizational level, and greater pressure on design tools to help solve these problems.

DESIGN TOOLS WILL PROVIDE INTELLIGENCE via automation, patterns, telemetry, and optimization. Organizations will use design tools to discover, develop and leverage the unique design intelligence they create during the design process. The leading tools will become deeply embedded into engineering and product management workflows as design spreads throughout the organization.

TRANSPARENCY WILL BE AN IMPORTANT CONCEPT as companies push more people to access, consume, and contribute to their collective design intelligence. The shift towards transparency will mirror recent similar shifts in data and messaging—two areas that also generate knowledge that is valuable across the entire organization.

Looking out even further, I believe we will see a new incumbent in the design tools space by 2020. This incumbent will come from the new crop of tools we’ve seen emerge in the last year or so. But however things play out, we’re certain to see some exciting developments over the next few years!

If you have further thoughts, I’d love to hear them: write a response or note here, or hit me up on Twitter. You can find out more about Atomic on our website or by following us on Twitter.

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