Design Software Needs to Become Modular

Or, “Why do design products separate features by team size?”

Access to design knowledge and its tools has come a long way since I started designing in 2005: you can now “rent” software with small monthly fees instead of paying large amounts for yearly licenses; you can learn the latest techniques through online courses and videos instead of paying big to participate in workshops; you can buy ebooks and read great articles online instead of waiting on imported books to be available at a local book store or the university library. Design has moved from bloated big agencies to home offices and small teams, but team size and budget still dictate which features you get in your software.

Many of the new and exciting design tools out there still treat small teams and freelance (or just solo) designers as “less professional”, or should I say, “less inclined to use advanced tools” than large teams. For a large part of the companies offering SaaS size equals proficiency. In some cases there’s no actual reason for a feature to be set in a different price plan other than forcing users to pay more for a product.

Let’s take for example one of my favorite tools, which I have beta tested for over 2 years and designed many projects on, UXPin. UXPin is a prototyping tool that has many wonderful features, like automatically creating style guides and specs for designs. However this is a feature that they market to “mid-sized” teams. I wonder what makes a certain number of designers (but not less than that certain number) more inclined to need to create specs for their designs than a solo designer.

UXPin markets, prices and limits features by team size. I can do with 25 projects but I need developer handoff.

Webflow is another excellent service, allowing you to quickly design a website or prototype in a WYSIWYG interface. However, their “solo” plan does not allow one to export the code for the projects. I get it, it’s a free plan, bu if you’re going to make me pay for hosting, at least give me the option to pay a fee to export the code.

Webflow only allows certain tiers to export the code for their projects. I just need one site but I need to export my code.

Likewise, Adobe has product plans either too small or too large: you either get Photoshop and Lightroom, or Photoshop along with some 40 other software you’d rarely use. There isn’t an optimal plan for designers, which would — in my opinion — bundle Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and After Effects and cost a lot less than a bundle of 40+ software.

Make your own software

Everything is customizable nowadays. You can design and print your own t-shirts, mugs and duvets at Zazzle, you can design your own Xbox controller and your own Motorola device, you can pick if you want more minutes or more data bandwith in your phone plan, you can build a PC piece by piece (or get it built for you) but you cannot pick which features are important to you in the design software that you use.

Yes, you can pay more for the feature you want, but can you afford it? Does a single extra feature translate fairly into an extra $20 monthly? Even if you’re in an actual large team, is it worth another $20 per user per month? How about the features that you don’t use, can you remove them and pay less? I’d surely love not to pay for all the tacky Photoshop filters I haven’t used since 1999, or the photography related features like lens correction, Bridge and RAW support.

Motorola’s “Project Ara” modular mobile phone prototype — build your own phone, pay for what you need

It can be done

A company that does this right is PreSonus. They make one of the best Digital Audio Workstation software out there, “Studio One”. Studio One has three versions: a free one, a solo artist one, and a professional one. Even though these versions contain different sets of features, a customer can use the free version and pay to add custom features he needs (in a plug-in-like manner) that would be available only on the more expensive versions. For example, the Studio One free version doesn’t come with the ability to export audio directly to MP3, but you can buy that feature by itself and add it in.

PreSonus sells features and plug-ins from their more expensive software versions so that users of the free or “mid” versions can build the software up to their needs

It’s time SaaS stops being divided into tiers and steps, and let customers pay for what they need. I, and many other solo designers wouldn’t mind paying an extra fee for certain features as long as we’re not attached to this or that plan, and stuck with this or that other unwanted feature because of our “team size”.

It is not the job of a SaaS developer to define the level of professionalism nor which tools a team will use based on its size. Guiding an user towards its most probable set of wanted features is good experience design, but limiting experienced users into boxes of expected knowledge or needs is bad experience design.