I’ve got ninety-nine problems, but a UX tool ain’t one.
I first heard the saying “the best camera is the one you have [with you]” in an art school photo class and the saying’s stuck with me ever since. There are some objects/tools I truly obsess about (pens, art supplies, bookshelves, phone cases, printers, note-taking tools…) — but over the years I’ve found that my choice of camera is much less important than other factors, such as the light, the environment, or even my mood.
It may not be a 1:1 analogy, but I have to confess that my view on UX tools is colored by a similar principle. At the end of the day, just about any tool can get the job done. In the course of my design career I’ve made use of Adobe Creative Suite (and later, Cloud), Axure, UXPin, Omnigraffle, and most recently: Sketch.
We all look for different things in a tool. As much as I’m a detail nut when it comes to taxonomies, information architecture, UX patterns, and choice of design components, and as much as I like to get into the weeds when optimizing a Walt Disney World vacation or curating my PIXAR collections, this love of detail doesn’t apply to my preference for UX tools.
When I look at UX tools, I look for the tool that gets the heck out of my way. That’s #1, for me. I don’t want to spend a ton of time customizing a work space and I sure as heck don’t want to enter the 7th circle of hell trying to refill an ojbect; I do want things to work the way I think they’ll work: “Hmm, command click drills down into the group…so shift + command + click probably drills down and selects multiple layers? YES, IT DID…WOOT!”
When a fellow nerd asks me what tool I think is best, I’m often that person. You know the one: I answer their question with a question. (Cut me some slack…it goes along with the territory of being a user researcher!) The question I ask first is: “What do you look for in a tool?” Then I’ll typically ask “What problems are you trying to solve most frequently? What tools do you use now, and what do you love or hate about them?” Tool selection when you’re a lone wolf or freelancer can be a different beast than when you’re part of a large enterprise team, so I’m also sure to ask “Who do you work with, and what do they use? What’s working well about that, and what’s not?”
Now that I’ve shared a little bit about my personal bias and evaluation criteria, I’ll share that my top three UX creation tools are Sketch, Omnigraffle, and Axure. (It almost pains me not to mention InVision — or even more so pen and pencils and paper — here but that’s not the kind of tool I’m focusing on right now.)
Right out of the gate, I’m going to go ahead and say that Axure is a lot like this Formula One steering wheel:
Somebody out there knows what everything on that thing does, someone out there can use it to good effect, but most people probably just need to turn one way or the other and occassionally go “beep beep!”. Axure has enormous power. Yes, you can build out a wireframe to any degree of resolution and fidelity…but you can also build out an incredibly robust site map that is fully linked. You can add complex transitions and imitate controls and map structures, but in many cases and for many teams it is overkill. And I’ve found that most often that degree of prototype is far better off being built in code with your friendly neighborhood developer(s).
Pros: versatility, power, architectural focus, can be server-based
Cons: learning curve like the Swiss Alps, often overkill, may encourage too much iteration in the theoretical space and complexity of “prototype” over shipping simple and iterating
I came to Morningstar as an Omnigraffle fangirl. (Maybe we always have some extra affection for the tool on which we cut our metaphorical teeth?) I began my UX practice using Omnigraffle and I think it does a great job of encouraging the use of symbols and the build out of linked user flows/task flows. If you haven’t used Omnigraffle to build out a task flow it has really cool features that allow for dynamic connections and reflow between objects. That’s really awesome when working on flows and architecture. Boxes and arrows FTW!
What I’ve found is that the actual utility of complex flows depends more on the working style of a team than anything else. It’s important that the architectural thought work is done every single time. If your team thrives on high-res, detailed task flows this might be the tool for your team. (You also are likely to have the happiest QC/QA engineers on the block.) If your team is like many — if not most — you can get as much bang for your buck from a task flow without the dynamic reflow and smart connections.
Omnigraffle also has nice support for reusable objects — equally great and time-saving for wireframes or flows. The way Omnigraffle structures pages makes even your most robust documents feel relatively simple, and tons of genuinely awesome templates (stencils) are available from the UX community; I particularly enjoy the JJG IA stencil. Omnigraffle is also great for creating page-level annotations.
Pros: Sweet reflow diagrams and smart connectors (IA, task flows), many great stencils, newish Omni server makes for easy access on many devices
Cons: limited control over visual styles, drawing reflow diagrams can behave unpredictably, a little crash prone (command + S! command + S!)
When I first started hearing “Sketch this” and “Sketch that” murmurs from the design community, I literally thought this was going to be another overhyped “here today, gone tomorrow” tool. I have never felt so wrong. This is the definition of a purpose built tool for digital product design; it is a tool that sets a standard for a community focused on user centered design and “jobs to be done” vs. feature bloat. (I’m looking at you here, Adobe.)
The best way I can describe my love affair with Sketch is to say that everything works the way I think it will — to the point that the tool starts to become almost invisible in the way that pen and paper does. I can count on one or two hands the number of times I’ve resorted to a video (or, admittedly, asking uber-Sketch-guru colleague Dave Ruse) to learn how to do something I wanted to do.
Plug-ins for data (Craft) and shared libraries combined with nested symbols have almost literally brought a tear to my eye when prototyping for complex financial products. I have entered example data for HelloWallet’s Budgets 2.0 prototypes once (ONCE!) and re-used the data again and again and again and again and…you get the idea. Filling tables and similarly complex components with realistic data — a task that would’ve taken hours for me in an Adobe tool — takes moments. I find the realism of data helps not only our users (think remote usability or concept testing…) but also my colleagues, including devs (think discussing an approach or architecting a service/build).
Pros: Purpose built from the ground up. Light and fast. Plug-ins allow for lightning fast incorporation of data including JSON. Symbols and overrides bring mind-blowing speed to prototyping, nested symbols make it easy to prototype accurately with lower level of effort. Gets out of the way and allows for focus on concept, strategy, architecture, and all the rest.
Cons: Can be way too easy or tempting to go “too hi-res” and start designing. No server/shared document support (yet….?). Not enough support for the IA/user flow side of UX. (Hear that InVision?)
At the end of the day, I believe our work is best-served by the tool that fits us best — and that’s a very personal decision made more complex when the needs of the team or enterprise are as or more weighty. The wins inherent to having a team converge on the fewest number of tools possible go far beyond convenience but extend to the sharing of knowledge and practice. So much of UX is not the creation of a wireframe or beautiful flow, but rather figuring out what problem we should be solving, what motivates our users, or “what happens when”. Given Sketch’s ability to be a super-slick means to that end, I think it has a bright future as UX tool of choice.