How Figma became our remote whiteboard

Trevor Hock
Jul 22, 2020 · 3 min read
Figma collaboration.

One of the ongoing challenges faced by any product design team is “managing the workbench”: first, selecting the right design applications in a crowded & highly-specialized field, then stitching them together to form a cohesive design pipeline. Newer software has tended toward simplicity & achieving singular goals, as if in reaction against feature-bloated programs of the past, like Photoshop.

But the pendulum may have swung too far. Unfortunately, the often one-dimensional nature of modern design tools has led to a situation where designers and product/engineering teams are forced to rely on several sources of truth: the Sketch file, the image output, the InVision prototype, the Zeplin project to inspect code, etc. As a designer who transitioned from Photoshop to Axure to Sketch over the course of my career, I’ve experienced many of the benefits and pitfalls of these applications and how they serve UX design, and I’ve learned how it can pay to shake up your system now and then to keep up with the state-of-the-art.

Over the past year, conversations in the community have turned towards Figma for its consolidation of Sketch, InVision, and Zeplin features. It caught my attention, so I decided to try it out for a few projects. After a lengthy trial period, Axial’s product team transitioned away from our suite of design products into Figma. Here’s why…

Axial’s product team has always been exceptionally collaborative and cross-functional, all wearing a variety of hats based on the task at hand, but Figma has allowed us to recreate collectively sketching on a whiteboard in a digital environment.

In today’s age of remote work, we’ve found its combination of features particularly effective in keeping collaboration alive. We love how easy Figma makes it to maintain a single source of truth (the engineers do too). But perhaps Figma’s single greatest asset though is its entirely web-based platform which allows for unprecedented cross-team collaboration.

I wrote an essay in 2010 about how HTML5’s canvas element would deprecate modern applications and the world would soon move away from traditional “apps” into web-based applications that were equally robust. While time has not been kind to that essay, as a decade later we still have a massive array of native applications, Figma is perhaps the best proof of concept for the canvas-based web application to date. Axial’s product team has always been exceptionally collaborative and cross-functional, all wearing a variety of hats based on the task at hand, but Figma has allowed us to recreate collectively sketching on a whiteboard in a digital environment.

In many ways, it has simplified our former collaborative process just by removing several loops.

When we used to be in the office, we’d quarantine ourselves in one of our meeting rooms drawing and writing all over our many whiteboard walls until we had reached something we all felt good about. Now in quarantine, we enter our Figma board. One of us adds buttons, someone else works on copy, and I make sure to keep visuals consistent all at once in realtime. In many ways, it has simplified our former collaborative process just by removing several loops. We no longer have to whiteboard for several hours to then spend more time creating a high fidelity mockup — instead we use high fidelity mockups as our whiteboard. While there is nothing quite like wireframing with pen and paper, Figma works very well as a stand-in while we’re apart.

As many companies are rethinking physical spaces in the post-quarantine world, Figma is uniquely positioned to provide those physical spaces without the real estate.

Yes, there were switching costs (I spent a few long days migrating files over), and sure, Figma hasn’t totally perfected the work of the numerous applications it seeks to replace (its component feature leaves much to be desired compared to Sketch’s, the fixed position elements in prototyping are based on screen size instead of being universal, etc.), but its ability to support real-time collaboration while performing comparably has been indispensable during lockdown. As many companies are rethinking physical spaces in the post-quarantine world, Figma is uniquely positioned to provide those physical spaces without the real estate.

Axial Product and Design

Thoughts on product management and design from the Axial…

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