6 Trends in UX Tools

This post originally appeared on CodeFight On!, the CodeFights blog.

I’d say I’m a pretty low-maintenance UX designer, but man, UX tools are a mess. When designers meet, they often have this weird back and forth around their tools that goes something like this:

“Oh me? I’m an Adobe lover myself.”


“Heck no! I’m a diehard Fireworks fan.”

“Ah, holdout. I’m on Sketch these days.”

“Oh really? Does it replace your entire workflow?”

“Yeah, I’ve phased out Balsamiq and canceled Omnigraffle.”

“Oh cool. What about Macaw?”

“Meh, my developer says he hates the code it generates. Have you tried Zeplin yet?”

“Nope, can’t get an invite for their beta…”

You get the idea.

Basically, the UX tool ecosystem started with Adobe (Coreldraw, anyone?), and has been sprouting new variants like weeds every year since (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Some transitions have made sense, like the move to vector or proportional design (who cares about pixels anymore anyway?), and the general slimming down of tools in reaction to Adobe’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, but overall things are still very much in flux. This means a few things for the average UX designer and what’s to come:

1. Tools aimed at facilitating designer-developer communication will win.

This used to mean “generate CSS code”, like in the old days with Dreamweaver. However, this invariably actually means “generate code my developer will have to rewrite anyway”, so unless you’re a UX-designer-front-end-developer-Unicorn, this isn’t the right approach (sorry Macaw).

What I think this means is sitting at the friction points between the two roles, something Zeplin seems to do well — it basically provides a real time view of layouts, widths and other metadata required for the front-end developer to actually get to work. This way there’s no need to painstakingly spec out a UI, or spend ages putting together a style guide (Zeplin auto-generates one for you). Definitely the future.

2. Optimize for stability and speed.

Stability means being able to handle larger files, and not crashing at the drop of a hat. Gone are the days of setting up a script to auto-save an Illustrator or Fireworks file in case it crashed and was unable to save the data (which was the norm). Sketch does a great job of handling dozens of art boards, rarely crashing, and saving everything on the off-chance that it does go down.

Optimizing for speed means building tools that make it easy to get going. Sketch again does this really well, as it interprets Illustrator files with ease (though I can’t say the same vice-versa). More importantly, this also means actually adhering to the UX tenet of “progressive disclosure”: don’t show me everything when I only need a few core tools. Adobe is notorious in this realm — every product is like using a shotgun to shoot a fly, so much crap you just don’t need. An obvious downside is that tools like Photoshop and Illustrator are just more “powerful” overall.

3. Vectors > pixels.

This is old news, but still important: unless you’re an icon designer, pixels are going the way of the Dodo as pixel-independent resolutions take over. Every once in a great while you’ll need pixels to specify layouts and spacing at a specific screen size, but then everything is proportional. Thank god, because designing with pixel specificity for Android’s umpteen screen resolutions would be an absolute nightmare.

Pixels are going the way of the Dodo.

4. Be accessible and interoperable or die.

At least for now, anyway. Can’t open a Sketch file in Photoshop? Fail. Need to buy a license to see a design? Fail again. Tools like Zeplin and Invision, which both provide easy access to non-designer teammates, will eventually displace the Ivory Towers.

Speaking of which:

5. Nobody’s nailed the teamwork aspect of design tools.

Even when a designer gets a tool dialed in, there still comes a moment when assets need to be shared with their team. If it’s just to share for feedback, a simple export or Invision prototype is fine, and easy enough to accomplish. However, most design tools ignore a very simple fact: designers often work in teams. This means designing and editing the same UI, often at the same time. It’s incredibly frustrating and usually means someone has the unenviable job of merging designs after a day of work, which only gets harder the bigger the team. The first one to nail this will be a game changer.

Design tools ignore a simple fact: designers often work in teams.

6. Animations are the future.

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to animations, I’ve got a lot to learn. They’re something I always talk about early in a project…only to forget them until the end, by which point it’s a mad scramble to do even the basics. On top of that, until just a few years ago, “animations” meant simple, often purely linear movement: ease in, slide up, pop in. There wasn’t much magic to the whole thing, and it was mostly relegated to page-level animations. Boring.

Nowadays it’s just the opposite: objects take on a life of their own as they expand, rotate, bounce, fade and, as with Google Material, ripple. And with cool (web based!) tools like Pixate, animations are almost impossible to ignore. Once, I worked with an engineer who created a physics engine purely so that a card would spring back at just the right rate. Amazing. It’s all fascinating stuff and we’re heading to a world where the absence of thoughtful, realistic animations will be felt more keenly than their presence.

Header image CC from Erich Stussi

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