How Abstract improves collaboration in our team

We are designers at Onfido, a tech company based in London. Our mission? To build the trust engine to power human interactions worldwide. Our team has grown incredibly fast in the last few months and currently, we are 6 designers working together between London and San Francisco.

London, we have a problem…

Growing the design team brought many challenges. It was getting harder to be consistent in our designs, to have all the assets in the same place, to keep everyone on the same page and to know who was working on what. And being split between London and San Francisco didn’t help.

🔍 So we found Abstract…

In theory

Abstract is a versioning system based on Git. If you have ever coded, you probably already know how it works. For those who have never heard of it, the logic is pretty simple.

You have one master which is a folder of files (in our case, Sketch files) considered as the source of truth. You can clone all the content of this folder into a branch. In this branch, you are able to do any modifications safely. All those modifications can be saved in what’s called a commit. Once you’ve finished all your edits, you can merge the branch to the master folder to update it.

If you want to know more about Git, you can find more here 🤖

In practice

After asking nicely on Twitter, we got access to an alpha version of Abstract. We’ve quickly started to use it on a daily basis. It took us a few days to get aligned on how it works and how to make a good use of it. Some members of our team had never used Git before so we needed to teach them the logic. Then, we created our different projects in Abstract. As we are a flat team, we decided that each team member would be in charge of one project.

Organisation

Do you remember the “OMG I edited/deleted the wrong file and now all my work is gone” scenario? As we are always stretched and trying to get things done quickly, this happened to us too many times. With Abstract, no matter how many versions of a file you create, duplicate or archive, you will always know which file is the latest version — the source of truth.

No more “final-final-version26.sketch”. Now our project folders are clean and make sense to anyone. Having a clear organisation is the most important thing when you work with others on a big project.

What kind of big project? A design system, for example… 😀

Versioning and documentation

Abstract’s workflow is pretty simple to use. After saving your Sketch file, you can preview all the edits you’ve made thanks to the Abstract Sketch plugin. You can then commit from Sketch.

The commit preview is detailed and shows all the edited artboard, visual and non-visual modifications in the file. You can have access to the history of all your (or colleagues’) commits and merge them to the master file when needed.

🕹 Getting started

It’s important to have a clear naming convention for each commit. Commit’s title and description, as well as Sketch artboards and elements should all be correctly named. It helps the whole team understand each other’s work, without having to spend much time looking at each commit. This is something we clearly didn’t spend enough time on. As we’re still trying out the tool, everyone has his own convention and we name commits as we go. It’s part of the productivity improvement we need to work on!

All the master files and the commits are stored on the cloud. This was our biggest concern. First, it meant that our Sketch files were isolated from other types of files. For each project, we have a very diverse documentation (user testing videos, charts, illustrations, Google Docs…) which can’t live in Abstract. We have to keep them in a separate folder with Sketch source files. That meant we started having different folders with different versions of files… which was what we’re trying to avoid.

Our second concern was that if there was any problem with Abstract, we wouldn’t have our files anymore. After a discussion with Abstract support, they promised to give us our files back if we ask for them. It was the most important thing for us to ensure we have backup before starting to work with Abstract.

Collaboration

A clear organisation from project to commits description allows us to work well together. Anyone can create a new branch from someone else’s work or the master file, which makes sure everyone is working on the latest version of a file without the risk of losing any information. No more “Which is the latest file?” or “Oh! I modified it, I’ll send you my SVG for that”.

It works well for our internal design team but it can get a bit trickier when we share our work with other teams/departments. Abstract’s preview mode is not built in a nice way to showcase design work to a non-designer. They recently added free reviewer accounts, but for us, InVision or Framer will always be better ways to showcase visual work. They provide context and are more “non-designer” friendly.

Communication

Being able to see other designers’ work is a great thing… but it’s even better to be able to leave feedback. We still use InVision to share our work, but within the design team we now also use Abstract as a quick feedback tool. They’ve also added annotations, just like in inVision!

We also have a Slack channel integration called #design-updates where we can see commits, updates and comments. With this, everyone knows who is working on what and can give feedback.

Takeaways

If you and your team are planning to use Abstract, here is what you need to know:

Pros:

  • It’s a good way of organising projects
  • It adds transparency about who is doing what, which is important in a team
  • It’s a nice collaboration tool which enhances feedback
  • They are still in alpha so there are a few bugs, but their support team is very efficient 😀

Cons:

  • It’s great to have a new tool but… it’s another tool to add to the many ones we’re already using. We still need to use Google Drive to store our projects. On specific points, it adds friction to our global workflow.
  • For now, we’ve been using Abstract’s alpha version for free. They will start to monetise their product in a few months, so it’s also something we need to be careful about. It’s an exciting tool, but do we need it so bad that we are ready to unlock a big budget for it?

Is Abstract really the best solution? Well… it’s the best we’ve found so far! The alpha version works well for us, but we’re still waiting to see what Abstract’s future looks like.

Written by 🤓 Charlotte S. /💃🏻 Alicia G. / 🦄 Fabien M. with ❤️