Perspectives on a true UX tool

Moving our UX tooling forward by taking on different perspectives, with contributions by Axure, InVision, Marvel, Proto.io and UXPin


This is the follow up article on A true UX tool, about the need for a UX tool that goes beyond prototyping.

When I was studying interaction design at the HKU University of the Arts (Netherlands) it dawned on me that everything around us is designed by people. I started noticing all the horrible design choices "What ignorant fool was responsible for this horrible elevator interface!” I would tell myself and my friends.

Having experienced the full design process in many projects from idea to product (and from idea to nothing), I noticed that reality has a tendency to ignore our carefully crafted plans. To overcome all the setbacks it provides is an accomplishment in itself.

This does not mean we should lower the bar. When designing, I like to first approach the problem as if reality wasn’t that much of a factor. If we know where we are moving towards, we might need to make compromises in the steps towards that goal. But if you embed your compromises in your goal, you risk getting lost in details that appear important because of your current (mis)understanding of reality.

With that in mind, I wrote A true UX tool (June 2015), where I tried to define what would be required of a perfect UX tool.

Sam commented: “I would kill for this tool. Please Zeus would someone build it.”

The article seemed to resonate and I wanted to investigate the topic further. For me, understanding comes from a mix of taking in different perspectives, my own experiences and deliberate thinking. So I reached out to UX tool creators, colleagues and the UX community on social media to gather their perspectives.

What to expect in this article

In this article I’d like to get a more in depth grip of the topic of UX tooling and how we can improve them. I’ll do this in 5 steps:

1. Quickly summarize the previous article on what I would consider a True UX tool.

2. Learn from the perspectives of our tool makers & UX community

3. Learn from how other digital tools are made

4. Try to look over the horizon for where we are heading

5. Suggest concrete steps we can do right now

Quick summary of A True UX tool

If you just read my previous article, you can safely skip this part.

As a UX designer we can use of many great tools. But when we take a closer look at what a typical workday looks like, our tooling seems to focus mostly on prototyping. It would be great if we could have a tool that would take into account the full workflow and reality of our job.

With that in mind, I set two core requirements for a True UX tool:

  1. It needs to be a holistic tool that is formed by how different parts, like personas and customer journeys are intertwined.
  2. It makes communication easy. Taking into account that as a UX designer your core deliverable is a plan you need to communicate to different stakeholders.

I also sketched some features to show that a tool based on these requirements is feasible.

Let’s make a clean separation between design and communicating your design

Input from the tool makers

I sent out an e-mail to five tool makers; Axure, InVision, Marvel, UXPin and Proto.io. Only one of them needed to be lured with a video of a lazy cat to provide input.

A true UX tool as defined by our tool makers

I’ll let the tool makers speak for themselves here:

Marvel

Murat Mutlu co-founder of Marvel
“For me it’s something that can help you quickly create and validate whatever design or idea you have in your mind. It doesn’t have to do everything — just a couple of things really well.”

InVision

Stephen Olmstead, VP of Research & Partnerships at InVision

“If all UXers are different, then how do you create one tool to rule them all? [ .. ] Think of it this way: a toolbelt is essential to a handyman. In it he can store all of his most essential tools for a wide variety of jobs. He’s faster and more efficient when the right tools are always at the ready waiting to be plucked from his belt.

There will always be niche disciplines that require niche tools. However I think it’s important that we are mindful of our tool belts. What service or system do you use to help facilitate and unify your UX process? What thematic piece binds up all of your separate tools unifies them in a meaningful way?

We pour over research findings and interviews and then ask the question: What is the big, unifying pattern here? As we detect those patterns we seek to build both better tools and a better toolbelt to unify the UX process.”

UXPin

Marcin Treder CEO of UXPin

“The true UX design tool will enable a constant flow of collaborative creation, allowing for everyone — designers, developers, PMs, CEOs, marketers, business analysts — to participate in that process.

The design process changes from team to team and, very often, from project to project. Typical steps are only vaguely standardized. That makes the creation of a true UX tool challenging, yet extremely interesting. You need to provide flexibility and openness in areas where to this day we’ve seen only strict boundaries (think about the learning curve in the classic graphic design tools).”

Axure

Victor Hsu co-founder of Axure

A UX tool in my mind is any tool that supports the user-centered design process. That can range anywhere from a pencil to prototyping and development tools to eye tracking solutions. By true I get the sense that you’re looking to define the one tool that does it all (or maybe 80%). If that’s the case, my starting point would be to look at every stage in UCD and determine if a tool can support that stage. If so, those capabilities would likely be a part of the true UX tool.”

In response to my follow up question on the role of prototyping: “I’d say we believe that prototyping is a core part of UX design, but I’m not sure I would say the core part. Each part contributes to the overall in different ways so it’s tough to compare them. However, the prototyping part of UX design may be the part where a tool can provide the most value.”

Proto.io

Alexis Piperides co-founder of Proto.io

“To define a UX tool one must first define UX. [ .. ] UX is a result of aesthetics (design), interactions (animations + mechanics), communication (content copy) and performance (digital + cognitive).

A true UX tool is a tool that adds value to the above and enables people to improve the UX of their product while at the same time facilitates collaborative work and enhances the design and development process.

Such tools can address a specific topic e.g. design, or even more or all of the factors. Regardless, a true UX tool must enable users to collaboratively work to build, iterate and improve their ideas, visualize them, test them, measure their results, with the ultimate goal to validate their idea early and efficiently, bridge the communication gaps between the stakeholders (especially designers/developers) and achieve unparalleled results that without such a tool wouldn’t be possible in the same timeframe and with the same effort.”

UX community on social media

As you might expect, in defining a true UX tool we have to look at what it is to do UX and where we need support. As mentioned by our tool makers, UX designers often use a set of different tools.

On a LinkedIn topic, people shared the (combination of) tools they used to do their work. Some were happy with what they had, others felt they needed more.

Patrick Lewis: “The prototyping and collaboration part is easy for my team. We really need help on the research/validation side.”
Scott Barnes: “Sketch + InVisionApp + Confluence seems to hold back the tide of pain.”

On Google+, a request for better integration between tools.

Arindam Das: “One thing I would like to add is a better way to integrate the research findings from surveys and data tracking tools like Google Analytics, Omniture and etc. I believe there should be a way the tool should be able to integrate with these and help the designers gain valuable insights.”

On Twitter and in the comments we again see some people struggle and feel the need for something that goes beyond our current options.

Robert Solberg commented: Sometimes I feel like half my job is figuring out the best way to present the info that needs to be communicated throughout the process to everyone involved! I love the vision you started for a tool that would include user personas and stories and tie them into the various stages of design and development. That would be huge!

The recurring theme seems to be that working with our tools can feel complex and fragmented.

Taking inspiration from other tools

Ludvik commented: “The simplest UX Tool is still pen and paper. If you want to add sharing screen capture and share through any cloud service.”

Where I stated the need for a holistic UX tool, Ludvik went the opposing way. He questions the need for any specialized UX tool. So what becomes the rule to decide what tasks should be supported in one tool? What perspective should we take when searching for a tool to best support us?

Perhaps we can learn something from tools in other fields. If we look at Instagram, it started out by making it super simple to beautify and share your images.

It’s also clear that Instagram is not for professional image manipulation like Photoshop. You might say that a ‘True’ tool provides you with the right amount of control for the task at hand. Assuming we are talking about professionals, we want a high level of control over the parts where we add value.

We also can take inspiration from 3D modeling tools. Programs like 3DS Max function as the unified tool that allows you to work with your project and do ‘everything’ for your 3D project. You have a number of disciplines like modeling, texturing, and camera work, that have their own views. It provides you with a high level of control over a large group of tasks.

In 3Ds Max you have different views to focus on different tasks. All in the context of the same scene you are working on.

If you just want to make simple shapes to 3D print. You need a tool like Doodle 3D.

Draw something, extrude and print.

Both 3ds Max and Doodle 3D are powerful in their own way.

Control

Victor (Axure): The 3DS Max analogy is interesting. It raised the questions: what kinds of projects only require Doodle3D, and would the people who use it be considered true 3D modelers?

I would say that Doodle 3D probably isn’t a ‘True’ 3D modeling tool. Doodle 3D makes it easy to quickly get a nice result, but a professional 3D modeler wants a very specific end result. This requires a higher level of control.

Often the professional needs a higher level of control

This does not mean we always need high fidelity prototypes. Our work consists of communicating a plan, not just creating prototypes. Sometimes a sketch on a whiteboard will do.

Level of task grouping

What tasks does the tool want to support?

3DS Max supports you in a high level of grouping tasks. It goes beyond creating a 3D model, it also enables you to do texturing, lighting and much more that is part of the creation of a 3D movie.

But the level of tasks grouping is independent from the level of control it offers. A code editor like Sublime gives you a lot of control, but from the perspective of a professional Android developer, it aims to support you at a lower level than an IDE like Android Studio that for instance also supports you with previews of screens. What the correct level is, depends on what for you feels is one mental process, which tasks are fundamentally connected.

Less is more?

You could reason that a set of small specialized tool offers the best support. It might feel like a more ambitious tool will become too complex to use. The saying ‘Less is more’ comes to mind. And yes, there are tasks when you need such a specialized tool.

Both of these tools are equally suited for poking out an eye

The goal of a more unified UX tool makes sense when its made to support the UX designer who is working on a digital project within a team and requires a high level of control over their work.

If the scope of grouped tasks is limited, there can be projects where you need to increase the number of tools to get the job done. And with every tool comes extra costs. Not just financial costs, there are also cognitive costs for switching between interfaces, time wasted on import/exporting and different file types and URLs to share.

If you dream up a UX tool that supports all of our core tasks, wouldn’t it need to be a big complex tool, just like 3DS Max? On the one hand I’d say; We are professionals and it’s acceptable that our tools have a learning curve if that helps us to become more effective and efficient.

On the other hand; We don’t need a high level control over everything. Because all projects (and jobs) have slightly different requirements, it makes sense to also borrow the concept of plugins from other programs like 3DS Max. We need an acceptable solution for our core tasks baked in the program and can use plugins and progressive disclosure to deal with some of the more advanced features not all UX designer need.

The Goldilocks scope for a True UX tool

This brings me to the following scope:

  • Correct level of task grouping, for me that is the level of a UX project. A holistic approach that includes personas, customer journeys, etc.
  • A high level of control on the parts that matter most.
  • Extendable via plugins / extensions.

Even with this scope, there is always a need to work with multiple tools, since different specialists collaborate in a creative team. In our 3D modeling example; besides 3DS Max, the team might need a tool like After Effects to edit the movie. So a seamless integration between tools is essential.

What’s on the horizon?

News from our tool makers

I asked the tool makers to share what they have in store for us. A lot of attention goes to collaboration and integration.

UXPin

Marcin: “We’ve recently introduced advanced visual editor for animations and interactions. It allows designers as well as non-designers build animated prototypes (no coding skills required!).”

Axure

Victor: “Here are a few things coming in 8 that could be interesting. [ .. ] Snapshot Widget — making it easier to document user flows through a prototype. [ .. ] Team Projects on Axure Share — previously required SVN. The custom solution on Axure Share will let us improve a team’s workflow. i.e. notifications, navigating history, etc.

InVision

Stephen: “We’re proud to have integrations with Dropbox, Google Drive, Sketch, Photoshop, Trello, Jira, Slack, Lookback (just launched this week- hooray!) and a host of other tools. Look for more powerful integrations/partnerships on the horizon as well as a number of brand new tools that will slot nicely into that UX tool belt. Our ongoing objective is to unify workflows by lowering the cognitive load of ‘tool switching’”

Marvel

Murat: “The integration we’re doing with Lookback is one example of what the future of Marvel will look like. Increasing the power and value of prototypes by plugging into incredible 3rd party services.”

Proto.io

.. Alexis was somewhat mysterious on what was about to come. He mentioned their general concept:

Alexis: At Proto.io our goal is to enhance the platform in such a way to make prototyping easier and faster, by integrating with and supporting popular 3rd party tools, improving the flow and UX, while at the same time continue to offer a super-powerful prototyping engine that allows designers to create prototypes that feel, work and look like real apps.

For other tool makers I wasn’t able to contact; feel free to leave a comment with your most relevant new feature.

Looking beyond the next update, we see great potential but also uncertainty.

Speed of innovation is hard to keep up with

Learning a new tool is quite an investment for both an individual and a company. It’s hard to keep up with the current pace of of how the ecosystem is evolving is. The main risk is that the tools you use today might not exist a year from now. Recent examples are the termination of Fireworks and the acqui-hire of Easel who got bougth by GitHub. Maybe in the same category, maybe not, is the news that Google just bought Pixate.

Combined with the fundamental need to chain different tools in our projects, the constant evolving UX tooling landscape makes it extra important that these tools are able to operate well together.

Concrete steps we can take right now to improve our UX tooling

Set some standards: JSON, HTML and a UX project file type

One of the ways we can cope with this fast evolving ecosystem and ease the way tools can be used in conjunction is to embrace standards. This would also make it easier to swap one tool for the other, and it would be easier to connect the tools we use.

It makes sense to use JSON for data and HTML for ways to show this data.

Alexis: “All prototype tools store sets of data, usually in XML or JSON formats. If those were standardised so that prototyping tools vendors would follow them, it would make a big difference. ”

All say Yea if you vote in favor.

I’d also like to propose a new file type for UX projects (.ux would work). It would not only include the prototype, but also personas, customer journeys and other core UX elements.

All say Yea if you vote in favor.

Secret meeting

As for the tool makers; their approach to standardizing might depend on if they view this as a zero sum game, where the loss of one business is the gain of the other. I see a lot of truth in what Peter Thiel is saying about competition (that it’s for losers).

But I also believe in the pie metaphor; we should not focus too much on our share, but focus on growing the size of the pie.

As a tool maker you can find a monopoly in how you group the tasks and where you want to emphasize control.

In order to get things moving, I would love to see a secret meeting between tool makers with the purpose of setting the standards for our UX tools.

Wink twice if you’re in ;) ;)

My next article, on something completely different, beating the Android life cycle.

I wrote a follow up, July 2017, on taking the first steps towards building a true UX tool. With the focus on open UX source files: