Design + Sketch
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Design + Sketch

Lessons learned from using Sketch’s nested symbol feature

A short while ago I wrote an article explaining the new design process I introduced at RightIndem. My intention was to make use of Sketch’s nested symbols to create powerful, multi-feature components that would simplify our master style guide. This simplification would also improve our design efficiency and design turnaround. In turn, we would also increase visual consistency across our product suite as every team member would use the master style guide as their starting point for all high-fidelity work. An additional bonus is that by concentrating our efforts on each individual component, making sure each is accessible and offers a rich user experience, as these components are used as building blocks to create pages and journeys, the end-to-end user experience is enhanced while additionally being WCAG compliant.

However, after some collaboration and some user tests carried out with members of our design team, I soon realised the potential drawbacks of this approach.

Fig 1.0 Simplified Symbol list as a result of nested symbols

Fig 1.0 shows a simplified illustration of our symbol list where each symbol has been created using nested symbols resulting in a clean, minified list. The inspector panel within Sketch is used to differentiate between the symbol types, for instance a button can be switched between primary, secondary, square corner or round corner types.

After investing many hours creating each component I introduced the style guide to our Lead Designer. The discussions we had showcased the importance of collaboration between team members as it highlighted some small niggles with the style guide and although small, these niggles would act as a barrier of entry if I were to introduce it to our wider design team. Spending some time at a local coffee shop, myself and Tom discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the master style guide I had produced. Together, we soon realised that although multi-level symbol nesting is a powerful feature of Sketch, for use within the RightIndem design team it was a feature that could prove to be problematic.

The three concerns with the style guide were:

Poor discoverability

The first observation was the concern of finding components and the different states or features that each component offered. The act of placing a symbol within a Sketch document is quite simple. Select Symbol from the toolbar, pick a symbol from the subsequent list and drop it into the artboard. My first test was to ask Tom to use a small secondary button from our style guide within his artwork. His first difficulty was discovering the location of this symbol. As the symbol list did not show a small button nor a secondary button type there was a struggle in finding the symbol. I explained to Tom that to add a small secondary button he would need to select the button symbol. After selecting the button symbol, the right inspector allows the button type, size and label to be changed and it’s here in which the button can be changed to a small secondary button.

What I learned from this is that an extensive Symbol list is much more explicit and discoverable than a simple clean list.

Fig 2.0 Nested Symbol list compared to extensive list

Although the content density ratio of the extensive list is greater than that of the nested symbol list (Fig 2.0), the symbols are well organised, grouped and immediate meaning their discovery rate is increased dramatically. As every symbol type is exposed, no instructions or explanation is required to find a particular instance of a symbol.

Many articles are available explaining the benefits of Sketch’s nested symbols and this feature not only gives you a clean, simplified symbol list, it also reduces the maintenance and overhead costs updating symbols. However, if team members are unable to easily find your symbols the benefits of this feature are considerably reduced.

Requires instruction

The second lesson from the style guide was the volume of instruction required for team members to use the nested symbol master file. As I mentioned earlier, the intention of the guide was to act as the starting point for all designers ahead of any high-fidelity design work.

As the frequency of this is low, instructions were soon forgotten meaning instruction repeat or documentation was required. Having to produce documentation to use our own design style guide felt somewhat OTT and goes against our own principles of producing self-evident UI.

Implicit knowledge required

The last observation from the use of the nested symbol style guide was that this setup requires vast levels of implicit knowledge, which unfortunately exists only with the creator. Without being the template creator or having documentation to explain its use, it’s impossible to know the various states or features that exist for each component. For instance, does a single Modal symbol offer a modal title or call to action? Does an input symbol offer placeholder labels or active and disabled states? Without unspoken knowledge, dissecting nested symbols can also feel somewhat like entering a rabbit hole, especially when many levels of nesting exist.

Conclusion

The simplified, nested symbol style guide was an extremely useful task as it advanced my knowledge of Sketch, however further still, it provided me with the opportunity to appreciate that although Sketch offers extremely powerful features, not all will work successfully for design teams, they may be better suited to individuals.

Here at RightIndem we have now simplified our approach to our master style guide by adopting an approach that favours the use of multiple symbols over single nested symbols. We do lose some advantages here, especially if we need to update elements of our visual identity in the future, whether that be colour or typeface changes. However, the adoption effort and rollout overhead of this approach is much simpler and this is the key reason for us to use this system within the RightIndem design team.

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Paul Wallas

UI & UX Designer. Passionate about design, health & fitness and wellbeing.