2018: The Year I Reevaluate my UX Toolkit

What do I REALLY need to do my job?

Adobe Creative Cloud; Invision Studio; pen/paper sketching

I’m old enough to remember actually going to computer stores 
(RIP CircuitCity) to buy software. Expensive software had anti-theft devices on them, or were merely symbolized by empty boxes on the shelves. You had to ask a salesperson to get a real box (with about 120 CD-ROMs in it) from the back. (And if you remember what ROM stands for without looking it up… congratulations, you’re officially old!)

This was also the time when updates/upgrades to software were actually a very big deal. If Adobe announced an upgrade to its suite, you had to figure out some serious shit: Is this the year to upgrade? Do I wait until next year and buy it outright again (since my version will be too old to upgrade)? Can I spare $900? Can I spare $1,500? Should I keep freelancing? Am I happy with my clients? What am I doing with my life? Who am I?

Anyway, fast-forward to now, and I’m grateful everyday for our new month-to-month subscription models for software and tools. I also value the software that “does one thing well” (Hello, Principle).

Of course, now we have an embarrassment of riches. Between Sketch, InVision, Figma, Principle, Axure, Framer, and all the countless apps that have come and gone (RIP Pixate), most UXers’ needs are covered, but often only one need is covered in one app at a time, or each app has the thing it’s best at. We long for one program that does it all.

Change is good

When Sketch launched in 2010, I remember hearing about some weird, new program that was challenging web designers to abandon Adobe for their work in this new booming UX field. There was one designer at a previous job of mine trying to convince us to switch from our beloved Adobe Fireworks. This was challenging to say the least as all our files were in Fireworks, our workflow was built around it, and changing an established process at such a huge company is like asking your mom to change her beloved turkey stuffing recipe a day before Thanksgiving.

Then one day, Adobe announced they were sunsetting Fireworks, and would no longer support it. Our team needed a replacement, but Adobe had no singular offering to replace it with. The new Adobe XD program was rumored on the horizon, but on Planet Reality, if an entire department is going to make a switch to a better program, the process needs to start well ahead of the actual switch. A recommended replacement is needed immediately. Adobe XD simply wasn’t ready for us to experiment with and recommend. Sketch came to our rescue like a Lyft when you’ve had one too many.

As of today, feature-wise Adobe XD is arguably the strongest competitor to Sketch, especially with the embedded prototyping feature. It did, however, only came out of Beta in late 2017. According to O’Reilly’s 2017 Salary and Tools industry survey, Adobe XD doesn’t quite register yet as a popular wireframing tool. (In the 2018 survey, although Adobe XD was not listed as an option for the prototyping or wireframing questions, respondents were allowed to enter “Other” to write in their own answer. It was likely similar in the 2017 survey.)

Adobe XD could very well be the shining beacon of efficiency we all need, and have a bright future, but it begs the question: Is it too little too late?

The good news is: Probably not. I happened to stumble on the tweet above, (one of many) and on a Twitter poll the other day that made me feel much more hopeful. Although it’s a small, random sampling, sometimes those kinds of “word on the street” moments can be pretty insightful. Now that it’s out of Beta, you can tell folks (including myself) are excited to really play around with it.

So, what’s next?

It’s never a bad idea to (re)evaluate what you need as a UXer…and what you don’t. Doing so for myself brought to mind an interesting question: what would keep the UX community on the Adobe Creative Suite for the next 2–5 years? PDF editing? Maybe InDesign? Illustrator? For the new companies or consultancies just starting, do they subscribe to the full Adobe Creative Cloud? Or will most UX consultancies have just a few single app licenses for $20/mo. and call it a day?

After reaching out to colleagues, I’ve learned these might be unfair questions. Nowadays, the ebb and flow of projects and clients moves too fast to decide in a finite manner what tools are “best” and never change your mind. Getting locked into a set of tools and never changing would be a death sentence. The definition of the “best” tool is different for every agency, design team, project, and — especially — designer.

What this really means is teams everywhere, regardless of project or nature of work, need the flexibility to change their tools quickly. Teams need less red tape on getting expenses approved. Teams need flexible options for contracts — short term, month-to-month, etc. and we want to feel like we’re paying for 100% of what we use…and 0% of what we don’t.

2018 will be a great year to reevaluate what you love to use every day in your UX toolkit. What tools facilitate your creativity the best? What tools are so intuitive, you forget you’re working? What tools, when combined, augment your creativity into a powerful, delightful experience for every user you’re designing for?

In 2018, what products will answer the call?

A new challenger

I’ve been a big fan of InVision for some time. It’s easy to drag & drop comps, bang out a prototype, send it to my phone and see how my work-in-progress is taking shape. I also have been enjoying the Craft plug-in immensely (although it can be a bit buggy) and appreciate the access to not only prototyping but the other content management, and rapid design tools it offers.

But InVision has always been my “quick gut-check” tool. For real finesse and subtle UI animations, I either throw together something in Keynote or Principle or work with a front-end developer to make something as close as possible to what’s in my head — and can impress a client without fail.

So you can imagine my excitement when, in the middle of October, InVision sent out an email introducing a new design tool to UX designers and prototypers: InVision Studio, coming in January 2018.

After watching the 2-min preview video below, I was quite excited for this new offering. Was it the wild music, or the slick animations? I don’t know. Maybe it was just being excited about being excited. I haven’t felt that excited about a new product in a long time.

InVision Studio promo video

Within the last year or so, hardly a month has gone by without news
of InVision buying one company or another: Macaw, Brand.AI, Muzli,
Silver Flows, and others. This indicated a clear path to creating the all-in-
one tool we want.

In terms of purchasing software, it’s important to remember that for young designers now — the subscription model for anything (music, movies, books, shopping, etc.) is old hat. Therefore, anything more than $10–20 per month better blow them away.

Lo and behold: Turns out for most InVision customers, Studio will be free.

InVision is also unique in how they present their company and its products. Most employees work remotely. They hire employees and acquire small companies aggressively. Their demo events for Studio around the world were stylish and intimate: You had to request an invite, and you didn’t know if you were going to get in until a few days prior. The one in Boston was shoulder to shoulder.

Hosting demo events via exclusive invite, it makes the program all the more luxurious, and elusive. It also makes designers feel special. I can’t say it really any better than this tweet here.

Per typical SEO-savvy aggressiveness, for a period of time, if you searched for Sketch, the primary item was an ad for InVision Studio. The campaign to win is well underway.

That’s some quality placement right there.

Mobile prototyping apps — a new opportunity?

It’s important to recognize the areas where there is still ample opportunity to win, or certainly do something truly unique. I love when companies find a niche service, or side project, that winds up completely changing what they offer, or how people use their products. I think mobile apps for prototyping could be that sandbox.

It may sound crazy, but I’ve often wished I could continue working on Sketch files on my iPad. On the train, on the couch, sometimes I have an idea I want to mess with, but I don’t feel like lugging my huge laptop around.

The next open opportunity in which Adobe is set up to win — more so than InVision or Bohemian Coding — is having an outstanding mobile app for UX people to design and prototype “on the go”. I’ve really enjoyed Adobe Comp CC, in the past for the quick design aspect here and how sweet it would be to incorporate light prototyping here as well. Interestingly, after not being updated since December 2016, this app recently got a bug fix update. Maybe a sign of more updates to come?

More and more I want to sketch out an idea with clients right on my phone, then make a prototype super-fast that I could turn around and immediately send to my team.

InVision Studio might be incredible, but let me push my luck and fantasize further: what a miracle it would be to have a “light” version on my phone, always ready to go.

There’s been some other solid “first generation” ideas out there, like POP by Marvel which allows you to string together screenshots of paper sketches to create a simple prototype with mobile transitions. Similar to that was Blueprint, but its appearance is a bit outdated.

If there’s one you enjoy using, please share in the comments.

Conclusion

Here are some thoughts on what the UX community needs in 2018 and beyond…

  • Simple pricing and flexible contracts for digital tools
  • All-in-one tools for design and prototyping. Unitasker software needs to make its case more and more
  • Less red tape on team/company software approvals
  • Mobile apps that offer light prototyping options, or ways to pick up where you left off on your design work

I’m really excited for 2018. I’m excited to play with InVision Studio, and am counting the days until I get early access. I’m also looking forward to working more in Adobe XD, and seeing if it’s a good fit for me. The Creative Suite is in many ways the standard bearer of a “strong family of products”, but competition from InVision and Sketch only raises all boats. Adobe is likely on its toes, and fellow big companies need more small innovators nipping at their heels. For too long, large corporations have rested on the laurels of big contracts and closed systems. 2018 will be the year of new buy-in.

Let’s see where the UX industry invests its assets.

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The views expressed in this post are that of the authors and may not reflect the views of the agency or company.