UI Design Tools: The Ones You Actually Need (December 2018 Edition)

Jamal Nichols
Dec 12, 2018 · 5 min read

This article originally appeared on Truth About Design, the platform for candid truths and guidance for the design industry.

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One of the top questions I get when I’m mentoring students is, “What tools should I use for UI design? Sketch? Photoshop? What about Adobe XD?” (They always ask about Adobe XD.)

For this article, we’re focusing on tools for wireframing, prototyping and animation. Of course, there are other great tools for UX research, collaboration, etc

The Truth about UI Design Tools: Most of Them Are the Same

Up until 2011, Photoshop was the only tool UX designers had at their disposal. Photoshop isn’t an interface design tool, though. It’s an image editor that has a few features that are useful for interface design, and a whole lot of features that aren’t. But because Photoshop was so big, and so popular, and worked well enough, no one (including me) thought there would be any need to ever use anything else.

In 2011, Sketch App launched. It was the first dedicated interface design tool. Because there was no one else making dedicated UI design tools at the time and people (including me) were very skeptical of this new, unproven tool, Sketch was able to gobble up tons of market share for years before anyone else was able to respond. They also played it very smart by turning Sketch into a platform that others could develop additional add-ons for, thereby rapidly expanding their reach and ecosystem.

Sketch was in a very special position at the time, because they offered a tool that was truly 10 times better than the competition, and made it worthwhile for companies and teams to spend money and time on switching to a new workflow for their organizations.

The courage of the Sketch developers to put themselves out there and create a new tool, and their subsequent success, led to a flood of trend-followers building new UI design tools. However, most of them offer little to no differentiation from Sketch.

Asking “which UI design tool is better, X or Y” is like asking “which drill is better, Bosch or Dewalt.” They all do the same things in very similar ways. The real deciding factor for which tool you’re going to use isn’t what it can do, because all tools can build a UI with basic interactions.

The real questions you need to ask are:

  • What is my team using?
  • What is my company using?
  • What are the industry standards?

And in most cases, for most work, that’s going to be Sketch. Companies aren’t going to switch to a new tool again, after just switching to Sketch two or three years ago, just because the new tool on the block does one or two things slightly better than Sketch.

Asking “which UI design tool is better, X or Y” is like asking “which drill is better, Bosch or Dewalt.”

Sketch is in the position that Photoshop used to be in, but they aren’t resting on their laurels like Photoshop did. Sketch is slowly making InVision obsolete by including cloud-based prototyping tools. There are a number of third-party animation add-ons for Sketch that allow you to keep your entire workflow from low to high fidelity inside of Sketch. However, I haven’t tried them yet and they aren’t seeing a lot of traction in the industry.

For Microinteractions, Animations, and High Fidelity Prototypes, Use Principle

Sketch is the industry standard for creating static mockups and prototypes with basic interactivity. However, doing more complex prototyping and animations is currently not possible in Sketch. The tool that’s seeing the most adoption for doing that kind of complex animation is Principle. Principle allows you to easily import your Sketch files and do complex animations very easily. There’s a reason why it’s been adopted by all of the major players in the design space.

Tools to Watch: Framer X and Figma

Most of the UI tools out there aren’t different enough from Sketch to give you a real reason to switch. But two tools take a very different approach to Sketch for UI design, and because they are built from scratch around this new approach, there’s a chance that this will pay off in a way that Sketch will not be able to adjust to.

Figma: Google Docs but for Interface Design

You know how in Google Docs, you and your friends can work on that essay or that presentation together, at the same time, and it always gets autosaved in the cloud and you can access it from any computer? That’s what Figma has done for interface design. They essentially took Sketch and put it into a browser.

Figma is the top contender right now because:

  • It has lots of financial backing from Silicon Valley
  • They release updates every week
  • It’s free for solo designers
  • They are platform-agnostic (works on any computer), so they can grab market share from non-Mac users and people who can’t afford Sketch
  • It has a legitimate point of differentiation from Sketch, with its real-time collaboration features, that Sketch can’t easily copy

Framer X: Bridging the Gap between Design and Code

Framer X is another interesting tool to watch. What sets it apart is its deep integration with development tools. Theoretically, you can design in Framer and export production-ready code. This could dramatically speed up workflow and collaboration between designers and engineers. But is the improvement in workflow so much better that it’s worth switching over to another tool, again? Will designers be willing to fiddle with code? It’s hard to tell at this point.

Framer is also not free. It’s $15/month ($12 if you pay annually), which is more expensive than a yearly license of Sketch. With their pricing model and features, I’m not sure which audience they are targeting.

My hypothesis is that the engineering side of things is too complex and in-depth to be taken on by a design tool. It reminds me a lot of what people tried to do 15 years ago with editors like Dreamweaver. Those never worked for true hardcore production environments. But it’s a well thought-out tool with a lot of resources behind it, so we will see.

What about other tools?

For real-life work settings, I recommend you don’t even bother with any other tools but Sketch and Principle right now. Beginners in every industry love overthinking which tool to use because it’s much easier to do that than to actually do quality work. However, if you’re just curious to experiment a bit on your own, the best resource to find relevant new tools to try is http://uxtools.co/design — it’s a ranking of all the most popular UI design tools out there right now.

And if you’re interested in pursuing a career in UX design, I currently mentor at Springboard and can vouch for the quality of their curriculum. It offers one-on-one mentorship by industry experts like me and lets you work on real-world projects to develop a unique portfolio. They also guarantee you get a job within 6 months of graduating, or they give you your money back.

Jamal Nichols runs Truth About Design, the platform for candid truths and guidance for the design industry.

Truth About Design

Candid truth and guidance for the design industry