Wisdom

InVision Freehand: A 21st Century Case for Digital Whiteboards

Semi-related: Did you know you can actually use whiteboard markers on your MacBook Pro screen? *

* But you probably shouldn’t. That’s foolish.

Part I: “Nitpixeling”

Designers spend a lot of time perfecting pixels. I like to call it nitpixeling. “Shift that over 2 pixels. Those reds don’t match. The line spacing should be a little looser. The border radius should be 3px not 5px.” (all real feedback I’ve delivered in the past week). Tools like InVision make this easy because you can just click around the UI and comment on any inconsistencies.

So why nitpixel at all?

Pixel-perfection isn’t an exercise of congratulatory self-indulgence, and it’s certainly not gonna earn you any extra Dribbble likes. It’s not for your design manager, client, or even that recruiter who you probably shouldn’t be showing those private screens to anyway.

Pixel-perfection is for developers. And let me tell you why.

Developers are inherently rule-driven, just like the machines they program. Tell a computer how to do something, and the computer will execute it. Send a developer a design spec with 23px padding, and you’re gonna get 23px padding. Developers can’t read minds, so you can’t expect them to know that you goofed and meant to say 24px. Which brings me to…

The design process doesn’t stop just because you stop designing.

You’re responsible for seeing the design all the way through implementation. Sometimes QA will compare the spec to the production code, but they’re unlikely to have the same level of scrutiny you do. Frankly, I still find it hard to believe that they can’t tell the difference between 19px margins and 20px margins, but who am I to judge… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Part II: Redlining

Ask any designer to see a website or app that they designed, and more often than not they’ll fake playing around with their phone, then lie and say something totally not believable like “oh, it looks like the server is down…I’ll uhh…send you a link…”

I think the only thing worse in the world than watching your design get butchered during development is when someone puts a box full of cereal dust back in the pantry.

Note from Jon: To be absolutely clear, poor implementation is rarely because developers are incapable of execution. Usually it’s just because a) they have bigger fish to fry, or b) they don’t have a design eye like you do.

This is where post-design redlines fit into the design process, but unfortunately, this is where most designers stop, leaving the implementation to look…well…the way it looks.

No bueno.

Don’t just get upset that the final product looks bad. Do something about it!

redline (noun)
1. a drawing or document that has been marked for correction or modification (source: Wikipedia)
2. the bane of my very existence (source: Me)

Remember during the design process how your team would sit and poke holes in your design during a review? UI redlining is basically the same thing, but done after your design is implemented. This is a developer’s first interpretation of your design, and it’s up to you to help them get it right.


Part III: The Problem with Redlining

Here’s how I used to do things:

This is a real screenshot from one of my redline documents.

This isn’t easy for me, this isn’t easy for developers, and this isn’t easy for Lionel Richie either.

Why It Sucks:

  • You pretty much have to have 3 windows open: One for the implementation, one for your actual design, and one for your notes. What do I look like, a computer monitor store?!
  • Every listed fix has to be a James Joyce novel: In order to get anything fixed, you have to tell the developer exactly where something is in the interface (so they can find and verify the issue), then tell them how it should look instead. It’s just…wordy.
Pictured: Morgan Freeman’s monitor setup to redline an app.

My Attempted Old School Solution:

  1. Print them out (I’m regretting this dark UI…)
  2. Use a real pen on them (I haven’t used a pen in probably 8 years)
  3. Scan them back into your computer (brb, finding a dongle…)
  4. Email them to the devs (“Email attachments cannot exceed 25MB…🙄)
  5. Walk them to their desk instead (is this how Amish people live?)
  6. Get asked to make copies for the whole team
  7. Me:

Other Things I’ve Tried:

  • InVision: Take a screenshot, upload to InVision, use the comment feature to call out inconsistencies. Still requires jumping between windows or tabs. Redline comments are hidden behind numbers, or disjointed from the interface itself being listed on the left.
    (Rating:
    ︎★★★☆☆︎)
  • Sketch: Take a screenshot, paste into Sketch, redline with drawing tools. Still requires jumping between windows or tabs. Hard to share with people.
    (Rating:
    ︎★☆☆☆☆︎)
  • Word Document: Lol. Immediately gave up.
    (Rating:
    ︎☆☆☆☆☆︎)
  • Dropbox Paper/Google Drive: Take a screenshot, paste into document, make a list of updates. Not terrible, but still can’t mark up the actual screen.
    (Rating:
    ︎★★☆☆☆︎)
  • Actually Sitting With the Developers: Fix things with them. Super time-consuming. Also, they’ll probably hate you.
    (Rating:
    ︎︎★☆☆☆☆︎)

Part IV: The Solution

The team at InVision has a new feature called Freehand.

Click here to try it out and follow along.

It’s essentially a lightweight, collaborative digital whiteboard. Here’s their launch video:

I’ll be honest, I dismissed Freehand pretty much immediately.

First off, I use a trackpad, and my Freehand drawings looked like they were done by a toddler. I wasn’t sold.

HOWEVER!

Your drawing experience is completely transformed when you hold down the alt/option key. It’s magical…watch:

It seemed a little gimmicky at first, but after using it for a while, I completely fell in love with it. I didn’t have to switch between tools.

It sounds trivial, but it was so nice just having one option for drawing. They perfectly mimicked writing on a real whiteboard by limiting users to a single tool with one color, yet still…somehow…made it better. Using a real whiteboard is depressing now because my shapes don’t snap in place. Sad.

Wireframing with Freehand is pretty cool, but for me, it’s become a brilliant tool for UI redlining. Again, I’m not redlining designs. I’m redlining the actual implementation. That’s an important distinction.

I can’t show you any of the client projects I’m working on at the moment, but here’s how Christian and I would use it to redline the UX Power Tools site (if it had any bugs…which I hope it doesn’t!).

The reason I prefer this to other methods is because I can quickly take a browser screenshot and paste it directly onto my Freehand canvas, then draw or type directly onto the screen to show where problems exist.

It’s hard to describe, but using it just feels natural. It gave me the same type of feeling that the Medium interface did when I first used it. It works exactly how you expect it to work, and it stays out of your way.

I basically just work my way through each page of the live site or product, taking a screenshot, pasting into Freehand, and leaving comments along the way. I much prefer how I can see ALL of my comments at the same time, instead of them being hidden behind a number on InVision.

Things go a lot faster if you can get another set of eyes on the screens since you can both work at the same time. Christian and I hopped on a Slack call one evening while we were going over the site. Each new participant gets his or her own special color, so his comments are in blue:

It cannot be overstated: This redlining technique saves SO. MUCH. TIME.

If we were so lucky as to have our own web developer, then I would’ve just shared this Freehand document with her, and she could keep tabs on her progress right on the document itself.

Teaching Developers to Fish

There’s one huge, albeit hidden benefit of doing direct UI redlining in this way. Because you can draw directly onto the screens themselves, you are, in a way, helping your developer see what you see. You’re teaching them to scrutinize like you do, and over time, they will become a nitpixeler like you.

This is an important lesson.

If you just hand a developer a list of updates, the meaning behind why they’re making those changes will be lost because there’s a disconnect between the written feedback and the visual problem.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s what I used to do:

Chances are your eyes just bounced back and forth between the list of changes and the screen itself, pausing long enough to find what you assumed was the issue. It’s just…disjointed. When a developer actually goes to make the updates, they’re less likely to really SEE what was wrong. It’s like in history class when you read the words of an entire chapter without actually understanding a single word of what was said. And yes, that’s a painful reminder of my entire high school career.

Now compare that to this:

Since I’m drawing right onto the screen itself, there is a strong association between what is wrong and how that wrongness looks.

Make sense?


Part V: Other Uses

I’m still a diehard fan of physical whiteboards, so even though I don’t really use this to do much wireframing, that’s just one of many other ways you can use Freehand.

Here are some other ideas for how you can use it yourself:

  1. Reverse Wireframing: Let’s say you’re tasked with designing a calendar. Go to Dribbble and collect a bunch of different calendars that catch your eye and paste them into Freehand. Use the markup tool to identify the specific things you like and don’t like in each of the designs.
  2. Collect GIFs for Animation Inspiration: You can use the Boards feature in InVision to do this too, but I like being able to organize and group similar animations on the Freehand canvas. It’s more like a mind map, and I like the visual organization. Plus, a canvas full of GIFs looks dope!
  3. Remote Team Feedback: I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth saying again. If you’re on a remote team, or have folks who work elsewhere, this will be a godsend during design reviews. Call up your friends, then hop into the Freehand document together. Don’t forget that your screens in Sketch sync directly to Freehand, so whenever you make updates, those updates will appear automagically.
  4. Photo Proofing: This is an oddly-specific use case, but I’m a photographer so I can see how this would be useful. Proof sheets are a way of choosing prints and commenting on any necessary retouching. Freehand would make this pretty easy, especially if you’re using an iPad with an Apple Pencil.
This is a sheet of image proofs that a photographer will assess when choosing which shots to retouch and/or print.

Nice-to-Knows

  1. You can copy/paste Freehand Sketches between Freehand URLs: I’m sure this will come in handy someday when I need to copy a wireframe from one document to another.

Part VI: Funny Uses

We can be serious all day with legitimate use cases, but let’s be real…there are some hilarious uses for Freehand as well:

  • Sports Strategy: Eat your heart out, John Madden.
  • Games With Friends: Who needs FarmVille, anyway?
  • Crime Scene Investigations: I’m not saying this is real evidence, but I’m not saying it isn’t, either. Clark, we need to talk.

That’s a wrap!

UI redlining is an incredibly important part of the design process. QA should and will spend most of their effort on interaction and logic issues, so it’s up to us (the designers) to do proper Design QA. There’s no one more suited to dig deep into the pixels to make sure they shine.

My daytime agency is deep into the InVision ecosystem, and I’m thrilled with how well Freehand fits into our process. I’ve been searching for a solution to this redline problem for a while, and this is now our go-to.

If you wanna learn more about Freehand, click this link right here.

If you wanna try Freehand yourself, click this different link right here.


When I’m not drawing all over the Internet, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer. You can learn more here:

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