Jason JunJason Jun

Specific and general design tools

5 April 2020

Modern interface design tools are often criticised for not reflecting the constraints of the platform that the end product will run on. But what this criticism actually reveals is different understandings of the scope of design tools’ purpose.

Since Sketch proved that new design tools can actually have a shot at stealing some of Photoshop’s territory, designers have been busy welcoming new design tools every month. At this point, I think it’s safe to say we have two main contenders: Sketch and Figma.

All-in-one vs Best-of-breed

A proper design process consists of multiple stages, and there are tools specifically designed for each one of these steps. For example, tools like Dovetail and Alpha are built for user research, whereas ProtoPie and Principle are for prototyping. The activities involved in each stage of the design process are very different from each other. So for a design tool to be able to cover multiple stages, it must be highly flexible.

I think the main reason for Sketch and Figma’s success is their simplicity and great flexibility. They positioned themselves as UI design tools, but fundamentally they’re drawing tools that are flexible enough to design things from flyers to complex application prototypes.

We often think that we are pursuing quality while actually we’re chasing efficiency. The line between them is blurry; but in general, fewer tools lead to more efficiency because more tools imply more cost and more learning - and more discussions are needed to choose those tools (this is probably the worst part). These are the main reasons I think we usually end up choosing ‘all-in-one’ over a multiple of ‘best-of-breeds’.

The all-in-ones work just fine until we start digging deeper, which is also when we start criticising them for not being specialised enough for a certain task. So, interestingly enough, the one aspect of design tools we often criticise is the very reason they are successful.

Jack of all trades, master of none

Out of the various design activities that Sketch and Figma can cover, UI design would probably be what they’re the best known for. Or, at least that is to say, currently. But, UI design isn’t actually specific enough. This is because there are different platforms that the products we design can run on.

Designing for a responsive web page, or for a mobile app requires a surprisingly different knowledge, considerations, and process. Not just that, even designing for an iOS app and Android app are quite different. So, if the tool is, for example, tailored for web design in that the whole styling and layout system makes perfect sense with how CSS works; it becomes a very confusing tool for all of the other mediums. So in a way, to be a jack of all trades, you must become a master of none.

I guess the paths that these tools can take from there, are either developing multiple ‘modes’ to be more specialised in at least a few different platforms or, by just staying general and flexible as they are. The former is what it seems to be what most advanced users want, but the latter might be a still more attractive option to the tool creators because this is the reason they’ve been successful so far. Also, they can just let the plug-in developers worry about the specific stuff.

Moving forward

Now, I think of it as a bit ironic that these general-purpose design tools dominated the modern design tool competition so far. Why? Well, the reason Sketch had a shot against Photoshop in the first place was that it was a more narrow targeted tool for interface design. Maybe it was less about how Sketch has positioned itself, and more that, the digital design industry was changing too fast for a giant tool like Photoshop to follow.

In that respect, the next big change may also depend more on how the industry changes, than on the tools themselves or the designers who use them. The moment the industry shifts rapidly, it seems smaller and more specific tools are given opportunities when existing tools that have grown too big and thus, fail to catch up.