Are Design Tools Driving Our Style?Are Design Tools Driving Our Style?

If you’re spending all your time keeping up with trendy tools, you may be missing out on the true meaning of product design.

May 14, 2019

The following is a guest post by Shan Shen, Product Designer at Wish. Shan loves crafting both consumer and enterprise products and writing about process.

When I first started out in design, I remember listing out every design tool I knew on my resume. I emphasized how proficient I was with each tool, ranging from beginner to professional level.

Looking back, it was probably a dead giveaway for something a junior designer would do. Because as I learned over time, a good designer isn’t constrained by any one design tool. Instead, developing a method for solving complex problems, creating truly valuable products and working with empathy within a team have been far more crucial learning curves to my development.

But do design tools themselves enable us to explore new styles and provoke questions? Or do they restrain our thinking and creative process by pushing unified patterns and components? How do we leverage design tools wisely, to unleash our wildest thoughts and connect with code seamlessly?

The dismissal of wireframing tools

For a long time, wireframes were considered a critical part of the early stage of the design process. Grayscale screens can contextualize an experience into a rough user flow and quickly gather consensus. In established products, wireframes are less popular because there are existing components that designers can use to render a higher fidelity experience from the beginning.

Personally, I never encourage designers to use gray boxes or Lorem Ipsum text when collecting user feedback. Without actual UX content, placeholder boxes are meaningless. When you present gray boxes in a design review involving product managers and engineers, what kind of feedback are you expecting? When you show wireframes to a customer, how could you possibly differentiate between their trouble processing your boxes or navigating through your system?

If you work for a design agency and wireframes are a client deliverable, you are inevitably ceding much of your design control. If you work in-house, wireframes should not be a blocker to defer the real user experience. In the past, I have worked on projects with less information that I would have liked and yet, I have always found that user flows mapped to imperfect content work better than wireframes. Even when merely text-based, my colleagues could jump in and provide constructive feedback that have led to a more cohesive product.

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Should we learn about design + code tools?

Ah, the eternal debate. We take programming classes and workshops. We pick up hybrid design tools like Framer X that bridge design, specs, and front-end coding.

But we forget that the true goal of learning code as a designer is not to be as good as our developer colleagues, or to take their job. Instead, it is merely to to gain an understanding of how static designs are transformed into real features and products.

Essentially, if we have a sense of how designs are affected by development schedules and technical constraints, we will design better products. We’ll understand that sometimes the most beautiful designs are the least functional, and gain empathy for our developer counterparts.

When I first came across Framer X, I experienced an AHA! moment: I was able to add animations to my prototypes and then view the exposed properties of those animated UI components. I could tweak the timing of various layers and figure out the best pace for introducing new content to my screens — fast enough to draw focus, but slow enough to ensure legibility.

Learn new tools, but remember the basics

We all share a common anxiety that the tools we use will be soon outdated. We read UX/UI trend reports and embrace new design patterns and tools as much possible.

A product manager that mentored me in the past loved using sticky notes. Every day, he wrote down a checklist for the designs he needed from me. When he received design feedback from demo meetings, he would hand over his thoughts in written bullet points on his sticky notes. It was such a low-tech technique but I found it extremely helpful in organizing thoughts via tangible notes. Items crossed meant completion, items uncrossed meant action needed to be taken. In a fast-moving design and development environment, written notes and sketches can capture what works well for us and what demands our attention.

Design tools are emerging every day. Their job is to perform as derivatives to capture our initial ideas, facilitate a deeper connection to code, and bind creative minds. Design tools can spark joy and inspire new styles but they should never be considered a substitute for pushing ourselves to develop our own original ideas.

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

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