Toolkit of a Product Designer
Picking the right tools for a better design workflow
The purpose of this article is to bring to light the lesser known (well, at least some are less known) gems that exist that makes the design process easier. We all know the design process is messy and very convoluted, but there are tools that can alleviate some pain points and no one ever complained about organized research material or well-maintained symbols and layouts.
This article will not be going deep into how these different tools work, but just highlight what are the biggest perks of using them and how it makes a designer’s life easier.
This article will go through a designer process cycle starting from research, research synthesis, interaction design, prototyping to validation, and highlight tools in each phase that help designing and collaboration easier.
Bear App for notes
There have been multiple notes app that I have used in the recent past ranging from Google Keep, Apple Notes to Google Docs but none have been as handy as Bear. The flexibility the app provides in helping us organize notes is amazing. Use hashtags as a means to structure our navigation is a great idea.
This app is extremely well-designed, minimal and provides great formatting capabilities. Taking notes has never felt this good before.
The best functionality of this app is the seamless sync between the different devices. Using the Apple Pencil on the iPad to draw and take hand-notes makes this app even more useful in meetings, interviews, conferences etc.
This application is easily the top find in 2017, thanks to Katy Jimenez for introducing me to this. A perfect visual note-taking app that allows designers to arrange their content from various sources.
The process of design is messy, unstructured, nonlinear, and nothing like the perfect design videos one sees on marketing pages of products. This app tames the madness that the design process is, and helps designers organize their content better.
I primarily use it for organizing my research findings, and the ability to create columns with a title mimics how I create affinity diagrams with post-its. Creating sections with quotes from user-interviews, consolidating the critical information from such sessions can be done easily on this tool. The components of this tool have great visual hierarchy and hence makes scanning very easy.
For example, this article was completely structured and written on Milanote as you can see below.
This serves multiple purposes such as using it as a mood board, collecting research, outlining articles, to even synthesizing research.
This is a no brainer. Sketch is probably the most widely used tool by designers as of today. Yes, there are other tools that are catching up, but quite honestly, designers have become so used to Sketch by now that a jump to another tool might not be evident in the near future. There are abundant tutorials out there for perfect Sketch workflows, and here, I am going to try to talk more about some of the plugins that make this workflow seamless.
Sketch Runner — Spotlight of Sketch
This makes designing on Sketch way faster than one can imagine. Launching sketch runner can be done with ⌘ + ‘.
The plugin has six different tabs and pretty much any action one wants to perform on Sketch can be done on it. Think of this as the Spotlight Search of Sketch.
Inserting symbols is made easy and fast where it reduces the need to use the mouse to go click on the Symbol icon, search for it on the dropdown and add it. The action that I use the most is inserting symbols and Sketch Runner provides with an option to have any tab on focus when launching. I usually set this to the “insert” mode.
Icon Font — Sketch Plugin
Icon font makes inserting icons to your designs seamless. If your icon set exists either in SVG, or with necessary JSON file with icon information, this plugin helps manage and insert them from one central place. Complete font bundles can be imported that brings multiple icon-fonts into the Sketch in one go.
My favorite feature of this plugin is the ability to create a custom shortcut for each icon-font.
Anima App — Sketch Plugin
This easily has to be my favorite Sketch plugin of all times. This helps accomplish things that I have always wanted from Sketch. This plugin aids with making better layouts and creating symbols. With newer Sketch updates, some of what was possible only with Anima App are possible natively now, but this plugin still has a few outstanding features that I cannot imagine designing without.
Auto Layout — This makes it possible to create screens on Sketch that are almost responsive.
If one notices, irrespective of how much the screen is resized, the content remains centered and the distance between the sections beside it remains the same. This is not achievable without the plugin.
How is this done? Stacked Groups.
There exists a feature called stacked groups where it allows creating a fixed amount of margin between multiple layers irrespective of how the parent layer is resized. Stacking can be done with vertical and horizontal layers there by making it easier to create rows and columns with equal spacing between them a breeze.
Vertically and horizontally pinning — Centering a layer vertically or horizontally is possible with the native Sketch app now, and so is pinning it to a corner with a particular value as a margin.
Auto layout and Sketch work very similar in resizing now.
Version controlling for designers have usually been of a nature similar to this — 1. App Design Concept
2. App Design Conceptv2.0
3. App Design Conceptv3.0
4. App Design Conceptv3.0Iteration
5. App Design Concept v3.0Final
Feels familiar? Duplicating and re-saving the same file over and over is what designers have been used to. Developers do it the smart way with Git, and there have been Sketch plugins that try to mimic how Git works for designs, but none of them worked well for me. Either they were too convoluted to use or the trouble of setting them up and learning how to use was harder than just duplicating the files. But what happens when you need to version control and working with a large design team? Sure, DropBox or Box are viable solutions, but it still does not remove the manual versioning out of the picture.
Abstract App makes this process a breeze. It is extremely easy to create a project and maintain multiple versions of it in branches and merging them to the master which acts as the single source of truth for the design. All this is done and the existence of the Sketch file is abstracted from the user. One less thing to worry about for designers.
The one rule that is important to keep in mind is that the files should be accessed from Abstract instead of just opening the Sketch file on your computer and editing for the changes to be tracked by Abstract. The process of creating a new branch and merging the changes to the master file is simple and straightforward.
This app has increased my efficiency at working on Sketch with very little fear of losing the files or having the wrong version before a big presentation. Documenting the changes at every checkpoint helps keep track of the evolution of design. The best part is the ability to go back to any specific version and look why certain decisions were made.
I have been using Framer to develop a lot more often in the recent past since they introduced the Design tab. If Framer introduces the equivalent of symbols and ways to create & save custom type styles, I will jump to designing completely on Framer. But of course, that will mean the inability to use Abstract App which is a huge downside.
Flow Component on Framer has made prototyping a breeze where with just a couple of lines of code, one can pretty much create the kind of flows InVision makes possible. This is easier from a workflow perspective as sending it out to UserTesting with the capability of interactions makes the tool very valuable. The biggest downside I see to designing on Framer is that not all designers like to use this platform for designing, and collaboration is not Framer’s strongest suit where other designers can leave comments on one’s prototype. This is something that I have been struggling with where there are times where the prototypes needs to be published to InVision for comments and made prototype ready for Framer which can sometimes be time consuming. Which brings us to the next tool that works well with Sketch, and does not require too much time setting up for interactions and animations — Principle for Mac.
Principle for Mac
This has been my go-to tool for creating very quick animation/interactions to test a concept out. Principle provides the ability to export to GIF or a video. This tool helps when there is a need to quickly test out how an interaction feels. Drivers is an interesting concept where one can move elements based on the position of other elements. This relative control of layers provides great freedom to prototype. Very easy to import files from Sketch and setting up a prototype does not take too long.
The biggest downside to Principle is the inability to share a public link for having the concepts tested. Also, the GIF export that comes in-built with the app is buggy and does not always export good quality GIFs.
Which prototyping tool to use when?
I use Principle and Framer interchangeably based on the need of the hour. When creating concepts to demo to engineers or Product Managers, Principle makes it fast and easy to have a prototype that almost and feels like the real deal. Framer on the other hand, though takes some time to set it up, the capabilities are limitless as you are playing with code that allows you prototype anything . Yes, literally anything — I prototyped a central console of automobiles that was voice controlled. Am talking THAT flexible. Also, Framer makes it possible to use real data to prototype charts, graphs etc.
Accessibility always needs to be a big criteria while designing irrespective of your target audience. It does not matter if just 1% of your target audience are color blind, it is just the right thing to do by making sure that your product is accessible by a wider audience.
Earlier, I wrote a piece on designing accessible products, in which I had mentioned a few tools that I use to check if color combinations are accessible — Color Safe and WebAim are great tools. Another gem which I discovered recently is this tool called Contrast — a MacOS app that probably is the best accessibility tool I’ve used in the recent times for contrast check.
These are by no stretch all the good tools out there for designers, but a few awesome ones that fit really well in my workflow for designing faster and collaborating easier.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on some of the tools that help you design better.
I am Adhithya, a Product Designer at OpenDNS, San Francisco. If you liked this article, hit the recommend button below. Err, I can’t say that anymore. So clap away below?! 👏👏👏👏