Design Tools are Broken

Published: 23 Jul 2015

To code or not to code? I try to push all my friends studying design to learn to code. It can only help them be better designers.

But this isn't an article about that. This is an article about how badly our design tools are failing us in user experience [UX]. Because they are, and it is hurting the quality of our user experiences.

1. Animation

Animations and transitions are critical to a modern user experience. They help to make the whole thing feel more polished and cohesive. For example, I am running the El Capitan Beta on my personal laptop. It has its warts. One thing I noticed, as an avid Spaces user, is that the transition between screens is quicker. It feels more solid. I like it a lot.

This was a small change that improved my perceived user experience. A tiny change that many people won't notice.

But the tools used by most designers don't allow them to create animations. Or edit them. Let alone see what they would actually look like in context with realism.

2. Data and Languages

I am grouping these two because they are manifestations of the same problem.

Most design tools do not allow you to easily add and change content in layouts. This makes it difficult to get a grasp on what the content actually looks like as it changes. It also makes internationalization extremely difficult.

Internationalization requires you to be able to swap languages in the same layout. The length of a phrase in Japanese is orders of magnitude shorter then in German. Swapping between those two and English is a missed step in most design processes. Partly because it is hard to do before implementation of the design has begun.

3. Responsive Layouts

This one seems pretty obvious. We are designing for thousands of screen sizes and a wide range of aspect ratios. This makes hitting every single layout in a static mockup completely unrealistic. 

4. Fonts

Most design tools come from a print design pedigree. Which means they are really good at displaying fonts. Browsers are not, at least not yet. Some fonts just don't look as good in browsers, and that drives designers crazy.

Even worse some browsers display the same fonts differently on different OSs. And depending on how the developer codes things, fonts could look different in the same browser/OS.

There is also a lot more power over how you can control a font in design tools then there is in the browser. Kerning in the browser? Nope. The ability to use whatever font I want without a weird license? Nope. Precise control over anti-aliasing in the browser? Not so much.

5. Performance

This is a big one. It also comes right after fonts for a reason. Current design tools don't deal with performance. They don't mention that your design is going to cost a day's wages to use on the other side of the world. They don't tell you that the three fonts and seven weights you chose are going to bog a phone down. They don't tell you anything that would be useful to you in making decisions about UX.

Performance is a huge part of UX. If you aren't already taking it into account in your designs you should start now. But realize our existing "design" tools aren't going to help out.

6. Analytics and User Behavior

Good UX involves a lot of user research. But there is still no easy way to incorporate it into the design phase. A/B testing isn't something designers can set up in their design suite. Heatmaps, or replays of users interacting with designs, exist outside the main design tools. They are available but they don't integrate.

Think how powerful design tools could be with real user data available inside them.

7. ?

This is a pretty solid list. Not a complete one, and I am sure with more time I could expand it. 

Tools are important. They shape they way we create. They change the way we interact with the world. In many ways they shape us as much as we shape them.

Yet we have largely ignored the massive shift needed to tackle UX design. Designers may not need to code in the future, but it won't hurt. For now there is little room for them to tackle these gaps without coding. At least they need access to a solid front end developer to pair  with them. Hopefully, the tool makers out there will see these issues as opportunities to excel. Because the world has changed and the tools need to adapt.