The Right Tool for the Job

Only pick up a hammer if you’re working with nails.

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“The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness”
- Lao-Tzu

We designers, we can be such gearheads. We can easily spend hours discussing the latest Sketch plug-ins, arguing about the pros and cons of Framer vs Pixate, the merits of InVision over Flinto. Some people can be fanatical about the best pen to use on their Moleskines. I love that excitement: transcending the external nature of your tools and blending them with your skills is the route to incredible results.

And freedom to use whichever tool makes designers most productive is crucial. Trying to constrain a team to a specific piece of software ignores differences in people’s mental models, learning curves and comfort levels. And this is such an exciting time, with new and interesting tools popping up constantly.

But I’ve also noticed an unfortunate trend lately. When working with some designers or interviewing candidates, it’s becoming common to see these types of processes:

  • “I sketch a little bit on paper, then go straight into Sketch/Photoshop. I’m just really fast with those tools, you know?”
  • “Oh, these days I design straight in the browser. Since I can code, it’s faster to just skip the design applications.”
  • “The engineers on my team are so fast I can just talk through ideas and they’ll build it.”

I can see few situations when these approaches could be valid. If the problem you’re solving is rather small and only requires a tactical solution, sure, go ahead and define it in high fidelity. Or if you are working on an established product, doing incremental work, utilizing stable UX patterns and UI components, yes, I can see how designing in the browser could be a quick and easy approach. But not so much if our work doesn’t fall in those buckets. It’s about new problems, which require new and specific solutions which, in turn, require plenty of exploration. And the steps along the way don’t have to be pretty.

Working at the lowest level of fidelity you can afford to always pays back. Low fidelity is fast — so you can try many more alternatives in the same length of time. Low fidelity is cheap — so you spend so little time with each idea that you don’t marry any of them. And tools determine fidelity.

The more control you’re allowed over the details, the more control you’ll want to exert, so it’s a good idea to constrain yourself. A few of my strategies:

  • When sketching, I prefer to use Sharpies over pens: the thick tip prevents me from spending time on detailed icons or UI shading, so I explore more alternatives.
  • Moving up one level of fidelity, I use Balsamiq Mockups: it gives me so little control over the details, I can only focus on the meaningful elements a flow. Using it I can drop pre-made components on a canvas in half a second, instead of manually crafting them from primitives on Sketch. It’s faster, so I explore more alternatives.
  • When testing with users, I tend to start with a tool like InVision, which provides standard interactions out of the box. They’re less expressive, but I can get a prototype in front of customers and start learning in a fraction of the time it would take me to tie a series of beautiful transitions together with Framer.

Astronomers can’t see black holes, by definition. To find one, you observe other celestial bodies circling around them — you can’t see the black holes themselves (light doesn’t escape their gravity), but they attract so many other objects, they just have to be there. That sometimes just sounds quite like the design process to me: you can never be sure the idea you just had is the right one. So the more ideas you have, the more possibilities you try, the more you’ll have circling this possible ideal solution, and the more confident you’ll be about picking one.

So please, to get the most of your talent and your time, be deliberate about moving up the fidelity scale, and explore as much as you can along the way. Use whichever tool makes you the most productive at each stage, but always take a moment to think: am I using the right tool for the job?

You might want to follow me on Twitter.

Writing about time, fatherhood, leadership and the making of software. VP Product and Design at Metabase.

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