Design’s design tool problem

The market for interface design tools is long overdue for consolidation.

I would like to start out here by emphatically stating that I’m not out to bash the team at Framer. I think they’ve built a totally awesome product and are clear leaders in the prototyping tool space.

That said, I was initially a little underwhelmed with the recent update that effectively created a simplified version of Sketch inside of Framer. Quite a bit of hype surrounded the announcement so I thought it might be something to drastically flatten out the learning curve for people that don’t have front end dev chops. Or new responsive layout features in the vein of Subform. Or some kind of AI integration. The new features weren’t a disruptive leap forward.

After tinkering with the new design tab within Framer, I can now see that the update is still really useful and a pretty big deal, but it got me thinking about how utterly ridiculous and crowded the design tool space is getting. Judging by one of Koen Bok’s comments in the Designer News AMA thread, it’s clear that Framer has decided to directly compete against Sketch instead of closely integrating with one another as they have previously. It’s a bold move considering how dominant Sketch is now, but also one that doesn’t really benefit the design industry as a whole. The folks at Sketch and Framer are out to make money — and I don’t begrudge that at all, but it is important to keep that in mind when trying to define how we work.

The amount of screen design and prototyping tools to choose from in 2017 is frankly reaching absurdity. It’s gotten so ridiculous that there’s now a cottage industry dedicated to just keeping track of them all. And to maintain awareness to where the industry is headed, I helped create a working group on my design team dedicated to evaluating all the new tools seemingly coming out of the woodwork. We spend a couple hours each month demoing new products and discussing how they might fit into our future workflow.

Design tools are experiencing what management guru Peter Drucker referred to as an “age of discontinuity.” Discontinuities are periods of disruption when new technologies spark market upheaval. Eventually, these frenetic discontinuities dissipate and congeal into a new normal. The figure below provides a more granular view on this process.

Tushman’s Technology Life Cycle

We’re currently in an era of ferment within this discontinuity. Companies like InVision, Framer, Sketch, Figma, and a crap load of others are all frantically releasing new features and capabilities. Though Sketch has some momentum, we really haven’t arrived at a dominant design for building interactive products.

Another area where we can see evidence of this is in terms of acquisitions or lack thereof. While we do have some examples like Pixate (Google) and Silver Flows (InVision) getting snatched up, there haven’t been that many big consolidations. InVision has been somewhat active off their latest financing round, but might not be big enough yet to try and purchase a Sketch or Framer.

You might be wondering why is this a problem. Unlimited choices for consumers is good, right? Not necessarily. Having too many choices can actually be a bad thing in many cases. By having all these options, it weakens shared understanding of how to deliver assets and it can be overwhelming constantly trying to learn new tools. The prototyping space is a particularly good example of this. There’s basically zero agreement on the best way to create prototypes: nodes, timelines, code, hotspots, etc.

I don’t have concrete opinions on what’s right the right way to do things and which tools should succeed, but I do think that we all would benefit from some pruning of our choices.

PMM, former UX designer, drummer, bike racer, tech enthusiast, startup nerd, et al.

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