UX Beginners: How to Move Beyond UX Tools

Don’t Be a UX Tool

Every craft requires its tools. Carpenters have their drill bits and utility belts. Accountants have Excel. Digital creatives have…an endless number of tools at their disposal. Because the internet.

Thus it’s no surprise that one of the top questions I get about working in UX Design is: “What tools do you use?”

I used respond by explaining the tools I use and why (which I’ll elaborate on at the end), but something never sat right with me, even if my response was well-received.

[su_quote cite=”Steve Jobs”]It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.[/su_quote]

New entrants to User Experience Design – myself included – are often disproportionately preoccupied with tools.

If you work in digital media, there seems to some amazing tool or shortcut coming out every day. I myself add such new tools to Instapaper when spotting good finds on Designer News or Hacker News. Correction: I hoard these new tools and resources “just in case” I’ll need them someday.

don’t chase the tools

The real issue? Obsessing over tools can often lead to obsessing over the deliverables associated with tools. It’s easy to get caught up trying to find the latest and greatest wireframing tool in order to want to create stylish wireframes. Or hunt down the best diagramming tool to make the an impressive-but-so-complex-only-you-can-read it user flows.

My mentor has had senior UX designers say to him “I just want to wireframe.”

The job is not about sitemaps. The job is not even about wireframes. Those are all part of the bigger picture of process and problem solving that goes into designing solutions. It’s called user centered + user experience design because we are attempting to solve problems and create satisfying experiences for users, and no tool can do that single handedly.

These two articles can speak far better than I on the importance of process:

If anything, just Google “UX process” or “Real-Life UX Process” to get some good readin’

so, what to do as a UXB? 

Prepare yourself as I seemingly contradict myself in this last [actionable] part of the post.

I’m not trying to discount the value of tools. In fact, some tools not only help your process, but can also change the way you design completely.

I found myself being much faster in Illustrator than Photoshop. Sketch is becoming more prominent in the design community as a replacement for Photoshop. And design-to-code tools like Macaw and Webflow may replace the need to code designs.

BUT, BUT BUT BUT…(some of you are already Googling those tools)

What’s more important is to know which tools and methodologies to use according to your situation and constraints. Need to focus just on high level concept drawings requiring little interactivity? Pop up some artboards on Illustrator. Need to show click-by-click screen interactions and animations? Start assembling dynamic panels in Axure. Oh, and before you do all this – sketch out all your ideas on paper.

Sometimes we’ll have to learn a tool from scratch because it better fits your needs or that of your company’s.

As you move on in your career, the company you work at will have different tools embedded into its design process. I work in a Windows environment right now. I’m sure sometime in my career I’ll work in a Mac-only environment. The more important thing is that we adapt to the solution that needs to be solved.

[su_quote cite=”George Herbert”]Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.[/su_quote]

Suggestion: don’t start by trying to learn every tool you find…in fact, Hick’s Law states:

[su_quote]with every additional choice, the time it will take for one to make a selection increases.[/su_quote] 

AKA: More choices = more complexity. AKA I can’t finish anything because I’m distracted by too many goddamn options.

Need somewhere to start? 

In accordance with Hick’s Law, I’ll recommend a few tools I use. You’ll do well with these because they are industry standard – if you’re most likely going to be required to use these on the job, why not learn them instead of the smaller, less-supported tools that might not even be around next year?

To make wireframes, sitemaps and prototypes, just start with ONE of these:

Creating & Editing Image Assets (can also be used to make wireframes/sitemaps, but not designed for those specific UX tasks)

  • Adobe Illustrator – good for creating resizeable vector images, which you really want especially for icons & objects.
  • Adobe Photoshop – often used for image-editing and effects

That’s it. If I were a completely beginner it’d just start with Axure (especially for those Windows users out there). In fact some people do all their UX work solely in Axure, and that’s fine. If you want a bit more fun, especially with creating your own symbols/artwork/pieces, explore Illustrator. 

what we covered

  • why focusing on tools is dangerous
  • the importance of process > tools
  • Tools that UXB can start with & focus on



2 responses to “UX Beginners: How to Move Beyond UX Tools”

  1. Important point, well made.

    Too many UXers focus on the tools & deliverables of the job rather than the understanding of why we use them. The other failure I’ve encountered time and time again is other agencies (dev houses usually) who feel that UX is only about making Wireframes.

    We’re a small agency – our problem is convincing clients to follow a proper user-centred process rather than just mocking pretty pictures.

    1. Interesting, I’d be interested in reading how your agency goes about educating your clients and getting buy-in.

      Great blog, btw. Enjoyed reading your post on iterative usability testing.

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