I don’t believe in endless long lists of tools. This inundates UX Beginners and is counter-productive to getting started.

Here’s a curated set of the essential tools that I use.

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2013 Macbook Air (aff)

Macbook Air 2013

I admit it, I was a Mac basher for most of my life. “But other laptops are cheaper and you can get better specs with a Windows machine!” When my Windows (it was a Gateway…) laptop finally died within 2 years of use, I took the plunge and got the Macbook Air, and have never looked back.

It’s hard to beat the Macbook Air as a total package in terms of portability, power, overall versatility and great user experience. You really get what you pay for. Fortunately, the 2013 Mac Air (which I own) is now a steal at less than $900.

For slightly upgraded specs, the newest 2014 Macbook Air (aff) is available now.

And yes, this really is the only essential piece of hardware I’m recommending right now; everything else is superfluous to the work I need to get done. For now.

Prototyping & Design Tools

Axure [Available for Mac and PC Versions]

Axure is the industry standard for many reasons:

  • Mac + PC compatible. This is hugely important if you collaborate with others who run a different OS.
  • The “Publish to Axshare” function allows you to create a link of your work and directly share that with anyone to play with your designs (including clickable prototypes).
  • Besides the low learning curve, Axure has a robust community, which is essential for support & getting additional design resources. If you need a widget or see an example of an interaction done on Axure, there’s a good chance someone has done it already.

Omnigraffle [Mac Only]

Without going into too much detail, Omnigraffle and Axure have lots of overlap in functionality.

I think the standout difference is that it seems it’s faster/easier to create sharper-looking deliverables in Omnigraffle than Axure. I’m not sure yet if this is a question of having better defaults or otherwise, but that’s the only difference I’m noticing.

However, Omnigraffle still lacks the ease of interaction & fast prototyping that Axure has.


Illustrator is at it’s heart a drawing program. If you want to create resizeable, detailed artwork (especially logos and icons), Illustrator is the industry standard.  I’ve found that wireframing with Illustrator has often saved me in a pinch if I need to change dimensions.

Good for concept work and static one-off wireframes.


Originally created to edit photos, Photoshop is often used as a UI design tool to create mockups. A common flow is to bring what you create in Illustrator into Photoshop to add more effects & polish. But if you create your entire UI in Photoshop to be 400×400 and need it to be at 800×800 dimensions, you are screwed if you don’t use Smart Objects (vectors).

Sketch [to be determined] by Bohemian Coding 

For UI design, this is the dark horse that’s challenging the Illustrator-Photoshop workflow mentioned above. The latest version of Sketch is showing lots of promise, but I haven’t dug deep enough into it to comment intelligently :)

Portfolio & Hosting

Nowadays, having your own website and online portfolio is a must. I have seen time and time again job listings that say “link to web portfolio” required, or something similar.

This is what I’ve been doing for the past 7 years. It’s not necessarily the simplest nor cheapest solution to set up, but it provides the most flexibility and versatility long term. In my humble opinion.


Hostmonster (aff)


Reasons I stick with Hostmonster:

  • Cheap, especially if you go with their 2 or 3 year plans
  • Live human beings to talk to from Provo, Utah.
    This is so important if you have questions, need technical help, or (it happens to everyone) if your WordPress account gets hacked.
  • Get your first domain free for 1 year when signing up for the first time
  • 1-click install of WordPress and a multitude of other platforms (e-commerce, forum software).

If you want to know more of the nitty-gritty details behind setting up an online profile, getting started with web hosting and more –  leave a comment below. 

I’ll be expanding this section over time – for updates to my curated list of UX tools & resources, sign up for my snazzy email newsletter below.

5 Comments on “UX Tools of the Trade”

  1. This is great. My biggest weak spot is talking about my process. I’m going back through my portfolio and answering those three questions. Finishing school in March and am on the market. Even with 2 years experience its hard to get something. This gave me the competitive edge I needed. Thanks so much.

    1. You’ll do great Micah. The SF market (from what I’ve heard) is a tough one to crack, so be patient with yourself!

    2. Agree! Two years is entry-level. I have 8 years of web design, visual and front-end coding but it’s from 2000-2008 back when UX wasn’t a profession yet. Since then, I was teaching Interaction Design at a associate’s degree level. Just graduated from 2 years post-grad Interaction Design and struggling to find work because I don’t have direct and recent experience. The stint in academia was a mistake but industry grew so much more exciting.

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