The Future of Design Tools: Focus on the User

At its core, great design begins with a re-imagining of the world — yet ultimately requires the translation of that vision into an artifact or experience that others can engage with. Arguably, ideas become designs when the right tools help an individual externalize the creations that only their mind can see. Technology, in turn, is constantly evolving the tools that designers use to create rich experiences, communicate intention, and produce these experiences for others.

Nowhere is the impact of technology on creative development more evident than in the shift from print media to experience design. The flatlands of the printed page, the creative process, and design tools have given rise to multi-dimensional, interactive, and media-rich experiences. Highly structured design cycles have given way to more iterative, multi-stakeholder, collaborative workflows.

This evolution really took off in the 1990s, when the demand for websites exploded. Everyone wanted one, and designers started by applying their existing print publishing workflows and tools to the new problem of creating digital media. Despite non-linear navigational elements, these early sites functioned more like online print — they contained large tomes of information that were indexed according to subjects an organization thought might be of interest to users.

Fast forward to today. Designers are more focused on developing and producing experiences that place the user’s “heart path” and “hand path” at the center of design. The “heart path” is how I refer to developing empathy for the user’s needs. What are people trying to do when they arrive at your site or use your application? Why are they here? What do they want? The “hand path” is about understanding their behavior. How are they interacting with your proposed design? What are they clicking on, swiping, and touching? How are you incorporating this knowledge back into your thinking?

Designers still need ways of working with traditional elements such as type, imagery, and layout, but also now require ways of being able to take their designs from wireframes to interactive prototypes that clearly communicate their vision. The sum of all these design elements makes up the user experience, and designers need to follow a user’s “heart path” and “hand path” to achieve successful design for today’s products and customers. The need to design for a multitude of devices and platforms has only made the evolution of updated design tools even more important.

Tools that Capture Design Thinking

The Stanford Design School describes design thinking in a particularly helpful way:

  1. EMPATHIZE: Work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing. Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in their experiences.
  2. DEFINE: Process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work to form a user point of view that you will address with your design.
  3. IDEATE: Explore a wide variety of possible solutions by generating several diverse solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and explore a range of ideas.
  4. PROTOTYPE: Transform your ideas into a physical form so you can experience and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.
  5. TEST: Try out high-resolution products and use observations and feedback to refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.

Although presented in a quasi-sequential manner, it is generally understood that phases of the design thinking process can happen concurrently, that numerous rounds of iteration and testing improve design quality, and that the collaborative nature of today’s design environments must be factored into every phase of the process.

The easier it is for a designer to iterate and collaborate, the better a user’s experience will be. The initial designs and prototypes that are built upon the early phases of empathizing, defining, and ideating might shift multiple times as a result of learnings from user testing and stakeholder feedback. A designer must be able to quickly chart out wireframes that map onto the customer “heart path” and “hand path,” and to craft an interactive experience that takes learnings into account.

Designers need tools that support their fast, fluid movement between modalities – especially in an environment of ever-increasing content demands. Just as John Warnock developed Adobe Illustrator in response to a print design problem, we now need tools to revolutionize how designers create, develop, and produce digital media.

A Unified Process

During the last few years, a plethora of tools popped up that help designers do their work, but no single tool really covers the entire workflow. UX designers routinely find themselves switching between applications, depending on whether they are designing, prototyping or collaborating with others. The market has responded with a whole range of tools, but a UX designer’s workflow is still fragmented across many applications.

Tools that reduce friction and cut out pain points will unify the workflow for UX designers, the stakeholders giving feedback, and the developers who are producing designs. With Adobe XD, we set out to create a tool that unifies this newly evolved design process — from designing to prototyping to collaborating on user experience design.

The future of design must bring designers back to the original purpose of design: using their minds to solve customer problems. With Adobe XD, our goal is to help make that future a reality.