Last month we launched our new series, The Tools I Use, with a look at some of Erin Marchak’s favourite tools to use in her roles as Drupal Practice Lead and Senior Developer here at Myplanet.
It’s a series we’re excited about continuing to share, because we spend our lives working to improve the tools and experiences of people in the enterprise space every day. By taking a look at what excites and works for us, we’re better able to understand what could excite and work for others.
(Also, we’re huge advocates for the power of knowledge share. We’re all better when we get to share our ideas and collaborate. Open discussions about what we use to get work done is part of our general commitment to the open-source ethos.)
Today we’ll be continuing the series and taking a look at what Nathalie Crosbie, Associate Director of Experience Design here at Myplanet, likes to use when leading her teams through the design process. As a vocal advocate for collaboration and a dedicated mentor and coach, Nathalie offers insights not only into what works well for her as a designer, but also what is accessible and functional as a tool for working with non-designers throughout her process.
So, without further ado, the second installment of The Tools I Use.
What’s really exciting about being an Associate Director at Myplanet is that I get to be a leader and a mentor to other designers, but I’m also still very much a maker. So as I talk through the tools that I use most often, it’s going to be from the perspective of a hands-on designer as well as the perspective of someone supporting and mentoring others in design.
A few of the tools I mention may be new to you but most will likely not be. Three of them are tried and true classics. (There’s a reason that certain things are the things we keep coming back to over and over again!) That being said, all of them are the tools I use most often.
But enough set-up, let’s get started!
Tool 1: The Whiteboard
My first and most favourite in terms of actual tools is a whiteboard and a set of 8 to 10 thin multi-coloured whiteboard markers, ones that allow you to do some fairly fine drawing.
Why is this one of my top tools?
First of all, it’s visual. I’m a very visual thinker (as a lot of designers are). I also really like working lean. I like things to be visual but also rough and accessible, because the more time we spend trying to figure out how to use something, the more time we’re taking away from collaboration and co-creation.
I’m also a big picture thinker. I start big and then I go granular, and I often find that before people can absorb the details it’s really important that they understand the top-level idea. A whiteboard really allows me to do that level of ideation and presentation, and there’s lots of space usually with a whiteboard to drill down to specifics when we’re ready.
I also really like that it’s flexible, it’s open, and it’s demo-able. It’s flexible, as in I can use it in all sorts of ways (to draw and sketch on, write and make lists on, stick things up onto); it’s open, as in many people can stand at a whiteboard while you walk through a flow or a design concept, making it easy for others to add to the work; and it’s demo-able, as in I can invite someone over and work with them collaboratively, which is really important to me and to creating an optimal design.
My favourite tools, whether digital or not, are always what’s most accessible and readily available. What I really like about using the whiteboard is that it’s got pretty much no learning curve. As long as you avoid using permanent markers on your whiteboard, you’re all set!
Tool 2: The Elementary School Kit
Let’s move on to the second tool: Paper, pencil, sharpie, tape and scissors and scissors kit.
There’s a reason that, for a lot of designers, it’s still their “go-to” to sketch things out. First, it’s easily accessible: there’s always paper, pens, and pencils lying around.
It’s also very visual, quick and — again — has the advantage of being rough, while still allowing you to get to a higher level of fidelity than the thicker, bigger, rougher whiteboard designs.
But working on paper is still erasable, changeable, you can rip it up, crumple it up, throw it away in frustration. And unlike a whiteboard, you can more easily pick it up and bring it over to somebody to show them.
I like to combine the paper drawings with the whiteboard: I can stick some higher-fidelity sketches up next to initial rough sketches and iterations done first on the whiteboard and that helps bring the initial ideas to life a little more.
But what I really like about the paper and pencil is that it can be your first draft of a prototype.
For example, I once had to help a C-suite level stakeholder understand a design concept quickly in order to vet that it made enough sense to move forward. It was somewhat complex, so it needed to be shown visually and in a way that communicated the interactive elements, but the need to get a decision on it came up very suddenly, so it couldn’t wait until we produced a digital prototype.
Solution? Paper, pencil and tape to the rescue! We quickly sketched a few views of the proposed designs and functionality, used a mobile phone to take a simple video of our hands moving the paper designs in a way that demonstrated the desired interactivity, then we sent the video to the stakeholder. We were able to produce this design, videotape it, send it, and get a decision back all within 30 min.
Tool 3: In-Person Conversations
My third tool is in-person collaborative conversation. Again, super old-school (even older school than the other two!) and you might question whether or not it counts as a tool, but I will explain why it is.
I’m always looking for the leanest, easiest way to do something that’s accessible to everyone, and the reason I like real-time conversation and think of it as a tool, is there are times where having an in-person discussion really is the most efficient solution.
Sometimes we’re going back and forth by email — people haven’t seen the email, people are trying to grasp what you’re saying by email, you’re trying to get some kind of approval — and getting everybody in the room together just allows for collaboration and efficiencies while avoiding the “lost in translation” concerns of broken-telephone style emailing.
I use it both as a designer myself — if I’m doing a design studio for something that I’m working on — and as I’m mentoring or guiding more junior designers. If I notice that some of the other cross-functional people that I think would be helpful to have input from aren’t there, I’ll invite them along to join us in the conversation. Similarly, I invite our clients to work with us as much as possible, too.
Those in-person collaborative conversations are super helpful. It can be in-person physically as much as possible, but it can be through a Google Hangout or Skype or a phone conversation just as easily — the idea is to have some form of live interaction together, in real-time, sharing as much as you can in that moment. As a tool, it’s one of my absolute go-tos.
Tool 4: Concept Board
One of the things we’re always looking for here at Myplanet is how to make working remotely easier. We have coworkers and stakeholders stationed all over the world, and we’re often wondering how we can make them feel like they’re here as collaborators whose voice has equal weight to those physically in the room.
We’ve looked at a lot of different tools as we try to find something that allows everyone to have equal voice and equal ability to hear in meetings. It wasn’t until recently when one of our developers, Jerry Low, came to the group with a tool called Concept Board that I felt we found a good one.
Concept Board is like a virtual whiteboard.
When we’re with a team member who’s remote, we try to have everybody do the design studio work in Concept Board, so that there’s not an advantage for the people who are at a physical whiteboard over the person who’s remote.
When we use Concept Board, our remote staff feel heard because they get as much say visually as everyone else, and they are better able to hear everybody else, regardless of audio quality, because they are “hearing” by seeing what everybody else is putting on the Concept Board. It an equalizer.
There is a slight learning curve to it, but it’s pretty quick. We can usually get team members up and going on it within fifteen minutes, understanding the basic functionality — but it’s got a couple of funny little functionalities to it that take some getting used to. Once you do get the hang of it, though, it’s got more advantages than not, and we’ve been using it quite successfully. Developers, designers, product owners — everyone can contribute through Concept Board.
Tool 5: Axure
My last tool is quite well-known in the IxD and UX designer industry: Axure.
Axure is known as a wireframing and prototyping tool, and it’s quite well established already. There are lots of similar tools on the market, but I’ve selected this tool over comparable ones intentionally.
What I really like about Axure is that for the most part, it’s fairly quick to get up and going — something you’ve probably noticed is a priority for me in my tools.
It’s also very well known in the industry, so it has a really solid community around it that provides patterns that you can reuse, and they’ve got a really great tutorial library to help introduce new people to it or for you to take it even further.
When I’ve worked with a client or a designer who hasn’t worked in Axure before, I’ve been able to get them understanding the foundations of it really quickly by pointing them through a few of those tutorials. In very little time, they’re up and going with it.
And what I personally like about it as a designer myself is it’s prototyping functionality. I’ve been using Axure for years and while I still have not tapped all of its functionality — there’s way more about it that I could know and do — I really like the basics.
I can get an HTML prototype up and going for clients to see quickly. And it works really well when I’m doing a wireframe for development purposes as well, because it allows the developers to dive in and focus on the designed functionality only on the piece that they want to focus on at the time vs having to read through a whole functional spec document.
Plus, I cannot tell you how many times, as a designer, I have caught a small miss in my own designs by prototyping them and clicking through the functionality to test it out. It can really save embarrassment as a designer and make the designs better.
Even if you’ve drawn out a flow that makes sense on paper, clicking through can give you a sense of the experience that you cannot get from paper alone.
Choosing the right tools
When I look at what tools to use at the start of a project, I ask myself two questions:
1) What is my goal or my desired outcome for the design work I’m about to do?
2) Who is my audience and what will be accessible to them as a method of communication?
I ask myself these questions because the tool that I choose and the method that I choose to communicate with are both related to the outcome I’m looking to achieve and who I’m going to be presenting to.
For example, is it more important at the current stage to have a high-level of design quality and fidelity (as is the case towards the end of a design engagement) or is it about speed (more often the priority when we are working to convey a general idea or direction, like the paper prototype example I mentioned earlier)? If I have to be really quick, then I have to choose a tool that allows for quick design.
One of the things I haven’t brought up here yet is the idea of trade-offs, which is another facet of choosing the right design tool, and another reason to ask myself what’s most important for the design stage and the other people I’m working with.
Wireframes vs Sketches
- I can present a wireframe to a designer and they’ll often quickly get it, but there might be a type of stakeholder who’s never seen one before and would understand a drawing more easily. In those cases, whiteboard or paper pencil sketches are the better choice.
High-fidelity vs Low-fidelity
- I might have a client who thinks best in really, really high fidelity. For them, seeing something rough on a whiteboard is too low fidelity and they need to see something more polished when I present to them, something more to the level that can be produced with a tool like Axure.
Privacy vs Preference
- Here at Myplanet, many of our enterprise and Fortune 500 clients have privacy constraints and proprietary concerns, so that needs to be factored in when selecting certain types of tools. Some of the online design tools that are popular can’t be used in that scenario, so a tool like Axure offers an advantage in that regard as well.
The final consideration I make is what’s accessible to me. I might really want to use a particular fancy tool, but if I don’t know it, and it’s going to take me a day to ramp up on it, and I have something I want to be able to show to someone by tomorrow, that new tool might not be the right tool to use right now. It’s important to think about what’s realistic for me as the person with my current knowledge to use as a tool.
I would say at the end of the day, in choosing the right tool, think about:
- your design goal
- your desired outcome as a designer
- your audience and what’s important to them
If you’re careful about choosing the right tool for the scenario and audience, you’ll know you’ve done everything in your power to bring everyone to a great outcome.
Love whiteboards or loathe them? Let us know in the comments!