Find the right tools for you

Several months ago, after having just read a debate among designers about design software, I jumped on Twitter to vent a bit:

It was a statement meant to stir the pot and challenge the status quo. I realize each of those things do matter, but often not on the scale that many designers give them.

The concern I share for each of those, but particularly design tools and software, is the impact some designers perceive those things to have on their work. Tools and software don’t make you a great designer. They don’t ensure you’re making the right thing.

Yet, I’ll concede that once you’re clear on the purpose of tools and software – to enable you to create the best work of your life – it is worth your time to consider the best tools and workflow for yourself.

Every designer’s workflow and the tools they use in that flow are different. Tools are personal, use the ones that work the best for you. You must find the tools that work best for you. You also shouldn’t get too attached to your tools. Don’t be afraid to change them up, try something new.

I’ll share what’s currently in my toolbox.

What’s in my toolbox?

I’ve broken my toolbox into 4 sections: Discovery, Hypothesis, Delivery, and Listening.

Discovery tools

Tools that help me with research and learning.

  • Dot grid sketchbook
    Everyone needs somewhere to record their thoughts and ideas. For me, my sketchbook is an essential discovery tool (and used for just about every other phase as well). I prefer a notebook with dot grid pages to make sketching UI elements easier and neater, but isn’t as heavy as a full grid.
  • Digital Whiteboard – Mural
    The lack of physical space in remote company adds constraints to real-time collaboration. One of the best ways I have found to solve this need is a tool called Mural. A simple concept – a digital whiteboard where you add stickies, type words, draw lines, etc. – yet indispensable in usefulness and effectiveness.
  • Video Chat – Zoom
    When in the Discovery or Listening phases, face-to-face communication with others, particularly customers can results in valuable insights. Zoom is a video conferencing tool, simpler than a GoToMeeting service, that enables me to have video chats with people around the world.
  • Scheduling – Calendly
    Discovery is the one of the best times to schedule time to talk with your customers. Calendly removes many of the scheduling headaches involved with coordinating customer interviews and usability tests.

Hypothesis tools

Tools that help me experiment, test, and learn quickly.

  • Wire-framing – Balsamiq 
    Wireframes help me get a rough idea out quickly. In Balsamiq I can move very fast. It provides all of the base elements I need to mock-up a flow for an idea I’m working on.
  • Prototyping – Keynote, InVision, Github + Heroku
    There aren’t many weeks that go by where I’m not working on some kind of prototype. The fidelity of the prototype varies quite a bit though. Sometimes I’ll use Keynote or InVision to string together some static images together to simulate an experience. When I want to demonstrate a little more functionality, my team turns to prototyping in code using Github for collaborating with version control. Then we’ll use Heroku to run the prototype on a server.

Delivery tools

Tools that help me create and build efficiently.

  • Layout and visual editing – Sketch
    I’ll never forget my Photoshop days, but sorry Photoshop I’m in love with Sketch now.
  • Project management – Trello
    Delivering in a timely manner is essential. My team uses Trello to manage our weekly sprints and keep us on track.
  • Music – Spotify
    Never underestimate music’s ability to motivate the human mind. I find that I need certain types of music for different tasks and moods. Spotify allows me to search existing playlists or create my own for the different types of tasks I do.
  • A fresh perspective
    When I get stuck on a problem, or am struggling to come up with fresh ideas, I’ll change my environment. Sometimes this means getting out from behind my desk, going for a walk or working in a different location. Sometimes this means physically changing my office/desk up as well as my digital interface. This change acts as a catalyst for looking at problems from a different angle.

Listening tools

Tools that allow me to observe and listen.

In addition to all the discovery tools listed above:

  • Analytics – Google Analytics, Internal data systems
    For quantitative data I turn to our internal data systems to monitor funnels, conversion rates, and retention rate (among others). We also sometimes supplement with Google analytics.
  • Customer support – Live chat transcripts
    For qualitative data, in addition to usability testing, I rely on hearing from our customers. One of the easiest ways to do that at Automattic, is to read the transcripts of chats that our Happiness Engineers are having with our customers about the product or feature you’re working on.

All of these tools enable me to do the best work possible. Though these are my tools. Get your own! What tools are indispensable for you?



By Mike Shelton

Designer at Automattic, making a little better everyday.