There is an old adage that says “Use the right tool for the job”. However, with technology and User Experience Design, knowing which tools to use can be a bit nuanced.
Often there are many tools for the job, all of which have their strengths and weakness. I've been thinking about a recently popular tool, Sketch, and where it fits into our practice of Enterprise UX Design.
"Men have become the tools of their tools." - Henry David Thoreau
At DesignMap, we are not dogmatic about our process. The most important thing for us is to work with our clients to deliver the best product we can. If that means spending a day in Excel detailing out release feature feasibility, then so be it. We have our go-to tools for creating our deliverables but that does not mean we won’t try new ones. Before I get into my perspective on how Sketch should be used when designing for Enterprise applications, I want to tell a brief story.
When I was in Art School my classmates and I would stress over the right way to stretch a painting. No detail seemed inconsequential, everything from the type of stretcher bars, the gesso you used, staples or tacks, canvas vs. linen, the list goes on. However, once the painting was done we didn't think twice about the stretcher, at that point all we cared about was the painting on top of it.
I think the same can be said for designing digital products for screens. Once the product is built people forget about the tools that were used to design the framework, they are only evaluating the final product. But that doesn't mean that the underlying framework isn't important, in fact it's critical. Back to our painting analogy, if thestretcherbuckles or fails, suddenly we're unable to focus on the painting at all. It must be perfectly functional to become invisible, and vice-versa.
"Sketch is a vector editing application which is specifically created for designing screen interfaces. It optimizes workflow around common tasks, has great asset exporting features and allows for easy accessibility of functionality usually hidden on similar applications."
Sketch is specifically built for screen design, its the X-ACTO®knife to Illustrator's (or Photoshop’s) Swiss Army Knife. Both Illustrator and Photoshop have been around for decades and are good at many things, Sketch on the other hand is only a few years old but is excels at the one thing it does.
Enterprise UX Discovery Process
We love Enterprise UX at DesignMap: the work is truly challenging and the impact of the design has broad reach in its ability to make users lives much better. The process of doing Enterprise UX isn't wildly different from any other product design, but does have some unique characteristics. The complexity of Enterprise projects means we need to spend time understanding their systems, and once we understand we need to build consensus, often across several internal teams. To facilitate this we create models, to not only help us understand the systems we are designing, but to also have something to reference when discussing changes to the system. We also interview stakeholders and end users to help us understand their challenges and use that information to create personas. Finally, another important design activity is concepting, with hand sketches and eventually concept wireframes (typically, for us, in Illustrator).
All of this work, however, is done before any screen level design has started and typically we work in Illustrator for these initial phases. So this begs the question: Could you use Sketch during this process? The answer is yes, but it might not make sense. Models, flows and personas could be created in Sketch and then put together in a presentation in Keynote (or PPT). However, you could also use Sketch for Print design but it might not be the most efficient. We prefer to use our old standby tools here, hand sketches and Illustrator.
Sketch in the Process
So where does Sketch fit into Enterprise UX? Sketch is amazing for creating screens (I think I may have mentioned that). Once your project is firming up the concept designs and more interface designs are being incorporated then Sketch begins to shine. Especially if you know the final output of the project will be either a prototype or code.
One of the more interesting aspects of Sketch is that it bridges vector and raster applications. So, in our case we could use it for both interaction design and visual design. The same screens that we use for wireframes could be incrementally changed into visual design.
This, however, brings up a few questions.
Some concerns that my colleagues at DesignMap and designers elsewhere have raised:
- Is the translation between wireframes and visual design a necessary step (specifically moving from one application and re-drawing in another), critical to refinement, ideation and improvement?
- What are we missing if we went to use Sketch for both?
I don’t really have good answers to the questions above, and I think the response “It Depends on the project / client / designer(s)” is pretty apt. If the final goal for your client is to just deliver a set of concept wireframes (and you are already using another tool) then jumping to Sketch may not be your best option. But if you know the project will end with a prototype or MVP then Sketch may be a good option. Here is how I see it:
When We Use Sketch
- Screen level design
- When managing assets & type styles is important
- When designing the nitty-gritty of an app
- When the outcome is either a prototype or code
When We Don’t Use Sketch
- Drawing models
- High level ideas/concepts
- Creating Presentations
- Annotating and documentation
Back to my Art School anecdote for a second, if you’re taking a project all the way through to a prototype or a developed application (in my Art School story this is a painting), then perhaps introducing a new tool into your repertoire would make sense. However, if all you need to do is create a concept to lay the foundation of a future product (this is the stretcher) then Sketch may not be necessary. The way we see it is: Sketch is not the panacea of UX design, however it does UI design very well.
"Sketch is not the panacea of UX design, however it does UI design very well."
- Sketch is a niche product. It is optimized for screen design and has great asset generation (exporting) features.
- The spectrum of UX Design, especially complex or Enterprise-level designs is broader than sprint level design work.
- Photoshop and Illustrator are swiss army knife tools, they serve many masters.