Figma, a collaborative interface design tool that’s been public for two weeks now, has been gaining heaps of praise from the design community at large. Since its release, my Twitter feed has been littered with reviews, opinions, and proclamations that it’s ready to unseat Sketch as the industry standard tool for designing interfaces. With this level of fanfare, it was evident that the design team at Prolific needed to give Figma a serious look and determine if it was indeed ready to overtake Sketch in our workflow.

We’ve been loyal Sketch users and enthusiasts for over two years and have settled into a rhythm that, while imperfect, works well for us. Our entire company (designers, engineers, product managers, etc.) has Sketch installed, with our engineers now responsible for exporting assets and measuring values like font sizes, padding, and margins that are then implemented in Xcode or Android Studio. It wasn’t easy transitioning the entire company to Sketch, but the long-standing benefits continue to prove that it’s been worth it. In those days, we were a team of 30, and now we’re pushing 100, so we really have to calculate the risk vs. reward of implementing a new tool into our workflow. We’re not intimidated by the task—we just need to be certain that any switch creates real value for our product teams and partners.

So it was through this lens that we tried to determine if Figma was going to work for us today.

Here’s what we found.

‘Multiplayer’ is amazing—but what is the real use case?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen several new productivity apps that offer real-time collaboration for their users. It was only a matter of time before software for interface design followed suit. Although Figma is first to market with real-time multiplayer collaboration for interface design, I ultimately feel that this is where the industry as a whole is heading. The latest version of Keynote for Mac now offers real-time collaboration—therefore Sketch, because it already leverages Apple’s framework, is set up nicely to take advantage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sketch were to add a collaborative element to their current offering in the near future. In fact, I’m almost expecting it.

(Sketch, if you’re reading, we’d love a confirmation here! 🙃 )

But even so, is this how designers like to work? Is this how we work most effectively?

Don’t get me wrong, what Figma has created from a technical standpoint is impressive. As we explored the multiplayer feature, we did everything we could to slow it down, to little avail. It’s snappy, intuitive, and just “feels right.” However, technical performance aside, I’m still left asking if the use case proposed throughout the community will actually become the norm for product teams with multiple designers.

For us, the answer right now is no. Currently, I can’t imagine a real scenario where multiple designers will need to be on the same artboard, solving UX problems in high fidelity, or pushing pixels back and forth simultaneously. Primarily because I believe in giving designers the space and time to complete their thought before having to solicit feedback from a teammate or present to a stakeholder. Thus, I would never even set that as an expectation. With that said, I’m not trying to render real-time interface design software defunct. When considering other potential use cases, I’m actually inclined to think that it could be incredibly valuable.

For instance, our designers are constantly asked to make small incremental design updates based on feedback from a partner or new learnings that come in from users and other methods of research. These tasks are often divided up amongst the designers on the product, requiring us to branch a design file, make the necessary updates, and then merge approved updates into a master Sketch file that holds the most recent designs. During this process, we typically have to over-communicate in order to avoid confusion and prevent any errors along the way.

Multiplayer and the ability to have multiple designers working in the same file, real-time, has the potential to remedy some of the pain points that inevitably come with having multiple designers working on one project.

Can comments work?

Design feedback comes in all shapes and sizes and from several different sources.

As a product agency with lean product teams that work with large partners, our designs are heavily influenced by the expertise of our partners, current best practices, interface guidelines, quantitative and qualitative research, as well as the wealth of experience inside the walls of Prolific. Arriving at a solution that satisfies all of these channels requires a lot of conversing—which obviously adds another level of complexity to our design workflow.

Finding the right tool to help capture, organize, and prioritize all of this feedback has proven to be difficult. Feedback is captured differently depending on how and what we’re presenting. The way we present flat “final” designs to a remote partner during a weekly Design Review is completely different than the method in which we present early UX prototypes around the hallways of our office. All of the feedback we hear at every stage is important and needs to be documented, as it has the potential to be used later in the design process as we try to validate our ideas.

Commenting with Figma—and other similar products like InVision and Wake—only suffices for flat visual designs, and also requires us to introduce our partners to a new software tool on top of an already full quiver of project management, analytics, and push notification tools.

Having the ability to receive comments directly on our design file is interesting, but the feature itself is task-driven and would be more interesting if opened up to handle several types of inputs, like notes, to-dos, and attachments centered around an open dialog. Although a great selling point for small product companies with on-site stakeholders, Figma’s commenting feature lacks the robustness we need for it to be a viable long-term solution in how we treat giving and receiving feedback.

Frank Chimero, Design Director at Abstract empathizes with our current struggle in his post titled ‘The Other Half of Design.’

“Too much of the design toolset is focused on creating isolated artifacts instead of supporting connected workflows. Design work needs to be better connected, and designers need more support for the half of their job that isn’t drawing shapes, choosing typefaces, or prototyping interactions. The majority of a design job is orchestrating the team, ensuring visual consistency, updating stakeholders, documenting decisions, interpreting feedback, and delivering the work for implementation. When you look at it this way, it becomes clear. We don’t need more visual tools. We need help managing our work and how design relates to the rest of the organization.”

The foundation is there—sans a few (critical) things.

Figma, aside from introducing multiplayer, in-line commenting, and living 100% in the cloud, is fundamentally the same as Sketch in how it functions. Both support device constraints, a basic form of versioning, and are almost (to the naked eye) equally snappy. Figma’s user interface, layout, and set of tools are heavily inspired by the progress Sketch has made over the past few years, which is understandable. Sketch has obviously used software like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator as a foundation from which to innovate, which is totally common practice in our industry.

There is really no difference in what a designer can achieve in Figma vs. Sketch. It really comes down to comfort, efficiency, and how well the tool supports every aspect of your design process—not just the visual design.With that said, Figma is lacking two features that are more or less deal breakers for us at the moment.

Symbols

The lack of symbol support is the most notable deal breaker. The number of artboards for the apps we build hover near or over triple digits. We have a considerable number of edge cases to consider, languages to support, and device sizes to manage. We’re constantly iterating and building new views from a robust components library that we establish with symbols throughout the lifetime of the product.

Some basic investigation supports my assumption that this feature is in Figma’s current roadmap.

@pasql @figmadesign Stay tuned; big priority for us!— Dylan Field (@zoink) September 29, 2016

Assuming Sketch has set the bar for how symbols currently work, I’m excited to see how Figma might push this convention even further.

Pages

The other deal breaker is page support within the layers palette. Typically we break each main feature out into its own ‘page’, which will then house a dozen or more artboards, all representing a unique view or state. Each page has a unique number that helps us stay organized and allows for designers, developers, and product managers to all speak the same language and locate things easily.

Together, symbols and pages help to keep our file size down, designs consistent, and partners happy! Without them, we’re lost—not to mention slow—and stressed. However, I’m confident that these features, like multiplayer for Sketch and others, are just around the corner.

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Will there be a Figma platform?

It’s hard to imagine a perfect interface design tool that’s completely adaptable and configurable to meet the needs of every designer or team and their distinct processes. It seems that the general approach has been to build software that fits a broad need, but requires companies and designers to adapt their workflow to what the tool can offer, rather than developing a tool that can adapt to us.

This is the role of a platform.

Products like Slack and Sketch are open in a way that allows the community to build on top of their framework to fill any gaps that remain in their preferred work flow. We’ve built custom Sketch plugins and have leveraged other plugins built by independent developers to help us do our job more efficiently. My personal favorite is Runner.

Without a platform, I’m skeptical if Figma can adapt quickly enough to the real needs of users. Typically, independent developers will help solve pain points that haven’t yet been considered or that may arise as the industry evolves. A platform goes a long way in creating your feature roadmap for you.

So, are we switching to Figma?

It’s not a “no”—more like a “not yet.”

There’s a ton of potential in what Figma has already created and we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the progress that they make in the next few months. If we ever feel that we’ll be improving the process in which we create impactful products, as well as strengthening the relationships with our partners, we will not hesitate to pull the plug on Sketch and make the switch.

Regardless of what we choose, companies like Figma, Sketch, Adobe and so many others make our jobs so much easier and we fully support each of them. We’re just excited to benefit from the advancements each make for design and product companies like ours and how this healthy competition makes our entire industry better.

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  • http://sitepoint.com Alex Walker

    Nice write up, Tyler. Obviously a few months down the track Figma has added symbols (or ‘Components’ in their parlance).

    I started using Figma in early November and it gradually took over my design work. I too, saw the multiplayer stuff and thought ‘Hmm…. cute…’ but it has ended up being the game-changer for us. There have been a few reasons for this

    1). Often an SVG icon might need to be made monochrome or a PNG needs to be a pixel wider. With Figma, any (authorized) Frontend dev with Chrome can tweak and pull out graphics whenever they need to.

    In fact, at busy times I’ll be designing the bottom half of a page as Stuart (senior local dev) will be exporting elements from the top half.

    2). We’re working with devs in Manila and they’re able to use the read-only Figma file as a style guide. How big is that heading? What color is that panel? When we talk about the design on Slack or Skype, we’re able to interact with the same page, as if we’re standing together pointing at a screen. i.e.

    Me: “Make sure that subheading fits the width ok on mobile”..
    Dev: “This one?” (clicking on it)
    Me: “No, sorry, the one below it..
    Dev: “Ah!.. Yep, got it.”

    We do that surprisingly often. It may work similarly with more sophisticated clients but I can’t say I’ve done it yet.

    3). Project managers have an ambient overview of where things are at. Sometimes I’ll look across and see Lucy (project manager) watching me work. So, instead of saying ‘Hey, how is the header rework going?’, the conversation starts at ‘Hey, I saw what you did with that header. Looks good.’

    I miss the plugin infrastructure of Sketch a little. Offline access could be an issue. You can’t Figma on a plane.

    But so far, the advantages of Figma have outweighed the downsides for us.