Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

May 2019

Tooling Between Communicating & Designing

screenshot of MS's Sketch2Code and Figma Design

Wondering why design tools have been reluctant to evolve

Conversations about design methods and software often bracket the week. If it isn’t another software/service, it’s a design system or a shift in a large/influential company’s motivations which sparks things. And it’s not a bad thing. Design is the language of making something functional and addressable for someone else. When it works well, it should be applauded. When it fails, it should also be elevated as lessons to build from.

Yet, there is this gap in the methods and implementing of design where — if you inhabit the space long enough — you realize that the tools are woefully equipped to transmit the best fidelity of what’s intended. The tools — everything from the napkin and pen to the metrics suites used for assessing usability, frequency, and issues —are developed around the idea that value is being communicated and can retold at each step of the journey. For the most part, this seems to be true, right until a shift happens.

Previously, we ran a post titled The Ethics of UX As A Social/Security Vector. It is the kind of post which can fly under the radar of those in design spaces because it seems to run similar to the other “UX is not doing right by us” theme. Yet, when poking past the questions posed in that piece, one can start to see a tension within the tools and methods designers use to communicate. In a few examples, we can see where it wasn’t the design of the end product where ethics issues lay, but it was in the tooling itself that never asked the designer/developer to consider more than their own intent. So, what happens when the tools evolve to asking these perspectives?

One thought is that the tools we use need to be embedded with ethical and organizational intelligence at a higher place in the ideation process. For example, a tool like Figma is excellent for designers and developers as various bits of communication have been solidified and there just needs to be some work around the edges. Once a design system has been created with Figma, one can make the assumption that the logic needed to build and implement a system has also seen some considerable attention towards its value to various audiences.

Chances are though, more designers have spent time in a scenario more similar to the other image in our frame — Microsoft’s Sketch2Code. S2C is an experimental interface using Microsoft’s lessons in image and intelligence to take whiteboard/napkin sketches and turn them into code. Not interactive, not even mapped against an org’s design system. S2C merely trims the work from those executive thoughts (“can we do it like…”) to elements which can build towards the final product (code, code snippets). However, S2C has a problem, it’s just snippets and a contextualized journey, it isn’t a map which can be built from.

Design tools actually need to bridge what’s explained here between S2C and Figma. And that evolution not happening (fast enough?) with the tools. It is on the whiteboard, and it’s long been the case that some analytical software can check code for logic/rule/regulation after its built. The tooling of enabling the designer to be poked during the fact isn’t there. And maybe it can be for a while — then turned off when those “training wheels” are no longer needed. Or, maybe they aren’t turned off — the ethics which guide why we can’t have this info populate a field because of our company’s stance on this or that probably does mean it evolves.

Much like an mobile operating system learns its owner and begins to recommend items at various points of use, perhaps its time for design tools to get a similar bridge — even if that tool is camera looking at that whiteboard sketch, validating the idea, preparing the code for inclusion to the backlog and branch, but also elevating where it conflicts with the design system and ethics of the attending org/nation. A previous shared concept pointed to this line of thinking. In between communicating and designing, there’s a better behavior to be esteemed. Maybe the evolution of the toolkit could do that. If the tooling evolves at this point, then perhaps the rippled effects of abuse, market gain, culture/language, etc. can be given a more valuable bit of attention.

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