Product design comes down to the right mindset (creative, curious, disciplined, open) and the right tools (including software and physical tools). But product design is also a complicated beast, and there’s no one program that can – as yet – service the entire industry. That makes it hard to know what to use. Figma? Illustrator? Photoshop? Yellow post-its? And what about the new programs emerging all the time? Are they worth the investment?
Here are some handy tools for your product design toolkit in 2023. As always, the best way to work will vary from person to person. The trick is trying some of these tools, and figuring out which ones fit your cadence, and your team.
Let’s address the $20 billion elephant in the room. Yes, Adobe has bought out Figma, arguably the best product design tool of them all, and yes it’s still worth your money (regardless of what you think about corporate monopolies). There’s a reason Figma earned its $20 billion price tag – it’s still the best vector-based software for digital product design. It’s also surprisingly easy to learn, which isn’t always a given.
Need some help in the ‘empathise’ stage of product design? HotJar is here to save the day. It’s an insights platform, designed for granular stats and deep dives, that lets you know exactly how users are experiencing your product. It also has a free plan, which includes heat maps, surveys and user feedback (as you might expect, you have to pay for the most robust measuring tools).
When it comes time to design and ideate, you need a digital whiteboard, and Mural is arguably one of the best out there. Remote teams can work on the same board asynchronously, or in real time, dropping sticky notes, making adjustments, or running online workshops. Mural is also free (for small teams of five members) or you can upgrade to the various business tiers.
Miro is the other online whiteboard vying for market supremacy. Like Mural, it has all the real-time collaboration tools you could ever need – mapping, diagramming, strategy, agile workflow planning, the works. It also has full integration with all your favourite design tools, including Figma, Adobe XD and InVision. Throw in a custom developer platform, and you’ve got a very robust piece of kit.
If Adobe’s purchase of Figma has turned you off, Sketch is a more-than-viable alternative. It’s a comprehensive design platform that runs the gamut from ideation to product launch. It also includes easy-to-learn flexible vector editing, which can be picked up on the fly, plus prototype testing for browsers, Mac apps and certain devices. No free plan on this one, but there is a 30-day free trial, if you want to give it a go.
The ‘test’ phase of product development is always slightly fraught. You need sound, data-driven insights, but also a platform that’s easy for various stakeholders to understand. Maze does a great job here. It’s a validation tool for research, and it can road test everything from concepts, to wireframes, to content and copywriting. We’re talking a network of 70,000+ potential testers on standby. There’s also a free plan that includes one active project and 100 responses per month. Very handy!
Pencil and paper
Even in the world of online whiteboards, the humble pencil and paper still has a role to play. Especially in the beginning of the product cycle, when you’re just sketching down ideas, or insights, and sublime perfection is really more of a hindrance. There’s something to be said for physically getting your ideas up on the wall, too. Moving them. Touching them. Arranging them.
“We all start on paper at Slack, and then explore from there,” says Diogenes Brito, one of Slack’s original product designers. “It’s rare that people are so good with a tool that they can think within it.” Still skeptical? InVision has written in-depth about the power of the pencil.
For tech heads and product designers who want the tactile feel of paper plus the power of digital, we now have reMarkable. Also known as the Kindle of product design. reMarkable is essentially a digital notepad that you can draw on, doodle on, plan on, organise things on, and carry around in your bag. Its selling point is “a digital notebook as close to paper as it gets”, which means it feels like a physical notebook, while at the same time plugging into Google Drive, Dropbox, email, PDFs and pretty much everything else.
As a product designer, it can be hard to track your time. The role requires many hats, and there are a lot of moving pieces in the air. Timely streamlines the time-tracking process, quietly monitoring your workflow in the background, so you don’t have to fiddle around with timers. The app then generates a digital breakdown of your workflow, so you can quickly see what teams are working on, or spot areas of wasted time and low-value tasks. A nifty tool for optimising your week.
Ready to make the jump into product design? Start with a Graduate Certificate from RMIT Online.