A couple of years ago, working from home was rare. Working on collaborative design projects from home was even rarer. Obviously, things have changed dramatically since offices around the world closed down and the WFH format became the norm. And while some new ways of working may fade when teams return to their offices, others have delivered surprising benefits and are likely to stick around. For us at Nansen, remote collaborative design tools like Figma and Sketch are a perfect example of the latter.
There will always be a place for Photoshop or Illustrator in most designers’ toolboxes. But web- and cloud-based software like those from Figma and Sketch makes it easier for teams to collaborate on design projects, whether they’re in the same room or across the world.
Both Figma and Sketch position themselves as tools for product design, from ideation and whiteboarding to testing and shipping. Figma works on any operating system, and Sketch is Mac-based. Our team uses both tools, depending on the client and the project, and during this WFH year, we’ve realized that their utility goes far beyond their design features.
Before we get into that bigger-picture discovery, though, let’s take a moment to outline those excellent features.
Of course, the key benefit of the design software from Figma and Sketch is the ability for multiple team members to work on the same file at the same time, with full visibility into what the others are doing in the project as they do it. It’s essentially whiteboarding without the physical whiteboard. (Or perhaps it’s “pair designing,” and it’s the new “pair programming”? We digress.)
As you might imagine, the ability to collaborate in this real-time manner has been absolutely essential for brainstorming and mock-ups while our team has been in remote workplaces.
Figma and Sketch both also make the sharing of mock-ups and other files exceedingly easy. Rather than shooting attachments back and forth and creating version-control nightmares, we can just send through a link to open a project in the Figma or Sketch program, and the recipient can jump right into the collaborative workspace.
Jumping ahead several steps in the design process, these remote design tools are also great for presenting work to clients and partners. We can throw a mock-up or final design up on the screen, and it looks like the beautiful and seamless deliverable we were asked to create—but in fact, the file contains multiple layers for the client to explore, helping them understand the process and the work. For example, if we are presenting a journey map, we might start by displaying the entire framework, from the first to the final step. And when a question arises about one particular part of the journey, we can zoom into that piece and explore tons of details that are baked right into the file.
But the reason that our team has come to love these remote design tools goes beyond their features. It was when our team used Figma and Sketch for a series of design sprints that we discovered the surprising impact that they can have on the success of such collaborative projects.
During remote design sprints, we’d hold video calls to share ideas and offer feedback. What we found was that doing this idea-sharing remotely via digital whiteboard made the conversation dramatically more democratic. Everyone on the call was able to have the same level of presence in the “room,” rather than the inevitable hierarchy that can emerge in in-person meetings. And with more equal footing among the participants came a greater diversity of viewpoints, which is invaluable when designing products that work for all kinds of people.
When circumstances allow and team members are ready, Nansen conference rooms will host collaborative projects and brainstorming sessions once more. But even as we return to some pre-2020 ways of working, we’ll incorporate many of our WFH experiments that have shown us the value in doing things differently. Collaborating through design tools like Figma and Sketch for whiteboarding and presenting work will definitely be one of them.