My Top 4 UI Design Applications

August 19, 2020

It's no secret that in this day and age there are a vast amount of design tools you could use. All of them come with different approaches to solve the problems you may have. We are quite lucky in this industry because if someone has had a problem, it's likely the community has banded together to make a tool/plugin for it.

Sketch

Sketch Interface - Open on Symbols - Organised by Plugins

Interface

Sketch takes the traditional route with its interface. The main focal point in the middle will be your working canvas, and the left, top and right will have your interface options. The similarities between Sketch and other design tools out there is no accident; the interface is familiar to help designers switch between tools they are currently using to sketch. The use of tabs and accordions helps keep the UI clean, or the number of options would make most layers cluttered. It also has a Dark Mode, so if you don't want to burn your eyes by looking at bright whites all day, this will help dim down the pain.

Collaboration

If you are looking for a tool that multiple designers can work with live collaboration, this is not the tool for you... yet. Sketch has been making movements in this field thanks to a $20 million round of investment. They came out this year with a system called Sketch For Teams. Sketch For Teams allows users to share files and update them on a shared folder. The killer feature is, any time you update a file, sketch for teams will store a version of that document in case you need to go back. Think of it like git's version history but for Sketch... neat right?

Tools

Sketch boast the usual tools a UI design program would offer you. Rectangles, Ovals, Vectors, Art-boards, Images and Text. If you are looking for an interaction/in-depth prototyping program this won't be for you, it does the job great, but the recommendation would be Framer X or even Figma.

Symbols

Sketch handles symbols in a unique way to other tools. Whenever you make a symbol, it will be ported over to the symbol page so your workflow can stay clean and streamlined. Symbols also come with some powerful ways to over-ride styles/text. Let's take a button; for example, a symbolised button will have an editable background colour and an editable text layer. Now that's powerful, and you can use that button multiple times across your document, but what if you have a client that now wants all 138 instances of your button to be red instead of blue? Don't fret, all you have to do is go to your symbol layer and edit the colour on the master symbol and it will update it everywhere. Sketch is arguably the most powerful and organised tool for symbols/components on the market right now.

Plugins

Sketch has been a dominant player in the design game for a while now, so there's an extensive list of third-party plugins and app integrations available compared to other tools. If you can think of a way to improve your workflow, there will be a tool for it. I won't touch too much on individual plugins, but I will be making a post about the plugins I can't live without hopefully soon. https://www.sketch.com/extensions/plugins/ have fun; there's a plugin for everything.

Pricing & Technical Specifications

Sketch doesn't have a free version, unfortunately, so adopting Sketch as a new tool will come for $99. Although unlike other tools, it doesn't have a subscription-based model so once you purchase it, you get it for life...ish. Yes, you get to keep it, but if you want any updates after a year from purchase, you will have to repurchase it, although Sketch is kind and give you a 25% discount on top to renew.

Windows users look away since Sketch is only available for Apple users.

Verdict -4/5

The only thing holding it back right now is live collaboration, and once it achieves this, it will be, in my opinion, the most important tool out there until the next killer feature.

Figma

Interface

Figma like Sketch and other programs also take the consistent route for their interface. With the canvas in the middle and options and tools around. Although until you select or create a layer object, the interface will be understandable and won't show additional options to edit your selection. Figma is cleaner, less distracting and likely friendlier for a new user. However, Figma doesn't have a Dark Mode so that it could be a big issue for you.

Collaboration

To quote Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, Oh Lord, thank you sweet baby Jesus. Figma has the most exceptional live collaboration implementation. Arguably its better than sitting next to someone since multiple people can work live on the same project instead of most likely having to micro-manage someone using the same file. With Figmas embedded commenting engine, it eliminates back and forth emails. For an embedded feature when most people use Zeplin to handle feedback, it makes Figma a good all-rounder.

If you have a design team of two or more, it'll be well worth your time trialling Figma.

Tools

Figma has more tools at its disposal compared to Sketch, although the main tools that stand out for Figma are the Prototyping tools. Figma comes along with a feature called Smart Animation. From one frame to another, it will try and calculate what layers move, from frame to frame to create its form of animation. It looks at the layer names to work it out. Figma is an excellent tool if you want to do lo-fidelity prototypes although it doesn't have the power of developer handover that Framer X has. Its an excellent middle-ground prototyping tool.

Symbols

Figma calls symbols components, just like in react. It's simpler than Sketch, not as powerful and it can get out of hand without having a separate page to deal with them. The editable master symbol remains in the place where you create it. Your symbols could end up messy by accidental changes later, especially if you forget its the master symbol.

Plugins

Figma started allowing users to create their plugins in August 2019 🥳. Although with that, Figma only has one year's worth of plugins compared to other tools. You can get the usual suspects for plugins, Unsplash, icons, dummy content. If you aren't too bothered about specific plugins, then Figma could be the choice for you, although some of the plugins you have to pay for in other platforms are vastly superior to anything on the open-source market. Have a butcher's at their list https://www.figma.com/community/plugin/all

Pricing & Technical Specifications

Figma offers you an excellent free plan. It even includes two editors to work collaboratively for free, which is their killer feature and up to 3 live projects until you need to start paying for it. If it becomes your tool of choice, then you can upgrade to the next package for as little as $12 a month per user.

Figma is also trying to take hold of the education sector by offering the professional package entirely free for students and educators. So if you are just deciding what tool to learn early in your career, this gives you a high starting point.

Did I also mention that Figma's basic package is entirely web browser-based, so the tech specs are low, practically anyone could use this software on cheap machines.

Verdict - 4/5

This is an excellent option for teams that work on programs together. Figma has been gaining a tremendous amount of traction over the last few years, and it's only going to get better. Since it's free, there's no point in not trying it.

Framer X

Interface

Framer X looks more like Figma than other tools out there. But the most significant difference is the focus on prototyping and code. Besides, the layout panel on the right-hand side has a cool feature of being able to position the top, left, right and bottom of any layer inside a frame/group. Also, the over-ride interface for components/symbols will be a significant factor for choosing Framer X as your choice of tool. Also, did I mention you can do it all directly from your browser?

Collaboration

In Framer X, you can invite others to view and collaborate on the framer project in real-time. Also, there's no limit to the number of people who can edit alongside you or view the project. The cool thing with Framer X is that you can code directly on the project to create unique components that will help with the handover to your development team. If you don't know how to code that's fine you can invite a fellow React developer into the project, and you can collaborate with them, the collaboration isn't just for the designer its more for a team.

Tools

Framer has this fantastic piece of kit called 'Find and Insert Anything'. It's a searchable window to basically insert anything you want by typing, or even search for packages that other users have made to slot into your project. Framer X has created a unique way to design, using Frames which are mostly groups. They act more like divs if you know anything about HTML. And out the box features such as Stacking which allows you to choose multiple items and they will automatically stack horizontally or vertically. Scrolling which enables you to put numerous layers inside an area and during the prototype view, you can scroll up and down—finally, the Page tool which allows you to create a carousel essentially.

It has built-in developer handoff tools, so there is less conflict between designer and developer.

Symbols

Framer X calls them Components and they work just like react components. Any component you use or create will end up in the Find and Insert Anything menu under Project Components, so it allows you to quickly search for 'Project Button' for example if you wanted to implement it immediately. The power comes from Framer X, allowing you to create multiple over-rides to change text/states/colours/animations and so much more. Anything you can think of, it will allow you to change it. Besides, your components aren't rigid. Once you have a child component to a master component, it will enable you to edit heights/colours any properties really what you deem worthy. You can quickly reset back to its mastered state if it doesn't work out for you.

Plugins

If you know React, you can make any plugin/component for Framer X. There are so many public packages on Framer X that if you've had an issue, there will be a solution. If jumping into Framer X might seem a bit scary, don't fret you can design in Sketch or Figma and you can copy and paste assets directly into Framer X. That way, you could just use Framer X as a developer handover or a prototyping tool. If you want to see a list of all the packages, click here https://www.framer.com/support/using-framer/packages/ - remember packages, design components, code components and shared colours.

Pricing & Technical Specifications

Framer X is a subscription-based model, but you can try it free for up to 3 projects and two editors, so if you want to try it out there's, no risk involved. If you get on with it, it can cost £12 per editor per month, which will give you access to everything in the free package but also unlimited projects/editors in your projects. Although if you don't like working out a browser upgrade to the pro edition and you can have the desktop app, that will include offline editing and local file access if you are making your packages.

The technical specifications are low if you have a browser and a half-decent system you can have as much fun as you like. I do recommend an apple phone or tablet if you are designing for that device, you can directly test your design on that platform using the Framer Preview App.

Verdict - 3/5

The application is fantastic, but I'd say it's better if you have had development experience. Odds are the majority of designers don't so you could end up walking into a brick wall. Framer X isn't really for the faint-hearted, but if you are willing to learn this could be the best tool you've ever used.

Adobe XD

Interface

Adobe XD has a super basic interface; it comes with the necessary tools that are available on all platforms. Once again, the canvas is in the middle and the tools dotted around it. Although with how basic it looks, it's quite appealing to new users or adopters since the interface isn't that complex. A downside is no Dark UI option unless you buy an external plugin to change it.

Collaboration

Adobe XD comes with a decent form of Live Collaboration, you may not be able to see the cursor of your fellow designers, but you can see what they are currently working on. The UI changes to include their profile pictures with a coloured border. That indicates what they are doing on the current document. You can collaborate further with developers since it autogenerates design specs with reasonable accuracy. It includes a quick feature to share a design with anyone, at a click of a button.

Tools

There's only one unique tool that Adobe XD offers compared to the other applications. The repeat grid function. If you have multiple visual elements that do the same thing, such as a grid gallery similar to Instagram's feed, you can associate it with being in a repeated grid. Any changes you make to an item in a repeated grid it will do the same change across all elements inside it. This tool has made my life easier. Adobe XD has the right balance of design and prototyping. A few unique options are creating a prototype that you can control with a game controller or even with your voice, that can help you generate more specific prototypes if your project dictates that.

Symbols

Adobe XD has a panel called Assets, it's very similar to Symbols/Components in other applications. The great feature of XD comes from adding an entire asset which will port all the colours, character styles and then group it in its component from selected layers. It has basic search functionality and the ability to click right a colour/character which will edit it across all appearances in your document. On this list, Adobe XD is one of the weakest when it comes to symbol management.

Plugins

At the timing of writing, there are many plugins available for Adobe XD. You will have the usual suspects, lorem ipsum, UI faces, Unsplash imagery etc. To access them you use the inbuilt adobe plugin manager and it's quick and seamless to add anything. After installation, they appear in a side panel hidden from view so if you're a first time user you might not know it exists.

Pricing & Technical Specifications

Adobe XD offers you a free version and then multiple upgrade paths. So if you want to try this just like Figma and Framer X above then give it a bash. The upgrade paths allow you to just have a subscription for Adobe XD at £10 a month with added features or go for the bigger package and get all of Adobe CC's products such as photoshop and illustrator at £42 a month.

Verdict - 4/5

This is an excellent entry application into the design world. I would recommend this for its simplicity and free package. Although I don't think many companies have Adobe XD as a leading application for their design team. Typically, you'd see Sketch/Figma so keep that in mind if you want to master an application.

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