Tools of the UX Trade

The tools we use when we design have an important influence in the work we produce. Conversely, sometimes the work we want to do can’t be carried out with the tools we have. This nudges us to either look to other fields for inspiration or invent new tools altogether.

As a child, the architect Frank Gehry was fascinated with fish. This fascination carried through to his work. In the 1980s, Gehry started producing fish-shaped lamps, and eventually won a contract to produce a large fish-shaped sculpture for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Sculpture by Frank Gehry, Barcelona (1992.) Image by Till Niermann, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barcelona_Gehry_fish.jpg)
Sculpture by Frank Gehry, Barcelona (1992.) Image by Till Niermann, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

Gehry’s team needed to figure out how the fish would be built. Traditional architectural drawings are best when describing buildings composed of flat planes and volumes, but this structure’s undulating surfaces were anything but. The standard tools of trade trade weren’t going to cut it.

One of Gehry’s collaborators suggested they look at a software tool called CATIA, which had been developed by French aerospace firm Dassault Systems for designing aircraft. CATIA allowed Gehry’s team to delegate the complex calculations to computers, and made the fish structure a reality.

CATIA also opened new possibilities for the firm — and the field of architecture more broadly. Buildings such as the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles wouldn’t have been possible to design and build using traditional tools. Introducing new tools into the mix made a new type of building possible, and the field of architecture hasn’t been the same since.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., by Frank Gehry. Image by Visitor7, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walt_Disney_Concert_Hall-1.jpg)
Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., by Frank Gehry. Image by Visitor7, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

When I look at the tools UX designers use, I mostly see software aimed at designing screen-based user interfaces. Applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch are excellent at rendering forms on flat screens, but not much more than that. This constrains possibilities; as the cliche says, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail… and these apps are all hammers.

We also lack tools for exploring the semantic structures and relationships that underpin information environments. The closest we come is whiteboards and diagramming apps such as Visio and OmniGraffle. I’ve met many taxonomists whose primary tool is Excel; software designed for manipulating numbers!

There are clear gaps in this space. It’s surprising, given that the focus of UX design is often software itself. Why haven’t we produced tools suited to the needs of designing information environments? Is it a matter of the market not being big enough? Or do they exist and I’m just not aware of them? What tools from other fields could we adopt to meet our needs?