This post is not about a designer’s curated list of favorite tools for the year. It’s about the essential tools. The ones every product designer worth their salt uses day after day. It’s about tools that have been around since the beginning of time.

Sketch, Invision, Principle, Figma, Adobe XD, Axure, Balsamiq… Today’s product designer is lucky to have so many great tools at their disposal.

But even the best tools are of no value without first using the 2 most important tools a designer will ever need. They won’t need to turn on their computer to use these tools. They won’t even need electricity. And yet, these tools are at the core of the best designers I know.


Tool #1: Your brain

A product designer is, in essence, a problem solver. Any designer who thinks otherwise, is not a product designer. A product designer solves problems at the intersection of user needs and business needs.

How do you solve problems? You use your brain.

A designer’s brain is empathetic by nature. The designer is putting themselves in the shoes of the user so they can figure out what is the right thing to design.

If you hear your designer asking you “What should I draw on this screen?”, excuse yourself and go update that job description.

A good designer is marrying an understanding of your business goals with an understanding of your customers. She’s asking these questions:

  • Who is the customer?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What’s their context?

Constraints are a designer’s best friend. If you’re designing without constraints, you’re making art. Asking these questions will allow a designer to know which constraints are in place. Constraints will drive all the design decisions moving forward.

With an understanding of the business, the customer, their context, and the goals they want to achieve, it’s time for tool #1 to meet tool #2.


Tool #2: Paper

Forget the computer at this stage. A match made in heaven is a designer’s brain with a blank sheet of paper.

The designer’s brain comes with a thorough understanding of the business, the customer, their context, and their goals. It also comes with an arsenal of patterns and conventions on how people interact with digital products.

The blank sheet of paper is a peaceful place, free of distractions. It provides the fastest way to materialize an idea.

Here, anything goes. This is the place for the designer’s brain to express itself. To imagine what could be. Without limitations.

My design process goes something like this: 80% on paper, 20% on the computer. All my tough thinking is done on paper. Porting the designs from paper to the screen is a mere translation. Designing on paper allows me to quickly translate what’s on my mind. And to stay focused on the business, the user and what they’re trying to achieve.


Separation of concerns

There are always many design solutions to a problem. Paper is an easy way to generate lots of solutions without getting caught up in decisions that only need to happen later on. It’s about a separation of concerns. At this stage of the process the computer is a distraction. You end up worrying about which fonts to use or whether items are the correct size. This only detracts from solving the user’s problem the best way.

Once the thinking is done on paper, then yes, go to town on all the amazing tools. I love the tools we have today — they take the work to the finish line. They make us efficient. They allow us to test out ideas quickly.

But the tools alone won’t do the trick if a designer doesn’t go through the hard work of doing the brain-to-paper translation. That’s where great ideas are born.


Back to the drawing board

No design survives a first contact with reality. Design is an iterative process. We take what we learned from how customers use a design, we iterate it, and test it again.

After any round of customer feedback, I recommend going back to the brain-to-paper process, before using any of the great computer tools out there. That’s where the best thinking is done.


A real life example

Let’s look at an automotive example. This space has a very unique context of use. The user’s primary focus is on driving, not on using the product. Even when they do need to use the product (to input directions, for instance), the use of the product is still secondary. The user’s primary task is on driving and keeping their eyes on the road.

Given this context, we already start defining some design constraints based on what we know about the user’s goal and context:

  • The primary mode of interaction should be voice and sound feedback, not visual and touch (since eyes need to stay on the road, and hands on the wheel)
  • Any visual information needs to be shown in a prioritized and glanceable way. The user only sees what’s necessary at any given time, and they can understand what’s going on with a quick glance.


We also understand the client (Microsoft, in this case) and fold in the business requirements. For this project, one of the requirements was to adapt the Microsoft Design Language (previously known as metro) to the car.

With the information above as a base, designer brain meets paper and starts coming up with solutions.

There are always multiple effective ways to solve a problem. In ideation, the goal is to come up with lots of ideas. And paper (or whiteboard, or post-it note… you get the idea) is the fastest way to come up with tons of ideas without getting too precious about any of them. We always recommend teams timing each round of idea generation to only a few minutes. And using a sharpie! This ensures you don’t fall into the trap of going into too much thinking or detail on each of these early ideas.

Below is an example of a few ideas that we took out of an ideation session and converted from paper to digital. The design constraint was of a glanceable UI for the Microsoft Design Language. Because this was the car, any animation was only used to communicate meaning (e.g. a turn approaching) whereas in Windows or Windows Phone (RIP), animations were being used to draw the user in (different user context and goal).

Ideation on how to create a glanceable experience for Microsoft Automotive.


How many more ideas would you have come up with if I gave you two 5-minute sessions, no distractions, a sharpie, and a piece of paper? Try doing that with a problem you’re grappling with in your product today.


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