What software do you need to know to get started in UX?

I’ve been asked a few times recently about my opinion on what software people should know if they want to do UX so I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Of course, the first answer is – it depends.

It depends on what *kind* of a UXer you want to be (there are many types – some are more design-y or research-ish, some some are closer to the business or the interface) and what kind of place you want to work for (there are many options there too).

The tools you use affect the work that you output, so I think you should be thoughtful about the toolkit you decide to use.

To begin with, I would say that no software will ever replace the advantages provided by a willingness and ability to sketch.

If you are not confident with sketching you will start designing into software and this is not something you want to do.

The minute you start designing into software you limit the number of options you explore, you move more quickly to high fidelity and are more likely to become attached to your own design. You sit by yourself at a desk instead of collaborating with your team.

Before you learn any software, get comfortable sketching in company.

Another important thing to understand is that most of the time, the tools we use are substitutes and shortcuts for the actual raw material for which we design.

Don’t think that because you have ninja skills in Axure, you don’t need to understand how HTML, CSS and JavaScript work or how a database is designed or how some importnt content management systems work. You don’t need to have advanced development skills but it is more important to me that you understand and have some hands on experience of the how the technology behind faceted navigation works, and what the challenges and restrictions and opportunities are, than being able to fake it in Axure. (I’m picking on Axure, I know.)

The last thing I would say before I give you the list you’re really here for,  is that it is less important which software you learn now, and more important that it doesn’t become your hammer.

(You know the saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Every day a new piece of software comes out that might be a great tool for you on the particular project that you’re working on. Get comfortable always exploring, evaluating and learning new tools. In fact, I’d go so far as saying, don’t even bother trying to be a master of one, be a jack of all software! And be prepared to change your mind.

But, tools you must have. Here’s my thoughts what you might find useful.

UX Design

  1. A  ‘diagramming’ tool for basic wire framing, sitemapping, content/data modelling and flow charting. Common choices are Omnigraffle (for Mac) or Visio (for PC). There are also a swathe of online (SAAS) alternatives including Balsamiq, Mockflow, Mockingbird, Hotgloo, Pencil, Pidoco and the list goes on (there’s a nice list with summaries here)
  2. A tool for making higher fidelity (prettier) wireframes/prototypes. Common choices include Fireworks, InDesign, Photoshop. Keynote (Mac) or Powerpoint (PC) are also increasingly popular with good reason I think – they’re easy to use, flexible and increasingly powerful little apps.
  3. A tool for making interactive prototypes. This used to be optional, it’s not anymore. Common choices are: Fireworks, Axure, Keynote, Powerpoint, also HTML/CSS/JavaScript incl. JQuery etc using Text Editing software (eg. Coda, Expresso etc.)
  4. A tool for image processing – a lot of people use Photoshop but most UXers could get away with Fireworks or even Preview (comes with Mac) for their requirements

Personally, I’ve moved away from Omnigraffle and towards Fireworks in the past 12 months or so for various reasons, but there are no perfect UX tools. I’ve seen people make a compelling case for moving back to Omnigraffle. Personally, I think Axure is more trouble than it’s worth, unless you are having to do all your detailed interaction design work in the absence of developers. (Which, if you know me, you’ll know I try very hard to avoid).

Some companies will only hire people who have skills in specific software, eg. Axure. This is idiotic as software is easy to learn, being a good UX designer is the hard part.

UX Research:

Good UX Designers will also read this section – there’s not a clear break and more and more designers should be integrating these tools into their daily practice.

If you’re doing UX Research then having some good Excel skills will come in handy for analysis. You might alway want to get handy with SPSS (although, again, this will be overkill for some). I’ve found having some good mind mapping software to be handing for research analysis as well.

Important note:  the best analysis, in my opinion, happens doing affinity sorting using post it notes on a wall – this is research’s equivalent to sketching.

You’ll also need some software to record the user research you do in person. The obvious contenders are Morae (if you’re working for a company with a decent budget) and Silverback which you can run on your Mac.

The tools I find most interesting for UX research tend to be newer web services such as:

This is by no means a definitive list – there are lots more great tools out there that I’ve no doubt neglected to mention. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments below.

Just remember – it’s not the tool you use (although they will no doubt leave their imprint), it’s the way that you use it that really matters.

13 thoughts on “What software do you need to know to get started in UX?

  1. This is a great post Leisa.

    You make some strong points that I wholeheartedly agree with especially re: sketching and affinity diagramming.

    There are too many tools over claiming right now, but as someone who is very aesthetically focused, I think that Adobe’s creative suite is a very useful package of tools (including After Effects and Flash)

    Other than that, a very good post.

  2. In general agreement but (as it has been said before and will no doubt be said again) basically it doesn’t really matter what software/process you use (whether it be an Arduino coupled with Creative Suite spitting out into Microsoft Word) it’s the product at the end of it that gets delivered/the thing you are working on. The product that gets delivered is what has to stand up not a bunch of wireframes/sketches. It’s not new news.

  3. For anyone trying to learn what Excel can do, I’ve found O’Reilly’s Excel 2010 The Missing Manual to be extremely helpful. It’s well written and very thorough. One caveat is that if you’re on a Mac and running Office 2011, various features have been moved or removed by Microsoft, so you’ll frequently be hunting around for the correct menu item/command. That said, it’s still a very useful book.

    Slightly off topic as it’s not about software, but might be of interest as you mentioned data analysis, and back in 2009 Cennydd posted about how useful it is for people to understand statistics: Udacity has a free Statistics 101 course which is good.

  4. Hi Leisa, thanks for the interesting post. I always find it interesting to get a look into other peoples processes.
    My question though is one about your categories B & C in UX design tools. What can Keynote (and Powerpoint ) do that Omnigraffle can’t? Personally I use Omnigraffle as my main tool and know it pretty well, but I am confused when I see quite a few people recently talking up Keynote as a prototyping tool.
    I imagine I must be missing something as it seems just less useful than Omnigraffle. I can kind of understand prefering Axure for complicated prototypes (I would prefer HTML/CSS/JS at that point), but Keynote seems a step down in capability.
    At the very least Omnigraffle is a peer for your categories B & C. I’m not trying to judge your choices more than just not understanding this recent trend, what do you think?

    1. My understanding is that people find Keynote much easier to wrangle than Omnigraffle and find it easier and faster to get a good result, especially for interactive prototypes, than Omnigraffle.

      I have to say, I haven’t used it a lot for this purpose, except when I need to co-create a prototype with a client who doesn’t use Omnigraffle or Fireworks (and they need to be able to edit it). It’s also relatively good for mobile/tablet prototyping (using some of the good stencils that are available).

      Horses for courses tho – I’m mostly reporting what I’m seeing/hearing here rather than my own personal choice.

      1. Yeah, I keep seeing the same thing with sites like keynotopia and others… But I know both keynote and omnigraffle well, and the tools and stencils for omnigraffle are much better. I keep wondering if people just don’t know how to use omnigraffle, or I am missing something in keynote.

        I like omnigraffle because it is powerful but gives me a lot of freedom. Communicating different concepts at different times requires different tools. I used to use freehand and illustrator for making wireframes and these days often just go with a whiteboard or sketches.

  5. Great post. I’m always interested in the process other UXers are using. For future readers, note that Google Optimizer is currently being phased out in favor of a new Google Analytics feature called Content Experiments.

  6. Don’t forget tools like Loop11 (www.Loop11.com). I couldn’t live without running some iterative usability testing on my wireframes these days.

    I’ve also started running benchmarking studies to ensure the usability of my website remains at a stable level. Running online benchmarking studies are the only way to do this cost effectively.

  7. Hi Leisa,

    I think your quote:
    “Some companies will only hire people who have skills in specific software, eg. Axure. This is idiotic as software is easy to learn, being a good UX designer is the hard part.”

    hits the nail on the head for most of my interview experiences. Its frustrating because I am so eager to learn and make the transition from Usability Consultant to UX designer.

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