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The Sketch Pamphlet: A Love Story

Posted 7 June 2016 9:00 AM by Jamie Young @MoxieUSA

I have a confession to make. For the past six months, I’ve been cheating on my wireframing program.

Look. I still love Axure. I’ll always love Axure. Since 2013, it has been my go-to application for wireframing, prototyping and site mapping (well, sometimes I’ll still dust off OmniGraffle to produce a print-friendly site map).

But back in November, another caught my eye.

It started innocently enough. A client came to Moxie looking for some UX help. We took over their mobile app project from another agency, inheriting a plethora of wireframing files created in a program called Sketch.

Of course, I had heard of Sketch. The design tool specifically made for Mac had already garnered an alluring reputation, what with its vectors and easy exporting. And having never used the program before, I was eager to dive in and get my hands dirty. After some basic tutorials and a few hours of fooling around with the software, I realized I was being seduced.

First of all, Sketch is FAST. While Axure can start to chug when scrolling and zooming on dense pages, Sketch allows you to fly around without a hiccup. Even performance on my older personal laptop, a mid-2011 MacBook Air, was impressive.

Coupled with that incredible performance, Sketch’s novel approach to file navigation started to win me over. Instead of having to use a list or folder structure to select a single screen, as with in Axure and OmniGraffle, Sketch pages provide a never-ending canvas where unlimited artboards (screens) can live side by side. This more visual approach makes it easy to zoom out and reorient yourself with a high level view of screen flows, then quickly zoom back in on a specific screen to make changes or keep working.

And to be perfectly honest, Sketch just looks good. The program was conceived with visual design in mind, so it makes sense that the outputs can be easy on the eyes. What surprised me, however, was how little effort it takes to create crisp, good looking wireframes. (There’s a greater discussion to be had around just what fidelity the typical wireframe should strive for, but let’s save that oft-heated debate for another time). Sure, you can make things in Axure look pretty damn good given enough time and patience, but you really have to work for it. With Sketch, I never found myself scouring the internet for the best widget libraries or sneaking off into Illustrator to make a quick icon. Sketch is low maintenance.

My first love still has some things working in its favor. For starters, reusable/global elements (masters) in Axure are more powerful and easier to manage than Sketch’s symbols (although recent updates have made symbols way better). And when it comes to prototyping, there is no contest: Axure runs circles around Sketch. Axure’s dynamic panels, animations and click event allow for true prototyping with actual interactions, where Sketch must be paired with Invision to yield a very simple, tappable prototype that is passable for high-level demos or for user testing specific flows.

Yet I still find myself drawn to Sketch. It’s possible that Axure and I have grown apart from an ideological perspective. The dawn of “agile” (read: the many bastardizations of agile) and “lean UX” stresses a close partnership between all disciplines working on a particular project. I buy into this concept, and I believe Sketch does a better job than Axure at bridging some of these relationships.

Axure seems built for a more siloed UX approach to a project. The program does not make any direct connections with business analysis, creative design or development. It’s far easier — and much less expensive — for business analysts (BAs) to write requirements or create flow diagrams within the Microsoft suite, and Visual designers would briefly laugh at Axure’s creation tools before firing up Photoshop. While some developers might appreciate an Axshare prototype for reference, its practical use can never take the place of solid annotations.

While Sketch has yet to make a direct connection with BAs (and probably won’t), great inroads have already been made linking UX, creative and development. For starters, having UX and creative work in the same software does wonders to increase the speed of collaboration. A UX designer can quickly knock out some quick wireframes and then send them right over to his/her creative counterpart, who can use the wires as a reference or build upon the structure.

For developers, some pretty amazing plugins have been created for Sketch that can make coding a lot easier — the most well known of which is Zeplin. Pairing Sketch and Zeplin will output design work into an easily digestible format for developers that allows them to quickly reference spacing, sizing, color, font, etc. and even export specific assets as needed.

In my experience, these connections made through Sketch greatly increase collaboration and streamline the workflow, leading to a (hopefully) better product in a shorter amount of time. I don’t think I’m ready to fully abandon Axure: for projects that would benefit from serious prototyping, it is still the better solution, and I’ll always seek out the comfort of its UX first design tools. But at the moment, Sketch is an exciting new experience that I just can’t quit.

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