A notebook and pen on a desk.

UX Design Tools: 10 Must-Haves (And Why They Don’t Matter)

professional, tools and software, ui, ux

UX design tools are a key part of starting up a new design practice at an organization.  And whether you’re new to UX design or you’ve been in the design world for years, sometimes picking the right tools for the job can be intimidating.

Part of setting up my design shop at ALC Schools is making requests for the software and UX design tools I need to do my job successfully.  After 12 years in the UX world, I finally feel like I have a handful of go-to tools and technology that I want in my design tool belt.

Here’s my list of my 10 go-to UX design tools – and why they don’t matter.

Note: I am not being paid to endorse any of these products, and if you purchase them I will not earn a commission.  These are all my current personal preferences and tools that I personally use on a daily basis.

A notebook and a marker on a messy desk.

Pictured: the best notebook ever made.

Leucthurrm 1917 Soft-Covered Dotted Notebook

I don’t have many strong opinions, but I know three things to be true:

Pineapple belongs on pizza. GIF is pronounced with a soft “G,” like its creator and God intended.  And the soft-covered Leucthurrm 1917 A5 notebook with dotted paper is the best notebook ever published.

When you’re done yelling at your monitor about how “It’s not Jraphic Interchange Format!” we can continue.

First and foremost, let’s get one thing straight: dots are the superior form of notebook paper for every use case. All other forms are like that looking to that friend you haven’t talked to for a dozen years for help with your adulting problems.  They’re not very good for support.

A group of high school friends, standing together and smiling. Not an excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

Can you imagine sharing your collection of slow but inexorably expanding list of medical issues with this group?

Grid pages are annoying to read anything written on a single line. Lined pages don’t give you anything to work with when trying to freehand vertical lines.  And blank pages are an intimidating and unhelpful ocean of open.

It’s more flexible than its hard-cover fraternal twin. It’s smaller than its full-sized big brothers. These points make it a cozier fit for whatever else I’m jamming into my laptop bag (which is usually a lot.)

And why Leuchturrm 1917 instead of Moleskin?

Moleskin is the guy playing “Time of Your Life” and telling everyone at the party who will listen about how he wrote the opening riff with Billie Joel Armstrong when they were friends in middle school.

Leuchturrm just shows up in his old leather jacket, cracking jokes and making everyone happier.

Markers on a desk.

I know I need to clean up my desk. You don’t have to tell me.

Crayola Art With Edge & Staedler triplus fineliner markers

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not an artist.  The sketches I make in my notebook are functional, not beautiful.

So why spend a ton of money on a huge set of expensive and colorful pens and markers?

Crayola worked for me when I was a kid drawing an audience on the wall to listen to my standup comedy shows. Incidentally, I discovered that my wife was as equally unhappy today with my drawing on the walls as my mother was years ago.

The good news is that Crayola Art With Edge markers still works for me today – though now I’m forced to sketch my tiny audience in my notebook.

That’s where Staedler comes in.  In a variety of colors and with a nice fine tip, I can fit more happy little audience members onto a page.  It’s a mere added bonus that they work well for any wireframing I need to do, too.

A series of wireframes created in Balsamiq. An excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

Balsamiq is better at sketching than I am.

Lo-Fi Mockups UX Design Tools: Balsamiq/Adobe Photoshop

I know Balsamiq is no longer the cool kid on the block.  I know using Photoshop for wireframing went out of style with the rhinestone-studded Ed Hardy t-shirts.

I don’t care.  They’re simple and effective.  You can have my Balsamiq and Adobe Photoshop licenses when you pry them from my cold, dead, digital fingers.

A series of mockups for a music app, done in Sketch. An excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

Sketch knows how to drop the beat.

Mid, High, and Interactive Mockups UX Design Tools: Sketch, Adobe XD

Every designer owns a Mac with Sketch on it at some point in time in their career.  That time for me is now.  For every mid and high fidelity design that I need to create, Sketch works extremely well.

But for every first love there’s a rival.  For me, that contender for my heart comes clad in a punchy fuchsia.

Once the underwhelming pipsqueak of the various UX design tools, Adobe XD has added much needed bulk and substance over the past few years.  It’s now (finally) a truly viable choice for the Adobe CC fans that want to keep all their work under one umbrella.

An illustration made in Adobe Illustrator on iPad. An excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

Long live the King.

Vector Graphics UX Design Tools: Adobe Illustrator

Choosing a useable and supported vector graphics program for a UX designer is a bit like voting under a dictatorship.  You have one choice, and at some point you’ll be forced to do it against your will.

Otter.ai's interface. An excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

It’s simple. It’s easy. It’s named after something that seems soft and cuddly. Win, win, win.

Audio Transcription UX Design Tools: Otter.ai

I long ago decided that it’s impossible to take notes during user interviews effectively.  Looking down to right can lead to missed body language cues, and trying to write without looking leads to completely illegible notes.

I’m also a fan of directly quoting users in my research findings, and even with a good shorthand it’s hard to write down interesting quotes while still paying attention to what users are saying and doing.

Having a good audio transcript of these conversations can be very helpful when it comes to future research.  No one wants to listen to 45 minutes of conversation just to find a single quote or vet if an interview is useful for a new project.

That’s where Otter.ai comes in.  I can record the meeting and upload the audio or video file to Otter.ai.  I’m quickly returned with a highly-accurate transcript of what was said, along with easy-to-edit tagging for the conversation participants.

Otter.ai’s custom dictionary is tremendously helpful, as my pronunciation of UX is often misinterpreted by audio transcription software as “sex.”  (Side note: not setting this correction this is a hilarious but certainly un-HR friendly way to see who reads your transcripts.)

Camtasia 2021 in use. An excellent choice for a selection of UX design tools.

I’m a fan of Camtasia’s dark theme and even deeper UX design tools skillset.

Screen Capture, Recording, and Video Editing UX Design Tools: Camtasia 2021/OBS & Adobe Premiere

Camtasia 2021 can do it all at once.

It can capture your camera, your screen, your microphone, and system audio – all at once.  It can highlight your mouse movement and clicks.

And when you’re all done recording, you can edit, arrange, and output to a local/online file – all in one user-friendly tool.

One thing worth noting, however, is that Camtasia 2021 is not for those of us who are RAM poor.  It’s a beast, and if your machine isn’t up to the task, you’ll be dealing with system lockups and crashes.

If Camtasia refuses to play nice, a solid alternative is to use OBS Studio and Adobe Premiere to record and edit all of the same pieces – though that can take a few extra steps and more time.

OBS does have the benefit of being free, and Premiere is far more flexible in its video editing capabilities.

A hand dropping a piece of paper into a trashcan.

Now that you have all of my UX design tools recommendations, you know what to do with them.

Final Thought: Your Tools Matter Less Than Your Skills

Now that you have all of my recommendations, here’s what you need to do: throw them away, or at the very least take them with a grain of salt that would make Jimmy Buffet proud.

The big secret behind the UX design tools conversation is that your tools matter far less than your skills.

I can tell you why I prefer to use Leuchturrm notebooks.  The truth is I can sketch just as poorly in a Moleskin, Karst, or Five Star.  My low-fi mockups are just as wonky in Balsamiq as they are in Figma.  And It doesn’t matter what marker I use, because I’ll never be able to draw a straight line without the aid of a ruler.

I’ve worked in shops that have used InVision, Axure, JustInMind, and XD.  I’ve had to rig up complex setups to record user interviews, which I then had to transcribe by hand.  I’ve designed vector graphics in Inkscape.

And how much impact has the forced software and hardware changes effected my job when coming to a new shop?

Almost none at all.

At worst, I spend a few weeks watching YouTube tutorials, adjusting settings, and cursing under my breath at my computer more than usual.  Then life goes on.

Don’t worry about what UX design tools you need to learn.  Worry about your UX design skills first, and pick up the tools as you need them.

After all, it doesn’t matter what brand of hammer you’re using if you miss and crush a metacarpal.

The secret isn’t to pick the best hammer, it’s to learn not to hit your thumb.