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.



A woman sits at a desk with a computer. The screen reads "Designers should always keep their users in-mind."

Three ways to get UX experience when you have none (and two things to avoid)

career development, professional, ui, ux

It’s the Catch 22 of the UX design field: to get a UX job, you need UX experience; to get UX experience, you need a job.

For those getting their feet wet, it can feel like being asked to swim the English Channel.

So how do you get UX experience?  Here are three things to do (and two things to avoid) to help get UX experience on your resume and in your portfolio.

Do: Create Your Own Projects to get UX experience.

A design notebook open with pencils laying on it. Use all the tools at your disposal to get UX experience.

Get out your tools. This is going to be great.

Everybody has a problem to solve.

In 2009, I took at job at Nordstrom’s (a high-end fashion retailer) credit card call center.  Credit is a very highly-regulated industry.

There were certain things you had to say in some situations.  Some were things you couldn’t say in others.  There were strict procedures to follow, lines of authorization to navigate, and an endless sea of phone extensions to find.

The way we, as call center reps, were meant to divine all of this information was by using what Nordstrom referred to as a Quickbook.

The Quickbook was a randomly-grouped, alphabetically organized collection of links and information that was more difficult to navigate than downtown Boston.

At least in downtown Boston you can get GPS – which may or may not prove helpful.  The Quickook had no search functionality.

I had some design and development experience.  I spent the 10-30 seconds in-between phone calls writing a better tool to help us do our jobs.

At first it was just a collection of commonly used links.  Then I added in some JavaScript to quickly create commonly used notes for accounts.

At this point, I started doing UX before I really even knew what UX was.

As call center employees, we always talked a lot about our biggest gripes with our systems.  Instead of just listening, I took notes and looked for ways to address the most common issues.I spent my lunch break showing my site to fellow employees to get their thoughts.

I found a way to use my computer as something of a server to so that other employees could access the page, and give them access to it on condition that they’d give me feedback about what I could improve (note: my Internet Security team was not pleased by this.)

Over the course of a few years, I added more and more functionality.  My IS team found out what I was doing, and told me to shut it down and stop working on it (I didn’t). In fact I was told in no uncertain terms a half dozen times to give up on the project.

An angry man in a suit pounds on a table

My IS team, probably.

I didn’t.

Eventually, I was able to get the ear of some of the right people in the organization. The tool that I eventually created started to get some buzz.

I was given the chance to pitch the idea to our C-level team, who liked it so much they promoted me to the role of UX Engineer and charged me with implementing it for the entire organization.

My story might seem a bit extreme.  However, many of my friends got their start in the UX world but creating technical solutions to user-centered problems at their workplace.  It was almost never their job to do so.

Everybody has a problem to solve.  You can be the one to solve them.  And it can make a great answer to your “tell me about you” interview question that you’ll inevitably face in the future.

Pros: Every company has something that could benefit from improved UX, especially if they use enterprise-level tools.  If you find the right pain point, you can fast-track yourself to the notice of people who are in a position to promote you into a technical role.

One of the big benefits of working on in-office tools is that you have a captive audience.  Want to do some user interviews?  Would some ethnographic study help?  Your entire test group is all around you.  Literally.

Cons: This can be risky.  Putting a bee in the wrong person’s bonnet can get you fired.  Your work may never get noticed or appreciated.  Your IS department may threaten to fire you if you don’t stop working on your project.

Pro Tip: This route can be tremendously rewarding, but it’s fraught with tricky technical and political landmines to navigate.  Tread carefully.

Don’t: Work for Free

A cardboard sign that reads "Will Work for Exposure." Never work for free to get UX experience.

You can’t pay your bills with exposure.

It’s so tempting to do pro-bono work in exchange for building up your resume to get UX experience.


Seriously, just don’t.  I’ve taken a few free jobs over the years, as have many of my friends in the design industry.  Whether it was for friends, family, or someone whom I owed a favor, clients who don’t pay for their services often feel the most entitled to perfection – without having much knowledge of how to explain their needs to or work with a designer.

The worst of these types – the Exposure Bro.  “I can’t pay you anything for your work, but you’ll get a ton of exposure,” is the mating call of an Exposure Bro looking to hookup with an unsuspecting designer.

Don’t fall for it.  You can’t pay your bills in exposure, and these self-centered egotists are never worth the time and effort you’ll put into managing their expectations and producing what they consider to be satisfactory work.

When we work for free we drive down the price and perceived value of our services for the industry as a whole.  You’ve worked hard to get to where you are, and so have the rest of us.  Do us all a favor and step back from that ledge, my friend.

The only exception I make to this rule is…

Do: Volunteer Your Services for Nonprofits to get UX experience.

A volunteer helps a nonprofit organizer at a computer. Working at nonprofits can be a great way to get UX experience.

A good deed is its own reward, but can also have the nice benefit of kickstarting your UX career.

When most people think of volunteering for nonprofit organizations, they think of handing out food to the homeless, building houses for low-income families, or helping to clean out cages and walk dogs at the pet shelter.

And while all those services are definitely needed, nonprofits are usually running on a tight budget and don’t always have the best technical or design capabilities.

While I’m a huge proponent of the “don’t work for free” philosophy of professional development, volunteering your time for a nonprofit you care about is an exception.  It’s a win-win for everyone, and what you lack in pay you’ll gain in experience and the knowledge that you’re helping to serve a cause you’re passionate about.

Pros: You get to help your community by working on something that’s important to you.  You also get to pump up the portfolio, get UX experience on your resume, and gain references who can speak to the quality of your work.

Cons: You’re likely not going to be paid for this work. Some nonprofits have no understanding of technology or design, and trying to convince or persuade them about the efficacy of what you’re proposing can be tough.

Pro Tip: Search for local nonprofits that you’re passionate about.  Most will have contact information and usually an “About” page that will list the head of the organization.  Spend some time to get together some talking points about what you’d like to do for them, call up the organization, and ask to speak to the person listed as the head of the organization or in-charge of volunteer coordination.

If that feels like a bridge too far for you, you may have some luck finding sites to volunteer with over at catchafire.org to help you get UX experience.

Don’t: Re-Design High-Profile Websites

The Apple company's logo hangs on a building of glass. Redesigning Apple's website won't help you get UX experience.

Apple doesn’t need your help… yet.

We’ve all been there.

United Airlines has hacked me (and others) off by having the answers to their security questions come in dropdown-list form.

he process I went though to verify my identity with AirBnb was mishmash of taking photos of documents, strangely long upload times, and cryptic errors.

The inability to find and apply a neck size filter when shopping for dress shirts on Amazon made it impossible for me to buy any shirt with confidence (curse my currently somewhere-between-medium-and-large body!)

But as much as this might irk us, resit the temptation to redesign an existing site.

Why? Because UX is founded on the notion of working with business stakeholders to understand business needs, and working with users to understand and solve their problems.

These type of redesigns almost never afford for the type of user research you should be doing for such a redesign.  They certainly don’t allow for any interaction with business stakeholders.

This is no way to get UX experience.  Trying to pass this off as a UX project will get you nowhere with UX hiring managers.

Another consideration: many UX bootcamps have taken to having students redesign big corporate websites as part of their portfolios.  In some areas of the country, it’s easy to pick out a bootcamp graduate – and even what bootcamp they attended – just by looking at what major corporate redesigns are in their portfolios.

These do nothing to set you apart, particularly from a UX perspective.  Save your time and energy for something more productive.

That list includes nearly anything else you can think of doing.

Do: Just Ask

Two women having a conversation about how to get UX experience.

You’ll never get a yes if you can’t risk a no.  Sometimes the best way to get UX experience is to ask.

You can’t get something you don’t ask for.  Sometimes, the best way to get your first UX job is to simply ask for it.

Option 1: Propose a Solution

If you’re in a position to find a problem in your organization, you’re in a position to propose a solution.

And if you’re in a position to propose a solution, you’re in a position to propose that you are the best person to help implement it.

If you’re going to take a run at asking your higher ups to put you in a UX role, come prepared with:

  • A specific problem that needs to be solved, along with reasoning of why it’s important to solve it.
  • A plan on how you’ll help solve it.
    • Define what steps you’d like to take, a timeline, and a budget.

Schedule some time to talk with your direct manager (no more than 45 minutes) and come prepared to give your pitch.

Option 2: Propose a Role

Sometimes you don’t have a problem in particular that you’d like to solve. Proposing the UX or design role itself can be a good first step into the UX world.  This works particularly well if the company is smaller and new to the benefits of UX design.

Schedule some time to talk with your manager (again, no more than 45 minutes.)  Come ready to talk about UX, how UX is a zero-risk investment, and why you would be the right person to start the UX team for your organization.

Pros: If you’re in good standing at your job and a manager that’s open to listening to new ideas, this might be the easiest step up into the UX world.

Cons: If you’re not in good standing, or your management team is resistant to change, this can be an uphill battle.

Picking the right people in an organization to help you on your career path can also be tricky.  Having a good relationship with your manager is helpful.  Making connections higher up the chain is difficult but also tremendously valuable.

Depending on your standing in the company, you may need to spend some time building bridges before you can cross this chasm.

Final Thought: Don’t Give Up

A man in a blue suit stand, looking pensive, in the middle of a long set of stairs on his way to get UX experience.

No matter how many stairs you have to climb to get UX experience, keep going.

It’s hard, working towards a better future and constantly feeling like you’re stuck in-place.

No, hard isn’t the right word.  Maddening.  Infuriating.  Soul-consuming.  Especially when you see your peers and mentors moving up all around you.

Don’t. Give. Up.

There is no such as an overnight success.  Everyone who’s stepped into this career has faced this challenge.  Every single person you see with a UX job title had to solve this problem.

And if they can, you can, too.

Stick with it.  Don’t give up.  And let me know when you succeed.

Jerry McGuire in the process of quitting his job.

Three Things Every UXer Must Do When Leaving a Job

professional, ui, ux

Three Things Every UXer Must Do When Leaving a Job

I’ve been at Western Union as the UX/UI Manager for the Business Solutions team for a little over a year.  Tomorrow is my last day.

Any team is effected when someone leaves; when that person is a leader, the impact is more acute.  I want to make sure that the great work my team is doing continues even after I’ve gone – and a lot of that will depend on the steps I take to prepare for my departure.

What surprised me, however, is just how similar my departure as a leader is to when I was working as individual contributor.

If you’re leaving a job soon, here are three things to do to make sure your departure hits all the right notes with your team and business partners.

Clearly Defining Processes

Our UX/UI team at Western Union started about the same time as I did, and we’ve spent a lot of the last year setting up processes that will set us up for success.

Processes for how we vet projects.  Processes for how we interact with stakeholders.  Processes about how we organize files.

Red letters on a blue background that reads "Trust the process."

I need to get this framed to hang up in my new office/cube.

A lot of work over the past week has been spent in talking about these processes, documenting them where they weren’t clearly defined, and talking with my team about strategies for implementing them (or changing them, if they desire) once I’ve left the group.

Organizing Files

I’m always surprised at the clutter that amasses on a computer between starting a job and ending it.  Even in the year that I’ve spent at Western Union – not a long time in lifespan of a career – I found so many documents on my work machine that my team would lose access to if I weren’t around to dole them out.

The hag from the Princess Bride, shaming me for not using my shared folder.

Your true shared drive lives. And you keep your files on your hard drive. Your shared drive saved you when your laptop battery exploded, and you treat it like garbage. And that’s what you are, the King of Refuse. So bow down to him if you want, bow to him. Bow to the King of Slime, the King of Filth, the King of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo! Boo! Boo!

And while I probably should be shamed for not using my shared drive appropriately, it’s just a simple fact that not every important file we work on will always make it to the great file folder in the cloud.  Getting my important documents up there and letting my team know where they could find them will ensure they won’t have problems.  Pay special attention to:

  • Word, PowerPoint, and Excel Files
  • Design mockup files
  • Visual Assets
    • JPGs
    • PNGs
    • Design-tool-specific files (a la .PSDs, .AIs, etc.)
  • PDFs

Saying My Goodbyes

It’s important to leave on the best terms possible with your team and your coworkers.  This is true whether you’ve been blessed with as amazing people as my coworkers at Western Union, or whether you’re maybe not as fond of your company or your coworkers.

Initech, the job site of "Office Space" fame, burning to the ground.

Don’t burn bridges if possible. And certainly don’t burn down anything else, no matter how many traveler’s cheques you find.

The truth is that most tech communities centered around urban areas are relatively small.  And while there are definitely times you should burn bridges and never look back, those are few and far between.  When possible, say your goodbyes to your team, key stakeholders, and your supervisors in the best and most sincere tones as possible.

This applies no matter what’s happened to your red Swingline stapler.  In a few days bygones will be bygones, and you and your current coworkers will be nothing more than a memory to each other.  You want that memory to be as positive as possible.

After all, you never know who you’ll work with – or for – in the future.

Doug Collins head shot

Knowledge, Processes, and Dank Memes

personal, professional, ui, ux

Knowledge, Processes, and Dank Memes

Chances are if you’re here reading this, you probably followed me over from Twitter.   Over there I have a following of around 33k users, most of whom follow me for UX advice, conversations, and (let’s be honest here) UX memes.

An image of a statue made of different parts of various superheroes.

Of all the superpowers I could have been given, dank UX memes is what I wound up with.

For those of you who don’t know me, a bit of a primer.

Hi, my name is Doug.

I’m a UX/UI Manager for Western Union, just a couple of days away from moving into my new role as a UX/UI Director for ALC Schools.

I’m finally allowing myself to admit, after years of battling anxiety and Imposter Syndrome, that I might be pretty good at this UX thing.

Maybe.  That’s still up in the air.

The biggest downside of such a large following is that most of you are people who I’ve never met, digitally or otherwise.  According to this random Medium article I just found (because what better source of truth is there in the UX world than random Medium articles?), most people will meet around 10,000 people in their lifetime.

That means I’d have to live a little more than three lifetimes to meet all of you.  Even as a “I’m only a people pleaser if you want me to be” type, I’m comfortable in saying I can’t commit to that.

What I do get from Twitter is a fair amount of UX questions from people all over the world, in different stages of their UX journeys.

What I see so many of you need is an experienced, knowledgeable, approachable UX professional.

You need someone who is willing to answer your UX questions about tools, processes, and strategies.

You want someone who can relate those back to their real-life work, talking about what they do on a daily basis as a UX professional (which will inevitably involve a splash of humor and some super dank memes).

I may only get a chance to be one thing to the UX world.   If I can be all of this for you, this blog will have been worth it.