My Problem With Figma
User interface designers work either with Sketch, Adobe XD or with Figma. These applications provide an excellent set of tools for creating screen designs, prototypes and quick mock-ups. I have been in the business for more than 20 years and I still remember doing screen design in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop — which was quite painful and inefficient. So I very much welcomed the launch of Sketch in 2010. It was the first dedicated application for interface and interaction design. Adobe XD and Figma both followed in 2016.
All three design tools have their strength and weaknesses. But I have a fundamental problem with Figma: it is not a native application. It does not look, feel and work like a true Mac app.
As a Mac user, I highly value the aesthetic and interactive integrity of macOS as defined in the Apple Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). Especially in productivity apps, I want maximum consistency in the user interface across different applications. Ever since their creation, the Human Interface Guidelines provided software developers with clear, concise instructions and recommendations on how to design useful, elegant and consistent applications for macOS. Nowadays, all major platforms like Windows, Android, iOS have their own interface guidelines.
Generally speaking, all applications should stick to the platform-specific user interface guidelines. But there are exceptions. From time to time it is ok — even important — to deviate from the standards and try out new things. Otherwise we would have no innovation. But if you differ from the UI standards, it should be a conscious decision and it should be because you are convinced that you have created something better. If you deviate, innovate! Ignoring guidelines out of laziness is just bad design.
Initially conceived as a web application, Figma is also available as a standalone desktop application for macOS and Windows. But — again — these desktop applications are not native apps. Rather, they were developed using the Electron framework. An Electron app is basically a Chromium rendering engine that only runs a specific web application. It has access to the file system and it is able to execute some code on the underlying system. Electron apps pretend to be real Mac, Windows or Linux applications — but they are not. The fact that the macOS and Windows versions of Figma are basically identical demonstrates that Figma has very little regard for the idiosyncrasies of each platform.
I get why Electron apps are popular right now. If you have a successful web application and you want to provide your users with the illusion of a standalone application and — most importantly — if you want to develop once and deploy on several platforms, Electron is an easy way to do that. Slack, Skype and Discord are some popular examples for Electron apps. But they simply do not provide the user experience of native software — or ‘Mac-assed Mac apps’.
Generally speaking, I don’t like Electron apps. They are bloated, slow and use tons of RAM. But I have a particular problem with Figma. There is something dubious about a software for user interface design that does not value and support platform-specific UI standards. How are we supposed to design great user interfaces with a tool that has no regard for great user interfaces?
There is a lot of talk about design systems on the Figma website. So it is strange that the Figma Mac app wilfully ignores one of the most detailed and sophisticated digital design systems there is — namely macOS.
To illustrate my point: the macOS Figma app has no proper file handling, no genuine document window, no toolbar with customisation , no true panels (the ‘plugins’ panel is a complete disgrace!), no consistent segmented controls. I could go on (proper buttons!) — but I think you get the idea. It is pretty obvious that Figma pays no attention to platform-specific interface design in general and macOS interfaces in particular.
Human interface guidelines are a mindset. It is a way of doing things. Like spoken languages they have a syntax and semantics. They allow you to express ideas or describe specific tasks in a clear, consistent and understandable manner. Adhering to the HIG is about appreciating the language of your platform. And Figma clearly does not appreciate the language of macOS.
I really don’t get how a company that is valued over $10 billion is not able to deliver an experience to their users that they claim can be achieved with their own software. On their web site, the Figma team maintains to ‘increase design consistency with a powerful design system that’s accessible to your entire company’. Claiming to value design systems and ignoring them in your own product is a bit hypocritical.
To be clear: this criticism is not about features! Figma is still unsurpassed when it comes to real-time collaboration. And Vector Networks are tremendously useful! The critique is about integration and integrity. While individual tools and features work very well, the user interface of Figma is bland and generic. Using Figma feels like running virtualised software. It’s like leaving my Mac and working on a different computer. There is something detached and indifferent about using Figma.
Every craftsmen and every craftswomen will tell you that tools matter. As professional user interface designers, we should expect the same excellence from our tools that we ourselves want to achieve with our own designs. Caring about the quality of your tools is a sign of professional integrity. If the designers and developers of Figma would publish a true, native application that values the distinctive UI qualities of macOS, Figma would be a terrific app!