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Why Figma Wins?

date Mar 24, 2021
authors Kevin Kwok
reading time 11 mins

Table of Contents

Innovation

Repeatedly finding the next loop

Companies are a sequencing of loops. While it’s possible to stumble into an initial core loop that works, the companies that are successful in the long term are the ones that can repeatedly find the next loop.

Cloud and features

Even today, competitors often talk about cloud, but are torn over how much of the experience to port over to the internet. Hint: “all of it” is the correct answer that they all eventually will converge on.

Increasing entire team’s productivity

We often forget that the purpose of the tools we use at work isn’t to increase our individual productivity, but the entire team’s productivity.

Team features are increasingly important

The best tool for individuals may also be the best for the entire team. But it’s the latter that matters. And beyond some level of enhancing individual productivity, it’s the team aspects that increasingly matter.

Direct network effect vs cross-side network effect

In a direct network effect, a homogenous group gets more value from a product as more of them join. In contrast, a cross-side network effect involves two (or more) distinct groups that grow in size and value as the other group does, too.

Supply and demand

While it’s true that cross-side network effects are most commonly seen in marketplaces, it’s wrong to think that they only exist in marketplaces. Supply and demand is the most famous of cross-side network effects, but not the sole source.

How to get pricing leverage

This impacts monetization and purchasing at companies. Paying for a new design tool because it has new features for designers may not be a top priority. But if product managers, engineers, or even the CEO herself think it matters for the business as a whole—that has much higher priority and pricing leverage.

2 sided sales

Like many of their peers in this generation of companies, Figma has developed a two-step sales motion: landing and expanding via a bottom-up, product-driven approach, then doing top-down sales once usage of the product has metastasized.

product + growth + sales

This new type of enterprise companies is a mix of both product and growth-driven consumer and sales-driven enterprise.

Why storage and availability is not enough frictionless for design process

Some designers have shared their UI kits, components, and design systems using Github. This has the right idea, but Github isn’t meant for design. Forking a repo may be frictionless in engineering—but it is not for designs. The designs must still be downloaded and loaded into your app. For design, Github is more akin to a hosting site for downloading files

Challenges with scaling

As companies scale, it becomes harder to sustain consistently increasing value to customers. With more customers, it becomes harder for one company to address all the unique use cases and needs. Companies must also increasingly service less ideal customers as they expand beyond their core audience.

Plugins to Platforms

It’s impossible for a single company to build all the features and tools needed by each user. Platforms are needed most when the diversity and scale of use cases is larger than can be built — or often even understood by the company.

Complex systems

Complex systems do not absolve companies of their need to make clear choices about the architecture, policy, and norms of their platforms. If anything, they magnify its importance.

Succes

Which companies are successful in a field is decided by many factors, not the least of which is a good measure of luck. But when disciplines undergo tectonic shifts, the companies that thrive have outsized influence. The choices they make in abstraction layers, social norms, architecture, and more have large ripples for a generation.

Figma and solving design challenges

Design is more than just designers

The core insight of Figma is that design is larger than just designers. Design is all of the conversations between designers and PMs about what to build.

Elevating the designers even more

Building for this entire process doesn’t take away the importance of designers—it gives them a seat at the table for the core decisions a company makes.

Collaborative design on the browser

When Figma first launched, its value proposition was primarily around making design collaborative. If design could happen in the browser, then designers could work together on the same projects. In fact, they could even work on a design at the same time.

Edit and store in the cloud

Figma solved this problem. Designs in Figma are not just stored in the cloud; they are edited in the cloud, too. This means that Figma users are always working on the same design. With Dropbox, this isn’t true. The files may be stored in the cloud, but the editing happens locally.

Solves versioning challenges

And since revisions are a first party feature of each design in Figma, there’s no need to have complex files with names like “profile_design_v23_final_draft2”

Making discussions easy on the latest version

Once they have the link, non-designers will always have the latest design. They can comment directly in the designs, without disrupting the flow of designers. And with collaborative editing, they can talk through changes in a meeting and watch as they are implemented in real time.

Non-designers are equally important

Figma made companies realize that non-designers should and could be more involved in the design process and how crazy it is that other design tools aren’t built with the experience of and interactions with non-designers in mind.

Initial challenge of why design became an after-thought

Historically, there has been so much friction in the design process that design is brought in after most decisions have been made. And conversely, there is a limited set of changes non-designers can push for once the design is set.

Fast feedback

Tightening the feedback loop of collaboration allows for non-linear returns on the process. Design can be drafted simultaneously with the product, allowing feedback to flow in both directions throughout the process.

More people using it - network effect

Much of Figma’s current success is driven by its ability to spread within companies. Figma becomes more useful as more people within a company use it, driving advantaged speed and scale of penetration within companies.

How Figma spreads from companies to agencies to clients

Given Figma’s growth rate, it clearly does, but in less consciously compounding ways. Many people work across companies, especially agencies, and spread Figma to their clients. Similarly, when people leave their jobs and join new companies, they bring Figma with them.

Plugins

In 2019, Figma began to plant the seeds for what their ecosystem loops across companies will be. With their launch of Figma Plugins last August and Communities more recently, they are starting to push the frontier of collaboration and productivity across companies.

Figma and Github: Design and Code

In many ways Figma’s Communities are a reflection of Github’s philosophy and intent, but built with design in mind. Duplicate a shared design, and a copy is instantly saved to your workspace and ready to be edited.

Demo, edit, sharing - all integrated

By sharing the entire design with the community, others can not just see the animations—but play with and tweak the actual designs and animations directly. This makes it easier for them to learn how to use smart animations, or even just copy parts of Levin’s demo into their designs

Plugins and platforms

Plugins and community

This plugin is made by a designer, Andreslav Kozlov, who lives in Russia. On the other side of the world, Andreslav had felt the same problem I had, built a plugin to solve it, and shared it with the internet. And that improved the power of Figma for me, making it far easier for me to immediately spin up memes mid-conversation with friends.

Publicly available plugins

The real power of plugins, however, is in making them publicly available across the ecosystem. Plugins are collective progress available to all users.

Plugins help with scalability

Plugins help Figma fight this drag. As they scale in users, more plugins will be created, making the product better for new users and spurring more designs to be created.

Sketch and higher barrier for plugins installation

However, plugins are outside the scope of the core product. Users installing a plugin are most commonly directed to the Github page of the plugin, which they must manually download and install. This is another example of the gradients of what it means to put your product in the cloud. Even if Sketch is in the cloud, its plugins are local files. There is friction in downloading and installing them. This is compounded in a work setting as teams must manually make sure employees are using the same plugins if needed.

No official information for how good a plugin is

There is no official Sketch source for how popular a plugin is, nor do they have to approve plugins. Instead, users must rely on Github stars or reviews on third party sites. There is no oversight on plugins causing performance or stability issues.

Platforms are new

Platforms are emergent ecosystems, more akin to building a consumer social network than a traditional enterprise sales company.

Challenges of building platforms

This is one of the core dilemmas of building platforms. They are complex organic systems that have to be carefully cultivated (gardening vs. engineering mindset) and it’s hard to predict beforehand what direction they will go and the scale they will achieve.

Plugin’s ease

Figma’s plugins are very early, but promising. Natively built in and browser-first, when you click to install a plugin, it’s available instantly. There’s nothing to install after all, just access privileges to activate. That’s magical.

Plugins like app store

Figma doesn’t just host plugins, they also have a centralized approval process, more similar to Apple’s app store than to Sketch’s approach. Plugins that want to be listed must pass Figma’s policies around safety, business, usability, and legal.

Too restrictive or too open?

Choices like how much to encourage an ecosystem of plugin businesses vs. a more open source community are important ones.

Questions on how to build platforms:

  • How should you balance encouraging growth today and building towards the ideal long term vision?
  • To what degree should platforms influence which plugins get built or even which they should build themselves in the early days?
  • How should you decide which features actually should be part of the platform itself vs. standalone plugins?
  • How wide is the scope for what plugins can build?

Abstraction Layer

And choosing the right abstraction layers for the plugin ecosystem is crucial. So far they have adopted a very strong stance on what the core technical decisions and promises around safety, performance, and stability need to be, but have been very hands-off on what plugins are built.

Other future decisions

As plugin categories begin to crystallize, Figma will need to form crisp views on which areas should be absorbed into their core product, what they want each category to look like as it matures, what essential plugins don’t yet exist that they must help catalyze, and what new APIs they should allow plugins to address. The choice of how much to encourage monetization