Figma’s FigJam is a whiteboard tool with a human touch

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For years, people have used the Figma collaborative web platform to brainstorm raw ideas, sketch them out in visual form like one might on a boardroom whiteboard. They did so even though Figma – officially an interface design and prototyping tool – was never designed for this particular use. But when the company saw their customers adopt their product for the whiteboard, they put creating something optimized for the task on their to-do list.

And for a long time he stayed there. “We never really prioritized it,” says Figma co-founder and CEO Dylan Field. “Then the pandemic struck. With Figma users brutally deprived of actual physical whiteboards in conference rooms, Figma had the incentive to put aside other projects and build a virtual equivalent.

Dylan champ [Photo: courtesy of Figma]

He unveiled the results – which he dubbed FigJam, a big name – at his Config conference online in April 2021. To speed things up quickly and get plenty of feedback, the company announced that the full version would be a release. free beta for the remainder of 2021.

Eight months later, Figma isn’t divulging much in terms of stats related to FigJam’s success so far, such as the number of users accumulated. But he seems to be serious about his future. In October, it rolled out a major upgrade that, since it allows third-party developers to add new features in the form of widgets and plugins, could take the app to places that might surprise even its creators.

Figma has already finished thinking of FigJam as the answer to the pandemic moment. “Everyone needs these spaces to come together and get people talking,” says Field. “And everyone needs to manage their meetings better. How do you ensure that you have great tools for this? I think it’s a need that everyone has whether they realize it or not. “

The first part of the design process

Even though Figma users needed something to help them collaborate on ideas in raw form, it was not clear that they would turn to Figma for this. After all, other digital whiteboards like Miro already existed. Did that give Figma a chance to create something that didn’t feel redundant?

The fact that people had always used the whiteboard in Figma was proof that the line between the whiteboard and the traditional domain of business had always been blurred. “Before you place a single pixel on the canvas, there’s a lot going on in the design process,” says Yukhi Yamashita, vice president of products at Figma. “Like figuring out what to build in the first place. This continuity from brainstorming to the finished product allowed Figma to create a whiteboard tool that was a logical extension of what he was already doing.

Yukhi yamashita [Photo: courtesy of Figma]

The company also saw the whiteboard as a way to include more non-design professionals in the design process, something they cared about from the start. In their early stages, projects tend to include “brainstorming, user flows, and research synthesis and all those things that can bring [product managers], researchers, marketers and engineers, ”says Yamashita. A statistic Figma is willing to share confirms that FigJam is reaching such people: Among new users who did not yet have a Figma account, 70% say they are not designers.

Beyond that, Figma wanted to create something extraordinarily user-friendly, “for humanity to shine through,” says Field. “Because it’s so easy to lose that when you’re trying to collaborate separately. Endless meetings are a bit exhausting.

FigJam is indeed accessible. All the old-fashioned whiteboard tools are there such as the ability to place predefined text and shapes on the whiteboard, build diagrams such as flowcharts, and mark things up with a drawing pen and a Highlighter. A host of templates provide ready-made spaces for specific approaches to collecting and organizing ideas, including stakeholder mapping, kanban and wishbone, among others, with explanatory material to the case you don’t know them.

The app pulls some of the humanity Field is talking about from features that allow everyone to participate without having to speak up or break the collaborative flow. In a Zoon meeting, says Yamashita, “It’s really hard to interrupt someone else, to wake you up. and express your own opinion. In response, Figma gave FigJam users the ability to ring the bell via stamps, bursts of emojis, and a slider chat (so you can quickly type in messages that anyone can see).

FigJam whiteboards can include graphics, code blocks, and more. [Photo: courtesy of Figma]

While FigJam’s April debut was recognition that Figma saw the whiteboard as an opportunity, announcements made by the company in October proved it wasn’t just a passing interest. On the one hand, he announced details about the evolution of FigJam into a paid product. Starting in February, the free version will still allow you to create as many personal whiteboards as you want, but will not exceed three shared boards. $ 3 per user per month will get you features like unlimited shared whiteboards, shared libraries, and audio chats. Large businesses can pay $ 5 per user per month for additional items tailored to their needs, such as single sign-on capability, unified billing, and advanced security options.

But the biggest news could have been that even before Figma started charging FigJam, it was turning it into an extensible platform open to third-party developers. They can write FigJam widgets, which are stand-alone pieces of functionality that float on a whiteboard. And with plugins, they can create functionality that creeps deeper into FigJam the same way browser extensions work.

Many of the ones that the developers have produced are purely practical. For example, there is a widget to count the votes among the people present in the whiteboard session – with the option of anonymity – and others to create pie charts, bars and flowcharts. The plugins include utility elements such as a spell checker, PDF viewer, and tools for importing brand assets and artwork.

More intriguing are the things that make the FigJam experience even more social, like a chat room widget that you can stick in a corner of your whiteboard for side conversations. And others are essentially digital toys, like a Connect 4 game, a fake Etch-a-Sketch, and a simulated Polaroid camera. “The creativity that people have brought to this is pretty amazing,” says Field.

Just because a FigJam widget involves gameplay, doesn’t mean it’s a frivolous departure from the app’s emphasis on brainstorming. In the case of a startup called Donut, making the game productive is the whole idea. Its widget features a variety of game-like icebreaker exercises, such as Drawsome, a round robin sketch and guessing game much like the social gaming phenomenon Draw Something.

“What we’ve built with our Figjam widget is a way to kick off a session, meeting, or brainstorming session with people whether you know them or not,” says Donut co-founder Dan Manian. The coding went fast, he says; It took a bit of thought to figure out what features to incorporate into the widget. The result is a fun and useful experience, one that Figma would be unlikely to build on her own. For now, Donut, who also makes icebreaker tools for platforms like Slack, is offering it for free.

The Donut Widget features ice-breaking exercises to help circulate collaborative juices in FigJam. [Photo: courtesy of Donut]

Along with the introduction of widgets and plugins, Figma took the advantage to polish FigJam in response to user feedback it had received in the months following the app’s release. One lesson was that customers wanted to use it to brainstorm with people outside their organization: “We were quite surprised that this was such a widespread use case,” Yamashita says. This has led to a new feature called “open sessions,” which allows you to invite external guests to a whiteboard session for 24 hours, with no login required.

From FigJam to Figma

To truly take off, FigJam will need to appeal to Figma enthusiasts on its own terms, but also as an extension of the workflows they already have in place. For Zach Klein, CEO of interior design-centric multimedia brand Dwell, it took a while. When FigJam made his debut, he wasn’t immediately wowed: “Honestly, that didn’t grab my attention,” he recalls. “It sounded too simplistic.”

A little later, during a Zoom meeting with colleagues, Klein remembered that FigJam had a sticky note feature and impulsively told everyone to use it to generate and share ideas. The answer sold him on the product. “There were a variety of people with different levels of comfort with the technology and experience with Figma,” he says. “And I was amazed at how happy it was. I had nothing to explain to anyone.

Once you’ve collected ideas in FigJam, it’s easy to bring them into Figma, according to Ryan Ma, product designer at Stripe, another Figma customer. “Even though Figma and FigJam are quite different tools, there is quite a high compatibility between the two,” he says. “This is especially useful when, after brainstorming, you can just say, ‘Here is a bunch of post-it notes that capture all the concepts I’m going to explore. You can copy it and drop it in Figma.

Then there is Figma himself. The company may be active in online collaboration, but before COVID-19 it surprisingly collaborated using printed materials, which required people to be in one place. “I think it’s very easy for these kinds of brainstorming activities to be siled when they take place in a physical space,” says Yamashita. “Because his file is very inaccessible. We realized that if we have a design review or a review, we want to make this file accessible to those who weren’t there, so some of the take out is there and people can add to it asynchronously.

With FigJam, this becomes possible. And the benefits are expected to be real long after the pandemic is just a memory, not just for Figma, but for other businesses who are still shifting their work habits out of the office and into the cloud.


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