Not Just a Figma of Our Imagination

Original post on Cloudbeds Tech Blog

"Ultimately, it’s not the tool that builds — it’s the hand that holds it."

SEPTEMBER 15, 2022, was one of the weirdest Thursdays in recent tech history.

It was less than 48 hours since the U.S. stock market took a major dive, courtesy of bad inflation news. The Dow went on a 4% crash diet. Tech stocks got hammered; Meta and Nvidia each lost close to 10% of their value.

That’s why it was borderline surreal when we woke up Thursday morning to the news that Figma, the collaborative UI design platform loved by so many, was getting bought out by Adobe.

Culture shock meets sticker shock. Adobe would pay about twenty billion dollars in stock and cash for an upstart rival who, brilliant as they are, were valued at half that much a year ago. Mamoon Hamid’s terse they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse is true enough, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Adobe knows — as we do — that platforms like Figma, Sketch, Miro are more than just design tools. They’re design nebulae: web communities where people can share, and ideas can hatch in unforeseen ways. “It’s not about the software itself,” said Cloudbeds senior frontend engineer Steven Prybylynsky. “They’re acquiring a big community that’s formed around Figma.” That’s one of the hallmarks of a nebula: when a software platform (a) makes collaboration easy; and (b) fosters a sense of community. Next-gen UX will naturally evolve.

Cloudbeds Nebula is both the process and the design

Cloudbeds’ own platform has evolved astonishingly fast. It’s only been ten years since Adam Harris and Richard Castle dreamed up their pioneering Onde Ficar, a website that could help you find a place to stay in the backroads of Brazil. That concept morphed into Cloudbeds’ first-of-its-kind integrated property management platform: a suite of applications that can run all the operations of any lodging business, anywhere. We’ve spawned competitors, and we love them. They keep us innovating like crazy. But we’re probably the first tech company to coin the term Nebula for both our UX style and our systemized approach to getting what engineers build to market. Nebula is shorthand for the fact that, historically, we never siloed front end, product and design when we built things. Cloudbeds mirrors Figma itself in that way. Figma has a cult following partly because they erase barriers between the different kinds of creators who have a stake in what gets made.

I hate to say “we were doing that before it was a thing,” but… we were doing that before it was a thing. So much in terms of planning projects and contributing ideas comes from our engineers and UX designers. It’s an outdated notion that only specific people at a tech company are going to care about the look and feel of your product, or whether it actually makes a customer’s day easier. Our engineers and designers are thinking about where a feature is going in one year, two years, ten years after the code freeze. User stories aren’t just stories when engineers have a real sense of ownership, and a living, breathing customer in mind.

No such thing as a grimy tool

Adobe sometimes has a less stellar reputation among UXers than Figma does. A faceless corporation to some; more cubicle than coffeeshop. “Every UX-er I’ve spoken to about this takeover is quite deflated by it,” a colleague told me. “Is Figma going to become more of a big company? Red tape? Are we going to get the same support from Adobe that we had with Figma? They just have a lot of question marks over them.” Comparable products like Adobe XD were small consolation to those worried about bigger subscription fees, or just losing the cheerful vibe of your own UX village on the web.

Cloudbeds is in the business of user-centered design carried out in a post-agile framework. In other words, we embrace time-tested agile methods, but we also improve on them by breaking traditional silos and engaging people at all levels in the development process.

We have a lot of Figma fans ourselves here in Cloudbeds UX, and let me tell you: we’re not worried. “Tools are endlessly broad and endlessly deep,” said COO Richard Castle. This is true because, ultimately, it’s not the tool that builds — it’s the hand that holds it. People are endlessly inventive when you discourage silos, and let them work inside a system-driven design nebula. If any one of our tools or frameworks fails to empower, we quickly pivot to new technologies. Switching pain and pivots are less daunting when you don’t put all your eggs in one toolbox. Example: we tokenized our foundational UI styles so we could easily migrate to another system, while keeping the integrity of those core tokens. It’s just one way we’re realistic about the fact that tech is tech: the business of endless improvement and change.

Cloudbeds principal engineer José Fonte sums up our attitude: “Tools are only tools. That’s why I use many of them. If THE tool is the only mechanism to achieve your goals, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Putting the YOU in UX

We’re builders to the core. We love our tools. And we’re more than happy to drop whatever we’re holding when we spot a smart way to hybridize our approach, or change it altogether. Right now we’re building a brand new design system leveraging Figma with Storybook. Our building blocks come from a Chakra UI front-end library in a React framework. It’s clever. But at the end of the day, our success won’t hinge on these or any other tools, powerful as they are. Cloudbeds is in the business of user-centered design carried out in a post-agile framework. In other words, we embrace time-tested agile methods, but we also improve on them by breaking traditional silos and engaging people at all levels in the development process. I can say with total confidence: this is the future of software development.

It’s actually easier than it sounds. People naturally embrace a shared product vision if you just afford them the chance to truly understand the end user. That sense of ownership, of being de facto partners in every customer’s business, makes us UI designers — and something more. We’re a trifecta of experience design, user research, and content strategy that looks at solving problems through the eyes of real people. That’s what drives our decisionmaking, our prioritizing, our building. Engineers continually test new ideas (often theirs) safely and with real customers. Whether that’s feature flag or beta, the mission is an ever-better user experience.

We believe that customer and guest experiences play a major part in our success and the success of the properties we power. When they thrive, we thrive. When we find ways to delight the guest, we can deliver more revenue for the hoteliers who (stating the obvious) are partners in our paycheck.

A nebula is where stars are born.

Copyright Eric E. Ellis. All Rights Reserved.