In this article, we’ll explore the current state of design handoff tools and the design process overall, and offer our pick of the five best design handoff tools on the market now.
Design handoff involves handing over a UI design to a developer who will code it up. Before “design handoff” was even a term, handing over designs was a complicated, frustrating, and often disastrous task. Way back when, Adobe Photoshop was the only tool available for designing user interfaces, and design handoff tools and/or features didn’t exist. Converting a design to code was referred to as “slicing a PSD”. Oh, the days.
Slicing a PSD (a Photoshop document) was the developer’s responsibility, which was very frustrating, because developers understandably didn’t want to work with design tools. Designers would manually document design specs to make things clearer, but this still resulted in visual/functional inconsistencies and heated discussions with developers. I’m still having nightmares. (If you’d like to share in my nightmares, here’s a nice collection of memes for you to explore.)
Design handoff today
Nowadays, there’s an abundance of UI tools sporting design handoff features and even tools that are wholly dedicated to handoff, and which help designers and developers translate design to code, house design files, maintain consistency between design elements, and facilitate good designer-developer collaboration.
Modernized designers and developers recognize the design handoff process as a key development process, whether building a design system or a product from scratch. In fact, UI design tools such as Figma offer handoff and design system features side by side.
Handoff tools help:
designers to ready their designs for inspection
developers to inspect and translate designs to code
designers and developers to collaborate and communicate
Without design handoff, developers are left with only one alternative: guessing. Guessing often results in visual and functional inaccuracies — such as the wrong colors being used or interactions behaving oddly. In turn, this impacts the user’s experience and sends designers into a nuclear meltdown.
Let’s take a look at five of the best design handoff tools.
Figma (most used)
Platforms: Web, macOS, Linux, Windows
Pricing: $0/user/month, $12/user/month, $45/user/month
While not as advanced as Zeplin in terms of how many code languages are supported, Figma translates design styles to CSS (for web), Swift (for iOS/macOS/iPadOS), and XML (for Android). However, this should cover the majority of design handoffs anyway.
Alternative design handoff tools can be installed as Figma Plugins for when designs need to be translated to Sass, Less, Stylus, React Native code, and more.
Image assets can be exported or copied to the clipboard in SVG or PNG format, all at once or singularly, in any resolution.
If collaborators have something to say (or ask) about the design, they can communicate clearly and openly using contextual comments, which aids collaboration and ensures that everybody is on board with how the design should look, feel, and function.
Figma is not only the most used tool for design handoff, but also for user flows, user interfaces, interactive prototypes, design systems, and version control (according to the 2020 Design Tools Survey). While Zeplin is the highest-rated handoff tool due to the fact that it supports more code languages, Figma isn’t too far behind, as it’s multi-functional and facilitates a lot more than handoff.
All in all, I would choose Figma (as most teams do) until I needed to hand off designs using an unsupported code language, in which case Zeplin makes a more-than-ideal secondary option.
Zeplin (highest rated)
Platforms: Web, macOS, Windows
Import from: Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD, Photoshop
Pricing: $0/user/month, $6/user/month, $12/user/month
Zeplin supports more code languages than Figma does (React Native, Sass, Less, Stylus, etc., in addition to the standard Swift, XML, and CSS). It’s also cheaper than Figma-like tools, though this is because Figma-like tools are multi-functional and cover much more of the UI design workflow. Zeplin is the highest-rated design handoff tool (according to the 2020 Design Tools Survey), so some designers tend to overlook this downside.
In order to use Zeplin, you’ll need to create designs using Photoshop, Adobe XD, Sketch, or Figma first, so it’s totally understandable that some designers would rather keep their UI design workflow contained to a single tool, and this is likely why Figma is used more often than Zeplin for handoff.
Functionality-wise, Zeplin does everything you’d expect a handoff tool to do (and does it fairly well). It exports image assets as a variety of formats and in various resolutions, translates design styles to code, and facilitates communication.
Platforms: Web, macOS, Windows
Pricing: $0/user/month, $7.95/user/month
InVision’s design handoff tool, Inspect, which works within Specs and Prototype (InVision’s design documentation tool and main web app respectively), is only one tool within InVision’s large (maybe too large) suite of design collaboration tools.
However, InVision Studio (InVision’s UI design tool) is where you’ll very likely be creating your designs before handing them off to developers. Studio is available to macOS and Windows users.
While the InVision suite will only set you back $7.95/user/month, which sounds like a sweet deal when compared to similar tools, InVision has been embroiled in negative feedback recently for overspending on the marketing of tools that haven’t quite lived up to the hype. The main criticism is that InVision tools sometimes feel half-baked and disconnected, even after a delayed launch. By contrast, Figma works as a singular app flawlessly.
Nonetheless, InVision is the third most used tool for design handoff and a still a commonly used tool overall. While it does seem to be on the decline, with solid competition eating at its slice of the market, it’s been quiet lately (hopefully busy listening to customers, so I wouldn’t write it off yet).
InVision’s Inspect tool can translate design styles to CSS, Less, Sass, SCSS, Stylus, Swift/Objective-C (Apple), and XML (Android), which is an impressive list. If you’re familiar with the InVision ecosystem, choosing Inspect for the design handoff process wouldn’t be a bad option, and it won’t break the bank.
Platforms: macOS, Windows
Pricing: $0/user/month, $9.99/user/month, $22.99/user/month
So far, we’ve discussed design handoff tools (Zeplin), multi-functional UI design tools that include design handoff (Figma), and design suites with multiple semi-integrated tools including design handoff (InVision). Of these tools, Adobe XD is the most similar to Figma, being a multi-functional UI design tool too.
Adobe XD is a solid contender on this list, with no strong downsides. In fact, if you’re already familiar with the Adobe ecosystem, Adobe XD might be the best choice, especially if you have an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription already (in which case you might have access to Adobe XD).
If not, $9.99/month is still a fair deal, since it offers the same functionality as Figma for less money. However, since we’re talking about design handoff here, it’s worth noting that Adobe XD only translates styles to CSS. But it includes the usual features (format switching, asset exporting, content extraction).
All in all, if you only require design handoff to CSS and/or you’re familiar with the Adobe ecosystem already, Adobe XD is a decent choice. In these two cases, paying more to subscribe to Figma might be unnecessary.
Pricing: $9/user/month, $99/user/year
Along the lines of Figma and Adobe XD, Sketch is another multi-functional design tool that can facilitate most of the UI design workflow, including design handoff. Unfortunately, though, Sketch only supports translating design styles to CSS (like Adobe XD).
Another downside to Sketch is that its core app only supports Mac users, although, since design handoff works via a shareable URL, this shouldn’t be of any concern to developers (but something to consider if your team has multiple designers).
Overall, Sketch isn’t the best, but it’s not bad either. It remains in the top five because designers love its user experience.
While the following design handoff tools aren’t as widely used as the aforementioned suggestions, the following design handoff tools are worth investigating if the top five aren’t suitable for you or your team. Also, a couple of the following tools (UXPin and Marvel) belong to a larger tooling ecosystem, and it’s better to contain workflows within a single ecosystem. (That is, if you’re using UXPin or Marvel already, it’s a good idea to use it for handoff too.)
Judging from the design handoff tools on this list (ranked by number of users) it’s clear that designers would rather contain their UI design workflow to a single ecosystem — or even better, a single tool (the only dedicated design handoff tool within the “top five” is Zeplin). Customers aren’t averse to paying more too.
Personally, I agree with this. Paying more for Figma, which covers the entire UI design workflow (design handoff included) not only within a single ecosystem but a single tool/interface, is certainly worth it. That said, I’d be okay with having to sync designs to Zeplin, as it offers a strong user experience.
However, the other handoff tools do have their benefits too. Ultimately, design and development teams should be looking for something that smooths designer–developer collaboration, so it’s worth trying out two or three options to see what works best for you and the other stakeholders involved in designer–developer handoff.
Want to learn UX from the ground up? Get an entire collection of UX design books covering fundamentals, projects, tips and tools and more with SitePoint Premium. Join now for just $6/month.