The Candidates from 2020

I wrote a post two years ago titled “Code-centric Design Tools on the Rise?“. This was my attempt to curate a list of interesting tools that seemed to be headed in a compelling direction toward a more code-centric approach to design tools and systems.

Well, time has passed and I wanted to provide an update regarding the companies I blogged about.

  • Alva is now palettemaker, a move that takes it out of the running.
  • Bit is still active!
  • BuilderX appears to be stuck in a beta version from October, 2021
  • Clutch appears to still be in beta and hasn’t tweeted since July 2022
  • is a relatively new contender added in 2022 also offering a Figma to Flutter solution
  • Diez hasn’t been updated on GitHub since 2020
  • Draftbit is still around as a “pro-code native app builder” 
  • Flow is still around as “UX Animation for Designers”
  • FramerX is now just Framer, and still very much in the game.
  • Hadron hasn’t had a version update since September 2020.
  • Haiku has gone in more of a design for marketing and sales direction
  • Handoff is still in “alpha” and hasn’t announced a new feature since November 2021.
  • Interplay seems to still be a player, their last announced update was April 2022.
  • Lona appears to be active on Github
  • Modulz was acquired by WorkOS (Enterprise SSO) in June of 2022. That doesn’t seem like a great outcome to me. I thought they might actually be able to pull off an idealistic tool. Their fate goes to show you how tough this challenge is to address.
  • Parabeac still is active as a Figma to Flutter solution
  • Pinegrow is still going along, but it’s really more a modern version of Dreamweaver and see it as a competitor to Webflow – more web content than apps, so probably wasn’t a great addition to my original post.
  • Plasmic is still going strong, and continues to go in the direction I was hoping these kinds of tools would take. In some ways, Plasmic is actually delivering on the promise of Modulz. Therefore, I think Plasmic is definitely one to watch.
  • React Studio hasn’t announced anything since April 2021
  • React Styleguidist is still going as an “Isolated React component development environment with a living style guide” 
  • Relate has ceased further development on its “Related editor” and has announced that they are renaming themselves as “Rainbow” and working on some kind of stealth initiative that sounds like a pivot, but not a full departure from these core ideas.
  • Specify is still active and focused on helping “unify your brand identity by collecting, storing and distributing design tokens and assets”
  • Storybook is great, but it’s still very much “a frontend workshop for building UI components and pages in isolation” so I don’t believe it will ever be a typical tool for pure designers.
  • Supernova “allows you to build, maintain and document design systems that last, are joy to use and adopt blazing fast.”
  • TeleportHQ announced a seed round of investment in May of 2022, to continue building their “collaborative front-end platform with integrated UI development and content modelling tools”
  • Toolabs has not provided any updates to their unreleased DSM since November of 2021
  • UXPin may also be one of the few players that’s clearly heading in the direction of seamless bi-directional use of coded components in an established and mature “design and prototyping tool”. With its relatively new “Merge” technology, they are an underdog that could win the long game in a post Figma+Adobe world.
  • Visly was ‘quietly’ acquired by Figma in April of 2021. This is notable, as I’ll mention in the summary below.

Other Contenders?

Here’s a quick take on some companies that didn’t show up on my previous list. There are still a number of other Prototyping Tools not listed here. Perhaps one might emerge from those solutions as well?

  • Sketch was intentionally left off the list last time around because they seemed to be falling behind tools like Figma and UXPin. But they are still going strong and should not be ruled out. They’ve really enhanced their native features for inspection and ‘handoff‘ in a way that’s made past third party companion apps pretty irrelevant. Their continued commitment to being Mac-only may or may not also hinder their progress in these directions.
  • Penpot is worth a mention, primarily because they were getting some interest as an open source alternative to costly leaders in the design tool space, and the Figma acquisition provided them with a big boost in interest. That attention was quickly followed by a Series A funding round in September of 2022. They are still playing catch-up in their effort to copycat competitor features. They leverage SVG in their open file format, and it is unknown if a code-centric angle is part of their vision.
  • Axure has a lot of satisfied customers and also shouldn’t be overlooked as a product that could pivot more toward code-centricity. Their prototyping capabilities provide a lot of power and complexity to create extremely realistic simulations of actual software. Personally, it’s this potential over-investing in making a ‘fake’ prototype so realistic that often makes me wonder why an actual coded app isn’t pursued instead. That said, I do acknowledge that a more realistic prototype is often beneficial in getting early user input. But to-date, I have not seen anything like UXPin’s Merge being offered by Axure.

Current Takeaways

As you can see, not all of the contenders in my previous list have survived. However, many are still around and continuing to pursue their original goals.

I had hoped that one or more of these tools would already have had a breakthrough moment by now. For example, some kind of notable inflection point in adoption to really open the floodgates toward a more code-centric professional design workflow.

For me the long term goal is to get a solution that enables designers to freely and easily work with existing coded components alongside typical drawings of UI elements. The UI metaphors and interaction patterns of Drawing tools have the potential to keep designers in a state of flow, and open to experimentation that working in code sometimes lacks for certain creative temperaments.

Figma still has great potential of wowing the market further, by finally delivering on a code-centric design tooling breakthrough. Their 2021 acquisition of Visly, as mentioned above, signals that this may still be an active goal on their roadmap.

UXPin and Plasmic would be smart to try and take advantage of the mixed reactions to Adobe’s acquisition of Figma as leverage to promote themselves as viable alternatives (in the way that Penpot has).

Also, a solution that takes a JavaScript framework-agnostic Web Components approach might best capture the broadest possible marketshare of design and development teams. Despite most of the solutions being React-centric, it’s still not clear that React will be an ‘ultimate winner’ in a field where another framework du jour could pop up at any moment.

Did I miss any other interesting products that fall into this category? If so, please get in touch.