When you’re working on a team, it’s usually assumed that you’ll all use the same software platforms so you can more easily share projects, files, and have a shared set of capabilities across the team. For example – it’s helpful if everybody uses the same app suite for designing eLearning content, or for editing video, or for doing graphic design, editing audio, etc. This helps the company save money by negotiating a group license on one software package rather than paying full price for a diverse set of titles that do the same thing. Many workplaces standardize around Windows or Mac and don’t give employees a choice of which OS they want to work on, which simplifies tech support and purchasing decisions.
The central tension here is between standardization and personalization, between efficiency across the team and personal efficiency in each designer’s own work.
On my team at Autodesk, it’s both a blessing and a challenge that we have a high degree of freedom with the tools and OSes we use, and we just need to form an informal consensus so everyone can work together efficiently. This has led us to standardize on some platforms, while allowing freedom in other areas to explore alternatives that fit each designer best.
This post will discuss some of the pros and cons of this hybrid approach, hopefully helping you to find the right equilibrium for your own team.
The Case for Standardization
There’s no question that efficiencies can be made when everyone agrees to be on the same platform. A shared common toolset is great for teams because diverse individuals may discover techniques to accomplish key tasks, and those techniques can be shared widely across the team. This becomes more challenging if everyone is working on their own tools. File compatibility becomes a non-issue when all team members have access to a shared set of software tools that can open and edit all the most relevant files you use in your work.
Similarly, data security is easier to ensure when central IT can offer a limited set of tools that it can effectively protect. Many software providers offer enterprise licenses and discounts for multi-seat licenses, enabling cost savings if all team members are using the same platform.
I’ve long been a proponent of organizations offering a cloud toolset like Google Workspace or Office 365 because it gives all employees a powerful set of shared tools that can accomplish most collaboration tasks. From email and video chat to cloud drives and collaborative docs, workers can explore these powerful suites of tools according to their own learning curve, and best practices can emerge and be shared across the team. This creates a virtuous cycle of continuous learning when everyone has the same common core set of capabilities to use in a variety of common work tasks.
Of course, a highly standardized environment may work well on a macro level, and be quite dysfunctional for individuals in specific situations. Having too little personal autonomy means that rank-and-file workers are less free to creatively and nimbly solve problems they encounter in their work, and that meaningful change is slowed by centralized bureaucratic processes at the organizational level. Some organizations completely prevent end users from installing applications on their machines, which locks them in to using only the tools provided. Often this results in workers finding workarounds like using their own devices for work tasks to get around centralized restrictions.
We should strive to standardize as much as is reasonable, but we will see that the freedom to explore is also valuable.
The Case for Freedom to Explore
Teams are made up of diverse individuals, each at a different step along the learning curve to pro-level skills in various software titles. The larger your team is (ours is 6-going-on-7 designers), the more this diversity means that designers will vary in their experience and enthusiasm for different platforms, and keeping everyone aligned requires negotiation and flexibility. Some of us may be much more productive on Mac than Windows, or vice versa. Some of us may have come from previous jobs where Sketch and Captivate were the recommended tools, and now feel pressure to adopt a completely different toolset to work well with our new team. Some instructional designers are more
designer – better with pedagogy than making pretty pictures – and that is absolutely valid. Some designers like graphical, visual tools while others work better handling code directly. I belive there is strength in diversity, and that working with it rather than against it leads to better overall outcomes.
Some of us might want to dabble in pro graphics design tools but can’t justify the expense of an Adobe Creative Suite monthly license, paying for a host of functionality we’ll only rarely and shallowly use. It may make sense for some designers on the team to use Adobe and others to use less expensive tools that can interoperate with Adobe like Affinity Photo, Designer, GIMP, Inkscape, and others. Doing so supports designers’ ability to upskill with affordable tools while learning pro-level concepts that transfer to more expensive industry-standard software.
We all have to work with video, but some of us might prefer the workflow and layout of Camtasia vs. Premiere vs. Final Cut or DaVinci Resolve, and some might be happy using consumer-level video editing tools like iMovie or Premiere Rush, or making simple trims and clips using the free tools that come on every Mac or Windows computer.
Allowing individual designers the freedom to experiment with new tools promotes innovation, as they continuously strive to find newer and better ways to streamline their workflows, expand their capabilities, and produce better finished work. The flip side of this freedom is that you may find interoperability conflicts if everyone’s different apps don’t share files gracefully. You may end up paying for multiple tools that have overlapping capabilities rather than using all features of the software you have to its maximum potential.
A Balance between Standardization and Freedom to Explore
On our team of six designers, we take a hybrid approach, standardizing only where necessary while allowing as much freedom as possible.
We have a default platform for developing eLearning – Evolve Authoring. It’s a cloud app so it works equally well on Mac vs. PC – a key differentiator against industry standard Articulate Storyline (which is PC only). Every member of the team has a license, and we know that all our course development happens in one centralized platform, which helps with training, maintenance, localization, archiving, and more.
We also embrace our diversity by allowing wide variation in the software we use to create multiimedia to go into Evolve. Some of us with experience in Adobe tools have Creative Suite licenses, but those without that experience can build skills in Affinity Photo, Canva, and Figma, which offer similar power at cheap or free license rates. As a result, our diverse designers are constantly exploring various dimensions of course development in the ways that are most comfortable to them, and are free to produce their best work without the constraints of an overly restrictive tech ecosystem.
Audio is a place where open source provides a dead-simple default free option. Audacity is a trusty “Swiss army knife” for everyday audio editing tasks that’s useful for anyone to have on their machine in the off chance that they’ll need it. If you need more serious power for mission critical tasks, you can always upgrade to a commercial software bundle, but this gives you a base set of capabilities for free until you reach that point.
We had historically standardized on Camtasia for video editing because it allows for cross-platform sharing of projects, but different designers have joined the team with their own favorite video editing tools, so we’ve become less standardized while (arguably) happier and more productive as we each use our favorite tools for producing instructional videos. I recently discovered Davinci Resolve and have found that the free version provides many of the pro-level features of Adobe tools like Premiere and AfterEffects, enabling even less-experienced video editors to experiment with a much more powerful toolset for creating motion graphics and video. With more exploration I may be able to give up my pricey monthly Adobe CS license and keep most of the capabilities I depend on by using DaVinci Resolve with the Affinity suite — all while saving money for the department. (And yes, saving your bosses money is great for your job security btw
I believe we need to have the freedom to be able to make these kinds of experiments. To spend time thinking about our tools and workflows, to continuously explore the best tools for the job, even if it means a less-standardized experience across the team. As you navigate this tension with your own team, do your best to capitalize on the efficiencies you gain from a shared set of tools while freeing your team to find their own way towards a toolset that makes them optimally effective in their role.
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