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The most important thing Figma got right, even back in its early days, was to bet on multiplayer. It built a browser-based, inherently collaborative tool for interface design, like Google Docs for designers. (And then, unlike Google Docs, Figma spent years improving on the idea.) The market spent years moving toward Figma, first by making design a more important part of every company and product, and then by forcing everyone to work from home for a year. Suddenly an accessible, multiplayer design tool became a necessity.
In certain ways, though, the market was not just catching up to Figma but passing it by. Users didn't want a tool just for dragging around visual assets; they wanted a way to communicate, to brainstorm, to present. Figma CEO Dylan Field said he's been watching this happen during the pandemic: "People are making complex and cool illustrations, or they're planning out their gardens or their bookshelves, they're making cities online, or Slack goes down and they start chatting in Figma!" Figma thought its core feature was design, but users made clear that multiplayer was the thing.
In fact, that's been the case for years. "Back in 2015," Field said, "when we launched our closed beta, people were using it for diagramming and whiteboarding." But when the pandemic happened, the need suddenly felt more urgent, and the requests for whiteboarding features went up. So Field and Figma sped up the roadmap and built the company's second product ever: a whiteboarding app called FigJam. (Don't worry if the names are confusing; even Field had to enunciate each one as he explained them. But he liked the fun and punny-ness of the name, and he thinks you'll come around.) "What we've tried to create here is basically the best space, the best experience, for teams to be able to play together," Field said. It's designed to be simple and fun above all else.
As he flew around a screen-shared demo, Field used a fake Netflix design project to demonstrate FigJam's features. It has diagramming tools that allow users to drop boxes and draw arrows; it's easy to add Figma assets, add annotations or jot down notes. There's a permanent audio chat space, where people can jump in to discuss what they're looking at. Want to vote on something, or show support? Use a thumbs-up stamp, or click and hold to use a really big thumbs-up stamp. Or use the sticker that just says "Magic."
FigJam is meant to be a brainstorm tool, a freeform place for teams to just hang out and try stuff together. That's a tricky thing to get right on the internet, when spotty internet connections and laggy software can make for conflicting, messy collaboration. It's also an increasingly popular idea: Companies like Miro and Whimsical have grown during the pandemic as teams have looked for ways to work together remotely. Even Google and Microsoft are building increasingly powerful whiteboarding tools into their work offerings, paired with connected hardware — the Jamboard and the Surface Hub, respectively — for when some folks are back in person.
Figma's bet is that it can build the simplest, fastest, most interactive and multiplayer tool of them all. Which sounds like typical startup bluster, except that that's exactly how Figma took the design world by storm a few years ago.
Field pointed to an essay by designer John Palmer, called "Spatial Interfaces," which he said helped him understand how the multiplayer internet should feel. Palmer wrote: "I recently tried using Figma to hang out with friends in the evening due to its sense of presence. Live cursor positions let us all know that we were actively participating." That sense of movement, of using cursors as bodies, became core to the FigJam interface. "As we thought about how we make it so people can show up in the space and recognize others in the space," Field said, "that became sort of a principle." FigJam users can see each other's cursors as they move around the page, and type into a text box that appears above their own name to share thoughts and status updates. Chat becomes part of the whiteboard, and attached to the user, rather than relegated to a box off to the side.
FigJam is mostly a desktop app, because the kind of work it's good for is mostly done by people sitting at desktops and laptops. But Figma's slowly investing more in mobile. "Mobile for us is more about the browsing and consuming of work right now than the creation of work," Field said. The new version of the app makes it easier to mirror designs to a phone, or browse through FigJam boards. "But I think it'll be interesting to see down the road how we can use it — especially tablet — down the road for creation."
For now, FigJam is still a bit of an experiment. It's free to use through the end of 2021, partly as a kindness to remote workers and partly because it's very much still a beta product. Ultimately, it could be one in a line of new Figma products, bringing both visual thinking and collaboration to more corners of the internet. Field said he's confident that the next phase of the internet is about bringing multiplayer to everything, and Figma happens to be pretty good at doing so.