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Solomon Osadolo

I had a chat with Figma Design’s Head of Global Community, Claire Butler, in Lagos this week. She is visiting Nigeria and Ghana to facilitate the Figma x GitHub Design Hackathon scheduled to hold in Lagos and Accra. While it’s Claire’s first time in Nigeria, it is by no means Figma’s first rodeo here; this hackathon is Figma’s 5th event on the continent in 6 months. Figma plans to establish a presence in other African cities that currently double as tech melting pots.

“…We weren’t expecting, when we launched the tool, that because of that [Figma being available on a browser, with collaboration at the core of its functionality], it would make it attractive to anyone outside the US. Right now… 80% of our user base is outside the US. We’ve spread internationally, more than we initially expected”, Clair says.

Why is Figma actively focused on Africa?

Beyond the natural business need to score more adopters and users of the product, Claire says Figma is actively trying to grow design via this outreach.

“We’re trying to figure out a model for how they’re going to grow our user base with current designers and we really want to be the next large tool. Our growth is also tied to the growth of design.”

It is a drive to introduce as many people as possible to an easier, almost limitless approach to design.

It’s easy to see why many people – from software developers and designers to newbies just starting out – are jumping on the Figma train. As a web app, Figma easily clears most of the hindrances that clog the funnel for minting and onboarding new designers. It offers the sleekness and functionality that Sketch affords, but without the “you’ll need a Macbook for that” gate pass. A Mac is a rather pricey piece of hardware for a large portion of techies here on the continent, which hinders the flow of new adopters to Sketch – and, maybe, design in general.

Photoshop is the common alternative that isn’t fraught with the exclusivity created by device compatibility. But the software is so large that it typically requires a high-performance computer to run optimally, which is a problem for newbies and design enthusiasts who don’t own such computers.

Figma cuts through these barriers easily, being an app that anyone can fire up on a browser on any internet-enabled computer. It’s little wonder why there’s an uptick in adopters of the tool. Figma Africa has a Slack group which was started in April that currently houses about 1000 designers collaborating and sharing design-related knowledge.

Open Source Design?

Figma’s biggest advantage is perhaps it’s live collaborative feature. Teams collaborating on a design project can do reviews and make iterations in real time without having to download or upload any files. It’s perhaps why it appeals to software developers too. They don’t have to request that the designer send them any .psd files as part of the process during a sprint, or have to deal with the lags and error risks that might accrue as a result.

Because it is critical to be able to keep track on how a project has evolved, designers tend to save various versions of files either locally or via a third party app like Dropbox. Figma packs a version control feature within it that allows collaborators view how a project has evolved and who implemented what during that journey.

Last Mile Hurdle

I think Figma’s first advantage – being a web app – is also, perhaps, it’s biggest challenge as it actively tries to grow design in Africa. Broadband is still relatively expensive across most African cities, which poses a problem for an online product. However, through a feature that allows you to continue making changes on a file while offline and then sync the updates when you go online, and continuous improvements to the broadband infrastructure in Africa, this will not be a problem for long.

In the end, though, that collaborative, open source nature is what makes Figma stand out. As the designer community swells, it helps to be able to get real time feedback and reviews on projects as you crank out your designs. That can only bring growth.

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