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Sketching User Experiences: Getting Your Mind Right, and into the Right Mind? September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Sketching User Experiences, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist and bandleader, has a great quote about creativity: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” He reminds us that less is more; but he doesn’t say that it’s easy to do. But there’s hope for those of us non-geniuses out there.

It’s precisely that hope that designer Bill Buxton attempts to explore in his book “Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.” Buxton exhorts those who participate in a design process to spend enough time at the beginning of that process to allow for creative ideas to come to the surface. Sketching, he argues, is a useful tool to allow such ideas to flow—both generative and reductive ideas—given that the very form of a “sketch” is informal enough to invite criticism, simple enough to be easily adapted, and cheap enough that it can be scrapped with no hesitation.

The book is many things, but Buxton is clear about what it isn’t. It isn’t a book with practical “how-to” tools on sketching (somewhat misleading from the title). There are no tutorials about how one with no artistic ability might begin to sketch out a process or a new product. Fear not: the good news is you don’t need any! The book is essentially a “state of mind” piece: a set of principles (followed up by myriad real-world examples) that allow design teams to help generate good ideas and involve users in the design process.

Essentially, sketching is more about capturing the experience of user interaction with a product, and less about the product itself. Learning how people would actually use a product is paramount. Buxton takes great pains to communicate that this type of user involvement must happen in such a way as to promote honest feedback. It is key, therefore, that a proposed design not look too “finished” so as to imply a lack of interest in significant feedback. That’s where the sketch comes in.

A sketch should invite criticism due to its ambiguous nature, and only suggest an idea instead of dictating a solution. Sketches can be made easily, quickly, and cheaply, and have a fluidity and openness with minimal detail so as to invite whimsy and creative thinking. These attributes enhance participatory creation—the foundation upon which successful designs are built. And sketches don’t have to come only in the form of drawings on paper. A sketch can be a physical mock-up, a video of a user interaction, a photo montage, etc. We’re only limited by our creativity.

This is definitely a thought-provoking book. It’s clear that Buxton (a researcher at Microsoft) has mostly interactive technologies in mind as he’s writing the book, but he does a really good job of incorporating many product types into the book to make it relevant for multiple disciplines. But it is predominantly principles-based. And, to my delight, he’s quoted (or coined) some great aphorisms that I would like to share with you:

“A problem properly represented is largely solved.”
This is the biggest rationale for sketching: getting ideas on the table early allows the bad ones to be thrown away early, instead of fixed (at a high cost) later.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
A corollary to the above: sketching allows so many ideas to be generated that you’ll likely anticipate a variety of possibilities that you hadn’t before.

“The future is already here…it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
An interesting insight about product development—essentially that everything that’s being introduced now has been around for a while. So, when approaching creating a sketch of a product, you might be able to create a simple model with materials you already have (or processes you already know).

“Success every time implies that one’s objectives are not challenging enough.”
This is a variant of the “fail early, fail often” mantra that you no doubt have heard. Apparently designers are a little better about dealing with failure than most of the rest of us. It’s not just a professional hazard for them—in some cases, it’s a professional requirement. Failed ideas (or ideas that don’t stand up to criticism) are necessary to help you advance toward those ideas that will succeed. Embrace it.

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