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Aaron Schwartz on Sketching User Experiences (Buxton) October 12, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in Sketching User Experiences.
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Bill Buxton’s book, Sketching User Experiences, is one I wish I’d read a long time ago. In my academic and professional career I have come across numerous big problems. How do I write a difficult research paper? How do we crack a difficult issue at a client? How do I tell the story of my new startup? To this point, I have always taken the “normal” steps: ask advisors; create a paper or project outline; use Excel to create a project plan; and recently, use Microsoft OneNote to lay out literally everything I know about the challenge. I’ve also prayed for help. And I’ve consistently delivered “B+/A-“ work.

Buxton’s book is about sketching, and he makes a case that this is one of the more powerful tools in the arsenal. The idea of a sketch is simple: A quickly-produced, disposable , possible solution to a problem.

1)      Quickly produced. By creating sketches quickly, the sketcher has the opportunity to see lots of iterations of the solution. If one is trying to figure out how to cook with the sun, one solution could be a tin pot, another could be a contraption to boiling water, another could be the heating of a PV cell that is then connected to a hot-pot. There are thousands of possible answers. Sketching allows you to create them all from a high-level, allowing you to survey a large set of possible answers before narrowing onto a few that are  most promising

2)      Disposable. The more work one does, the tougher it is to throw out one’s work. You do research. You think through different possibilities. You settle on one. And then you build it. It takes considerable self-confidence and discipline to decide that an answer is a sunk-cost.

3)      Possible. The whole point of a sketch is to throw it into the fire and get feedback (whether internally generated or by others who view one’s work). You are changing the goal of your work at that point from “solving a problem” to “creating solutions”. The idea is, thescope is wider if you are not worried about a specific answer.

The beauty is that a sketch is whatever is appropriate for the question one is asking. If you are thinking of creating a piece for a dance troupe, the sketch could be a set of photos of the different moves, laid out on the wall, which the troupe may move in considering different orders. If you’re writing a paper, you can make a simple mind-map to sketch out thoughts, see how the paper might flow, throw it out, and start again as many times as needed.

Personally, I have been struggling to tell the story of my startup. The idea is to track and reward sustainable actions. No one, I mean, no one, gets it right away, in large part because I have no idea how to tell the story. So I am working on sketching it out, with a video. The idea is to show a day in the life of a member of our user community. In my mind, this is the only story that matters, and if done right, it will be a start in telling the story of why someone would participate.

By the time I finish the video, I will have put 8 months of thought into the business and a few weeks of work into the video. But the video will still be simple and intentionally have an unfinished look. I do not have the right answer, and need feedback. Buxton stresses that there is an inverse relationship between a project’s polish and the quality of feedback one can expect to receive. If there sketch is great, people will think it’s finished, so leaving it in a crude fashion – even when one has put in a lot of effort – signals to viewers that it is open for critique. And that is how one can learn the best.

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