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Sketching User Experiences, Getting the design right and the right design – Bill Buxton March 7, 2012

Posted by Sebastian Fuenzalida in Sketching User Experiences.

The first time I saw the cover of this book, I wondered: “Why that guy is rowing through a graph?” but in second thoughts, that is not a graph, is more like mountains reflecting in the water.  After a couple of pages into the book, my mystery was revealed: it was a map!

This book is divided in two parts: “Design as a Dreamcatcher” where the author developed a framework to incorporate design into product development processes and “Stories of Methods and Madness”, were we are presented with several techniques to implement the visual thinking required to make the integration in part 1.

Bill Buxton made a great introduction to thinking out-of-the-box in “Design for the wild” were we are prompted to think about good solutions to help a kayaker to navigate in artic waters. Without losing his path. Immediately,  I started to think about applications for iOS/Android with maps and routes GPS-enabled. The problem here is that I’m biased by my past and education and I was not thinking in the real environment were this product would be used. Extreme cold temperatures wont let you take off your gloves, so how can you manipulate the touching screen?  Yes, there are new gloves with special materials that let you use your touch screen but that is really what we need while rowing in artic waters? The Ammassalik, a tribe in eastern Greenland, crafted a beautiful solution and it is showed in the cover of the book. A 3D map who represents the coastline, they can be used inside mittens, keeping the hands warm, they float if they fall in the water, because they are made out of wood and most importantly, they do not need batteries nor GPS connections made them 100% reliable, making it better than any digital product we can think at this moment.

Buxton after showing us several cases were incremental solutions or “n+1” products cannot sustain a company in the long term, he introduced a New Product Development Process (showed in the picture above) in order to catalyze innovation in companies who want to survive strategically launching new products often.

Particularly identifiable is the funnel-shaped design phase, but using this scope we can see the collaboration between the different departments of the company along the complete process.

This brings me to the underlying objective of this book:

…to change the unviability of implementing a reliable way to develop new products in-house, within the corporate culture, tailored to the strategic plan of the company, in a managed (rather than bandit) process and where we can be take into account the technologies employed in the rest of the product offerings …

After several design thinking and innovation classes, I’m a complete advocate of that objective.  My problem is related with my learning style, I’m a converger, and its is hard to transform (in my head) the process, sketching and diverging into a process, where you get an innovative solution as output. The process is still a “black-box” for me, and this book does not clarify it for me.

At the same time, the book really helps to let you know the tools that designers (trained as designers) use in their daily works. The problem is  that they seem to be too design-ish oriented in my point of view.  Let me show you a couple of examples extracted from the second part: “Stories of Methods and Madness”.

  • Wizard of Oz: Technique were the design team imitates the automatic processes realized by a final system, without need to implement it completely.
  • Visual Storytelling:  Making storyboards to represent User Experiences.
  • Extending Interaction: Real and Illusion: High-Fi Paper prototypes to show interaction to the  future users.

All of them need to have a profound level of technical designing skills, specially making storyboards, which make me doubt about my possibilities to be a designer some day, because I’m really bad drawing. This contrast with the Design Thinking concept introduced by Tim Brown in his book “Change by Design” where everyone could be a designer.

To finish my blog post I want to add a “new” technique called Mechanical Turk, which is strongly related with Wizard of Oz. The term was coined as reference to the Mechanical Turk-Chess player, showed in the picture.

At that moment there was not IBM Watson to play chess with humans, to process real-time movements and strategy, that is why instead the used a hidden human who played mimic the movements of the robot.  Nowadays this technique of “getting human intelligence” into real problems that computers cannot solve is used by Amazon to crowdsource little tasks like tagging pictures or identifying handwriting.

My final thoughts are: can we use crowdsourcing to generate Fast-cheap “Wizard of Oz” prototypes?  And What is the role of managerial – engineering  professionals in the design process?



1. jhpittman - March 11, 2012

Seba – if I understand your argument, it is that Bill has demystified design and described how to “do” design and innovation in a corporate context. That would be an excellent question to ask Carl Bass when you come to the gallery next week. As you will see from Carl’s TedX Berkeley talk and an interview which I will post shortly, he has some strong views on this.

2. Bill Buxton - March 12, 2012

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the book. Pretty much as always, feedback is of value.

In exchange for your taking the time, I would like to take a stab at touching on a few of the points that arise in your commentary.

To start, I was a bit confused by the “quote” that you provided to articulate the “underlying objective” of the book. I confess that I didn’t understand the quote, and suspect that nobody else did either, so I looked it up. This is what I actually wrote:

“Ideally, one of the options that we would like to have open to us is to have a reliable way to develop new products in-house, within our own corporate culture, tailored to our own strategic plan, in a managed (rather than bandit) process, and where we can take into account the technologies employed in the rest of our product offerings. However, at least for the software industry, the track record says that this option is simply not viable today.”

It is interesting that you chose this passage. Good choice, especially since it highlights a few things that pertain to your later comments. In particular, the passage makes really clear that “design” is not just about look-and-feel, or user experience. Rather, it also has a lot to do with business and engineering considerations.

That the overall process involves multiple interdependent disciplines is equally reflected in the figure that you chose to reproduce, which incorporates design, engineering, management & marketing, and sales. While the disciplines may vary from product to product and company to company, in virtually all cases, there are a number of distinct disciplines involved, with each being essential, but none being sufficient, on its own.

Furthermore, and this is central to one of the points that you make, one needs people with depth and creativity in each of the requisite disciplines involved. That is why on any non-trivial project no single discipline or individual is sufficient. It is simply not viable for any individual or single discipline to achieve the depth and breadth required to achieve anything resembling an optimal, much less adequate solution.

“Design” is but one of the disciplines required at the table. And while the other disciplines participate in the “design” (note the lower-case “d” in the word), that does not make them design professionals – any more than the designer participating in a software project makes them professional programmers.

It may well be that “everyone could be a designer”, as you wish – a sentiment that Tim Brown may have expressed, but was far from being the first to do so. However, the second half of this statement is too often omitted, and perhaps not even understood: while everyone can be a designer, they can only be so at the expense of the discipline that they otherwise might pursue. The point is this: it is exceedingly hard to achieve excellence in any one discipline. That is why so few people manage even that. Given that design is a distinct discipline, with hard won skills and technique – just as extensive as computer science, electrical engineering, business, law, etc. – it is just as unlikely that you will find anyone with skills in any two or more of those disciplines, each at the level of depth that you need to solve the problem at hand. If you do, they are either super-human (and therefore you can’t plan your business around finding them), or your problem is sufficiently trivial as to not need the level of depth demanded of the types that I am trying to address.

The good news is, yes, you too can become a designer, and yes, you can do it without being particularly good at drawing. But it will take you at least as long to acquire those skills as those of a computer scientist or a professional guitar player. It’s up to you. It just depends on what you are willing to put into it, and what you are willing to give up to achieve that ambition. And if you want a start, look at the the companion workbook for some exercises that will hopefully help (http://www.amazon.com/Sketching-User-Experiences-The-Workbook/dp/0123819598/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1331599298&sr=8-1).

Now all of this may sound elitist, but that is not my intent. I am simply trying to say that the problems of making great products are really complex, and need a really creative team that collectively possesses great technical depth and breadth in their respective disciplines, creativity, mutual professional respect, and the ability to work well together. Each member must know the difference between expertise and literacy. They need expertise in their own discipline in order to pull their weight, and literacy in the other disciplines, in order to have a common ground for communication.

But let me change gears address a comment of yours that makes me think that I may have failed in my own writing. In particular, I seem to have failed to adequately get across both the need, and the nature of, a mix of convergent and divergent thinking.

Speaking about yourself, you write about yourself, “My problem is related with my learning style, I’m a converger, and its is [sic.] hard to transform (in my head) the process, sketching and diverging into a process, where you get an innovative solution as output. The process is still a “black-box” for me, and this book does not clarify it for me.”

Let me augment what I wrote in the book, and take one last stab at articulating what I was trying to get across. Let me start with a question.
In referring to yourself as a “converger”, I take it that you take the problem at hand, and then converge on a solution. But my question is this: how do you know if the solution that you converge on is the best one that you are capable of coming up with, much less optimal?

On the one hand, there is merit in finding and implementing “a” solution. So that is good. My argument is, however, that unless you came up with a number of meaningfully distinct alternative solutions, and did a comparative analysis, you have no idea how good the solution that you converged upon was.

The ability to generate such a number of meaningfully distinct alternative solutions, in a timely manner, in a methodological fashion, on budget, and on time, and do the appropriate comparative analysis, is a fundamental aspect of design practice. Developing the skills to do so are fundamental to design education. There is no reason that you should feel inadequate for not having such skills – unless you profess to be a design professional. On the other hand, despite not having them, if you still do not understand their importance in the design process, and the need to have someone on the team who has such competence, then I have clearly failed as a writer and a teacher. If that is the case, I apologize.

Finally, let me end with a quick comment on the “Mechanical Turk” technique. I would argue that the Mechanical Turk chess player is not “like” the Wizard of Oz technique, it “is” the Wizard of Oz technique. In what way is there between a person inside a ticket kiosk, fooling the user that a machine is processing their plane ticked (an example from my book) and a person inside a desk fooling the player that a machine is playing chess with them?

I would argue that they are both manifestations of the same thing. These two examples differ only in the domains and technologies used. Rather than have humans behave like machines, which is the whole point of both the Wizard of Oz and the Mechanical Turk (two metaphors for the same thing), what Amazon does is use humans for what humans do best, as distinct from machines, and provide a mechanism and business model for crowd sourcing certain classes of problems for which people are better suited than machines. Furthermore, the “Amazon Mechanical Turk” technique is only ‘interactive” in the sense that interacting with each other via snail-mail is, as opposed to face-to-face conversation, which is what is the nature of the interaction reflected in the , unlike the Wizard of Oz / Mechanical Turk technique.

I think that Amazon chose an inappropriate name for their, nevertheless, very interesting and innovative service. And, by way of closing, it was critical design thinking – searching for the “meaningful distinctions” that I mentioned above – that let me see this. 🙂

Thanks for taking the time to write your blog on my book, and I hope that what I have written above is taken in the light intended, that is, a respectful contribution to the conversation that you initiated.

Thanks again.

3. Sebastian Fuenzalida - March 14, 2012

Thank you so much Bill for taking the time of reading and writing the response to my blog post.

You were really clear about the differences between different disciplines and now I’m more confident about the future, where I definitively will partner with professionally trained designers and other in order to pursue innovation in product development.

Thank you so much again.

4. Matt Chwierut - March 19, 2012

Thanks for such a great exchange.

I thought that Bill’s comment about choosing what one specializes in was very insightful, and it raises a question that I’ve been wrestling with – the distinction between designers and design-thinking. Some people have seemed to suggest that teams of ‘designers’ are best equipped to develop new products. Unless I mis-understand, this is IDEO’s approach – a team of people who identify as designers can swoop in and solve a problem end-to-end. But Bill argues that this process can be managed with in-house experts, facilitated by a trained designer but ultimately driven by the collective creativity of a diverse team.

Is there any suggestions as to how an organization can build this internal team and redesign its own product development process. Bill’s great quote below lays out the necessary expertise for a high-performing design team, but how do individuals get these qualities? And what does it take for an organization is truly let this process play out in a culture that is traditionally much more risk-averse, hierarchical, and driven by consistent internal processes?

“…really creative team that collectively possesses great technical depth and breadth in their respective disciplines, creativity, mutual professional respect, and the ability to work well together. Each member must know the difference between expertise and literacy. They need expertise in their own discipline in order to pull their weight, and literacy in the other disciplines, in order to have a common ground for communication.”

5. jhpittman - March 31, 2012

I think Bill strongly believes that design is a discipline that requires some education and practice – much like any other profession. The exposure we are getting to design in our class is just scratching the surface.

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