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Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton March 14, 2011

Posted by karimcglynn in Sketching User Experiences.

Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton is a vast collection of historical lessons, examples of best practices, and real world case studies from the world of industrial/interaction/experience design. It is a testament to the power of design as a competitive strategy, a practical field guide for applying good design processes, and an argument for the power of sketching and experiencing ideas rather than simply thinking and talking about them.

Buxton’s idea of “sketching” is broader than the traditional concept of a rough drawing. Rather, Buxton defines sketching along a continuum which he calls the “design funnel”, which starts with rough drawings (ideation stage) and increases in fidelity to the point of prototype (usability stage). Along that continuum Buxton illustrates many examples of “sketches”, including various types of drawings, 3D sculptures, storyboards, stop-motion animations, and video demos, among others.

Bill Buxton's "Design Funnel"

The central point of Buxton’s book is that there is a different level of sketch-fidelity appropriate to each stage in the design process and what you need to convey at that time. Countering the assumption that if you are going to create a depiction of an idea you will want to make it as concrete as possible, Buxton argues that making certain features of the design too visually concrete at the wrong stage can mislead team members and prematurely cut off further ideation for that feature.

Buxton’s main thesis is consistent with the increasingly popular mantra of “fail early and fail often” as a guiding strategy for any creative endeavor.  The value of his sketching methodology is in producing many low-cost sketches up front, then gradually decreasing the number of options while increasing the fidelity of each subsequent sketch.  As he points out, this methodology is consistent with Laseau’s Funnel (1980), a description of the design process as the overlap between “Elaboration” (a process for opportunity-seeking) and “Reduction” (a process for decision-making).

Laseau's Funnel

While some might find Buxton’s description of the idealized design process to be the obvious approach in a perfect world, he also provides some practical examples for how to better implement it in the real world.  One of the main messages of his book is the value that a culture of sketching can bring in the form of sharing possible solutions—an important part of the ideation and decision-making processes.  He provides several inspiring examples of how different design teams have developed spaces in which they can share their sketches and offer each other constructive feedback. Buxton emphasizes that it is important for designers to “live with their work” and discuss it, rather than waiting for formal crit sessions in order to share things.

Sketching User Experiences is an inspiring work for anyone who is interested in working as a designer, or anyone who is interested in the power of design thinking to transform business.   However, the greatest value comes from Buxton’s encyclopedic knowledge of the biggest ideas in interaction design from the past 50 years. The bibliography of this book alone is a tremendous value to anyone who wants to imagine the future of interaction design through a better understanding of its past.