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Jul 31, 2007 8:24pm

blog all dog-eared pages: sketching user experiences

Sketching User Experiences is Bill Buxton's new book arguing that the process of sketching is distinct from prototyping, and an integral part of design. Buxton opens with the canonical example of great design, Apple's iPod, to show that its "overnight" success actually came after 3+ years of development and updates, and moves on to talk about the lack of design in typical software organizations. These two topics are slightly out-of-tune with the remainder of the book, but I believe they were included to bridge the main thesis to Buxton's role as a Microsoft researcher. In particular, I like the argument for introducing an explicit design phase to the world of software development in accordance with Fred Brooks' opinion that mistakes caught early are mistakes fixed cheaply.

About 1/3rd through the book (see page 111, below), Buxton cuts to the chase with an 11-point definition of sketching as distinct from prototyping. Most importantly to Buxton, sketches are fast, cheap, and divergent. They develop quickly with only minimal detail to make a point, and are intended to communicate the essential ideas of a maximally-wide variety of design possibilities.

He also calls out the example of IDEO's Tech Box, a curated company library of technological toys and materials enabling rapid exploration and research in product design. This was the book's most explicit tie to Mike Kuniavsky's Sketching In Hardware conference series, demonstrating how the characteristics of a good sketch transcend pencil and paper.

Page 36, on wooden maps:

These are 3D wooden maps carved by the Ammassalik of east Greenland. The larger one shows the coastline, including fjords, mountains, and places where one can portage and land a kayak. The thinner lower maps represents a sequence of offshore islands. Such maps can be used inside mittens, thereby keeping the hands warm; they float if they fall in the water; they will withstand a 10 metre drop test; and there is no battery to go dead at a crucial moment.

Page 69, on the difficulty of making new things:

It suddenly occurred to me that our company was not alone in this situation. Rather, as far as I could make out, virtually ever other software company was pretty much in the same boat. After establishing their initial product, they were as bad as it as we were. When new products did come from in-house development, they were generally the result of some bandit "skunk works" rather than some formal sanctioned process (not a comforting thought if you are a shareholder or an employee). Across the board, the norm was that most new products came into being through mergers or acquisitions.

Page 73, on why:

My belief is that one of the most significant reasons for the failure of organizations to develop new software products in-house is the absence of anything that a design professional would recognize as an explicit design process. Based on my experience, here is how things work today. Someone decides that the company needs a new product that will do "X". An engineering team is then assigned to start building it. ... The only good thing about this approach is that one will never be accused of not conforming to the original design. The bad news is that this is because there is no initial design worthy of the term.

Page 76, on a suggested product development process:

Page 90, on the Trek Y-Bike:

The engineering prototype shown in Figure 28 works. If you look at the photo carefully, you will see that if you added pedals, sprockets, wheels, a chain, brakes, and handle-bars to this prototype it would be perfectly functional. You could ride it. ...it is almost certain that it would be a commercial flop. Why? Anyone can see that the bike is not complete. Not because of the missing parts, but because the design is not complete. What is obvious here with mountain bikes is not obvious with software. My impression is that what we see in Figure 28 relfects the state in which software products ship. They kind of work, but are as far from complete as this version of the bike is.

Page 108-109, some example sketches of bicycles showing speed and disposability:

Page 111, on a definition of sketching:

Quick: A sketch is quick to make, or at least gives that impression.
Timely: A sketch can be provided when needed.
Inexpensive: A sketch is cheap. Cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept, especially early in the design process.
Disposable: If you can't afford to throw it away when done, it is probably not a sketch. The investment with a sketch is in the concept, not the execution. By the way, this does not mean that they have no value, or that you always dispose of them. Rather, their value depends largely on their disposability.
Plentiful: Sketches tend not to exist in isolation. Their meaning or relevance is generally in the context of a collection or series, not an isolated rendering.
Clear vocabulary: The style in which a sketch is rendered follows certain conventions that distinguish it from other types of renderings. The style, or form, signals that it is a sketch. The way that lines extend through endpoints is an example of such a convention, or style.
Distinct gesture: There is fluidity to sketches that gives them a sense of openness and freedom. They are not tight and precise, in the sense that an engineering drawing would be, for example.
Minimal detail: Include only what is required to render the intended purpose or concept. Lawson (1997, p.242) puts it this way: "... it is usually helpful if the drawing does not show or suggest answers to questions which are not being asked at the time." Superfluous detail is almost always distracting, at best, no matter how attractive or well rendered. Going beyond "good enough" is a negative, not a positive.
Appropriate degree of refinement: By its resolution or style, a sketch should not suggest a level of refinement beyond that of the project being depicted. As Lawson expresses it, "... it seems helpful if the drawing suggests only a level of precision which corresponds to the level of certainty in the designer's mind at the time."
Suggest and explore rather than confirm: More on this later, but sketches don't "tell," they "suggest." Their value lies not in the artifact of the sketch itself, but in its ability to provide a catalyst to the desired and appropriate behaviors, conversations, and interactions.
Ambiguity: Sketches are intentionally ambiguous, and much of their value derives from their being able to be interpreted in different ways, and new relationships seen within them, even by the person who drew them.

Page 169, on the IDEO Tech Box:

It consists of hundreds of gadgets. Most are laid out on open shelf-like drawers. Some are toys, and are just there because they are clever, fun, or embody some other characteristic that may inspire, amuse, or inform (or perhaps all three). Others might be samples of materials that could be useful or relevant to future designs. ... Since the Tech Box is a kind of mini library or musem, it has someone from the studio who functions as its "curator" or "librarian." And like conventional libraries, all of the objects in the collection are tagged and catalogued so that supplementary information can be found on the studio's internal website. As an indication of how much store the company puts in having its employees have a shared set of references, there is a Tech Box in every one of their studios worldwide. Furthermore, even though anyone can add things to the collection, if you do, you must get one for the Tech Box in every on of the studios. These are circulated to the other studios by the local curator, who also makes sure that the appropriate entry is made into the associated web database.

Page 215, on the unevenly-distributed future:

Here we see the same thing. The period from concept to product is about 20 years in the industry in general, and in user interface technologies, specifically. So much for fast-changing technology! ... If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old!

Pages 350-351, on video sketches of matter duplication:

Page 413, on iconoclasm:

If you are going to break something, including a tradition, the more you understand it, the better job you can do. The same is true in classical art and design education. There are classes such as printmaking, life drawing, and water colour, whose purpose is to lay a solid foundation in technique. This underlies the complementary set of classes that focus on the content of the work - the art rather than the technique.

Page 418, in closing:

Like the word "mathematics," I think the word "future" should be pluralized, as in "futures." As long as it is singular, there is a bias toward thinking that there is only one future. That takes the emphasis, and attendant responsibilities, away from the reality that there are many possible futures, and that it is our own decisions that will determine which one we end up with.

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