Sketching User Experiences (2)- Bill Buxton

Bill Buxton defines “best practices” in designing for user experiences as a combination of both methods and skills relating to ideation: sketching, testing and problem-solving. He emphasizes the importance of fluency, which for him is paramount to building a strong design team that understands each others’ practices and specialized languages. Mastering historical knowledge provides a kind of common ground on which team members can build up trust and a shared literacy. However, he points out that for every new perspective of design practice there is a need for a new educational structure as well, because to enable collaboration between designers, engineers, marketers, there must be a basic shared literacy amongst all of the members of the team.

The author outlines 10 (incremental) levels of experience and responsibility in learning, based on Gibbons and Hopkins(1980): stimulated, spectator, exploratory, analytical, generative, challenge, competence, mastery, personal growth, and social growth. “Knowing how to use them appropriately in design is where the artistry and technique come in.” (2007:233)

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

[O]ur purpose: […] is to experience interactive systems, before they are real, even before we have arrived at their final design, much less their implementation.” (2007:239)

Buxton proposes low fidelity prototyping with high fidelity user experience versus high fidelity prototyping and mediocre experience. In other words, while aesthetics are important in the design of a product or interface, they are far less valuable for a user’s experience than are the functions and available cues it offers. Sketching or quickly prototyping a system will help designers, on the one hand, feel less attached to their first solution and hence more inclined to make modifications based on their test results, and will, on the other hand, provide users (participants) with an experience that is largely affected by what the system does rather than what it might look like (since it is low fidelity).

The Wizard of Oz Technique involves testing a prototypical sketch of initial and unfinished ideas while having one person playing the computer, in this way mocking up the user’s experience long before writing the code for the system. This helps reveal (sometimes obvious) problems existing in the design of a system and fixing them early on (while one still can).

“Smoke-and-Mirrors” is a technique used to create a kind of optical flow in an interface. This could work by combining an initial sketch with the outer frame of a computer or a hand-held device, or even applying a 3d software to mimic the transitional stages of an interface, thereby providing an illusion of a fully-functional model for a heightened user experience. The more one is able to iteratively use such techniques of sketching, assembling, and mimicking with a certain degree of fluency, the more one is able to effectively and rapidly assess a design’s strengths and weaknesses based on user experiences.

“Le Bricolage: Cobbling Things Together”

Sketching can be interactive in many unconventional ways. Probably the simplest way to describe this bricolage technique is that it is low fidelity and most often requires the ingenuity to pick up any available resources at home or at the office to create an interactive prototype. These resources may include, any types of paper, glue, some pens and markers, sticky notes, a camera, a tape recorder, etc. to provide an effective and simple enough experience for a full fidelity insight into implementing quick-and-dirty concept modifications.

These three techniques invite us to think in new ways about designing systems that understand our users’ frustrations and meet our users’ needs long before the systems are actually built (or coded). As Buxton remarks, the business of design is changing, and with increasingly changing design priorities (user experience), designers are now able to find increasingly resourceful tools in their immediate surrounding to effectively visualize and test an experience. With technological advancements there is now the possibility of moving the testing grounds to the physical world, and hence to enhance experience and test results by including a contextual reality into the user experience. (2007:259)

“Visual Storytelling”

No matter how skilled of a sketcher one is, sketching can be improved through practice (of course), but the point being that sketching experiences is to include (with enough imagination) the necessary functions of a system into a working prototype: in other words the traditional notion of a sketcher need not be applied here. What is important, however, is to render realistic proportions and system requirements into the experience. The author gives the example of tracing over an image to maintain proportionate relationships between the interface and the hardware. Another example is juxtaposing a drawing with a photographed environment to provide a familiar context while keeping it rough and dynamic.

The limiting factor is your imagination, not technology or technique. There is always a way to express an idea within your means.” (2007:279)

Designing systems within our means give room to multiple iterations and approaches of a concept. To make such systems appear dynamic, Buxton suggests using a storyboard or a PowerPoint presentation to respond to user input and provide explicit feedback. While a storyboard offers a mapped experience of the system at hand, showing the entire process and its stage-transitions, a PowerPoint presentation will show a sequential frame-by-frame experience with no access to a non-linear experience (return button, click another link, etc.). In his opinion, they are both useful experiences and can amount to different plausible results. The emphasis, however, is put upon a sketcher’s ability to provide an adequate number of transitions and states for more accurate results. One useful tool would be inspired by the cinematic approach of storytelling. What storytelling offers are cues for incentive(why), motion(how), direction(where), speed(timing), which convey the properties of a system by making smart usage of the design space (adding arrows may do the trick).

Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco: 2007.


The Backtalk of Self-Generated Sketches – Gabriela Goldschmidt

“The inventive process” is an iterative process of jotting down ideas in the form of language or graphic drawings and of modifying them, reevaluating them, editing them, and so on, to transform or perfect an initial concept or solution. The result is that of an open-ended exploration towards an unpredictable, yet plausible, outcome; this outcome is informed by the iterative process of both creation and insight restructuring.

To acquire drawing skills is to be able to non-verbally communicate what would otherwise be impossible with the use of language. Drawing, it seems, is a powerful communication tool for sharing/exchanging ideas and can help one develop reasoned concepts and strategies. “One reads off the sketch more information than was invested in its making” (2003:78)

Idea-generation, the author suggests, is the process of reasoning through sketching, or put another way, it is the act of using representational skills to amount to a (or multiple) reasoned solution(s). Representational skills can be verbal/textual or graphic. This paper focuses on “sketching” as a self-generating process and a multidimensional information source. Goldschmidt describes the idea-generation process by comparing both children and designers in their way of drawing and interpreting information.

In “First Scribbles,” the author explains child behavior in sketching assignments as being inherently full of symbolic meaning. For children under the age of 3, drawing consists of a number of scribbled lines (non-representational) and angular curves (intentional and object-specific). When asked to describe their drawings, children will identify angular curves with shapes present in their immediate surrounding; the whole image, however, is without context. For older children, drawing is an object of repetition, what the author calls “preplanned representational drawings”, and which consists of standard object drawing (i.e. house, sun, etc.). When asked to represent new or unknown objects, as in children under the age of 3 the drawings are identified after the task. Hence, children will most likely draw objects that are recorded in their memory and will describe experimental shapes in terms of their immediate desires to… see mother, eat ice cream, play outside, and so forth. Goldschmidt argues that those faculties of “backtalk” (Schon, The Reflective Practitioner; that a sketch talks back or reveals or communicates feedback clues to its author) are used in design to generate new ideas and find new and meaningful directions to explore. (2003:74-78)

Sketching, in this view, then, would be a mixture of both preplanned and post-interpreted space. Goldschmidt identifies two instances in sketching that require consideration: problem space and background skills.

On the one hand, to be able to sketch a drawing that generates new perspectives and unpredictable solutions, first-and-foremost one needs to be a skilled sketcher. And to justify her point, the author admits there being different levels of fluency and different styles or types of sketching skills depending on what field in design one specializes in. Sketching, it seems, is not new. Artists begun study sketches shortly after the advent of the printing press, when paper suddenly came in abundance and were affordable and of good quality.  A skilled sketcher is, essentially, one who is able to think, experiment, and innovate; and one’s knowledge will only allow one to sketch what one can, and will hence deviate the intended representation in predictable and sometimes compromising ways.

On the other hand, accidental spatial relationships in a sketch may be a reflection of a problem space which occurs primarily due to limited resources such as the scale at which one is sketching and the proportions that the supporting surface offers. The shape of the support, it is maintained, informs the shape of what is represented.

The author notes that: ‘study sketches were called “pensieri,” meaning “thoughts” in contemporary Italian. Sketches were then […] an aid to thinking and […] their making is thinking itself.’ (2003:80) To sketch, then, is to think. She distinguishes between combinatory and restructural moves in sketching. Unlike the former, restructural moves involve using one’s insight or imagination to create new patterns of meaning: ‘ “restructuring… occurs when expert sketchers are allowed to sketch” ‘ (2003:86); that is, when they are given the flexible space to interpret information, to deviate from the source, to use different layers of information, and to generate multiple directional designs and proposals. Additionally, the author emphasizes the ability to confidently vary from hard-lined drawing to fuzzy sketch works that may enact the process of self-generated concepts.

Finally, Goldschmidt concludes that sketching in design is a dialogical relationship between the designer and his sketch (backtalk); it is the tool whereby design seeks new perspectives of an initial idea and defines new concepts and solutions to a given problem.

Goldschmidt, Gabriela. “The Backtalk of Self-Generated Sketches.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Design Issues: Volume 19, Number 1 Winter 2003