After reading Bill Buxton’s book “Sketching User Experiences” , I have been thinking a lot about what design is. Design is a nebulous term that can be interpreted differently by different people. Graphic artists design logos, brands and advertisements. User experience professionals design information architectures, user interfaces, storyboards and task flows. Industrial designers and architects design physical products. Software engineers design data structures, algorithms, and software classes. We even refer to how we arrange our living spaces as “interior design”. The word “design” has been used to describe all of the previous activities, yet I’m not sure we are using the term correctly in these contexts.
There are a lot of activities we engage in as user experience professionals. Usability testing and contextual inquiry are inputs we use to inform the design process: inputs because these are not design activities themselves. These activities certainly inform and guide design direction, but they do not create an actual product. So what do we mean by the term “design”, and what does “designing” look like in the context of “user centered design”?
Should we even be limiting ourselves to “user centered design”? There are other equally valid design paradigms, such as activity centered design (Don Norman, “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful “) and “genius” design (Dan Saffer, “Designing for Interaction“ ) that are used to make successful products everyday. Activity centered design is a process where the activity (i.e., wash the clothes, watch a dvd) drives the design process as opposed to a user task driving the process. Genius design is a process where the skill and knowledge of the designer drives the design process. We often tout the Apple iPod as a case for user centered design, yet there was never any user centered activities involved in creating it. Apple is notorious for maintaining secrecy around unreleased products, so they don’t do user testing, user surveys, or any of the other activities normally associated with user centered design. Instead, they likely use a combination of activity centered design and “genius” design. So if user research is not the silver bullet for creating successful products, what is?
The common element to the three mentioned product creation paradigms is the word “design”–the key activity that creates successful products. You can interview one hundred users and still design a poor product. How can this be? Because the craft of design is a skill in and of itself. Someone skilled in researching and understanding users is not necessarily a good designer. Also, interviewing users isn’t an activity that actually creates a product. John Kolko, interaction designer at Frog Design, stated on a panel at the Interaction 09 conference, “You aren’t designing if you aren’t making anything.” Although this statement seems to minimize the skills and relevance of people who refer to themselves as “user experience” professionals or “usability” experts, there is an air of truth to it. I can design with no user input and I still end up with a product, sometimes a great product, if the designer is “genius” enough. If I skip the step of design and only perform user research, I have no product to show for my effort.
I contend that the craft of design is the common element that is required to create great products. User experience professionals should be emphasizing design and creating more time for design activities. Often we get caught up in the inputs to design, and then leave little time for activity of design itself. I believe that a focus on design and the activities associated with the design process is an important issue and is essential to the success of a product.
Design is What We Should Be Doing
The word design can be used in either noun or verb form. The noun form of design refers to the end product that is created, whereas the verb form of design refers to the path the person or persons take to get to the end product. It is this path that separates those who are designers and those who are merely re-arranging the furniture. Design isn’t invention, innovation or creativity. It is really a way of thinking, working and being. Design is working within restraints and compromising with other outside factors.
Design is about making choices. Every product we make has a history of choices that were made to move the product to reality. The way in which we make these choices is very important to the success of our final product. We don’t explore enough of the options that ultimately make up these choices, and this is where we primarily limit ourselves in the process of design.
If we agree that design involves a series of choices, then there must be options for us to choose from within the constraints of our projects. But, how many of these options do we explore before making design choices? I believe that we explore far too few options when going through the process of design. I have seen many projects where, after user research is complete, the team comes up with a singe design direction to explore and iterate. This is inadequate and typically leads to mediocre product. A better approach is to come up with five good ideas and, through the design evaluation process, discover a sixth (or seventh or tenth!) idea that is even better. Design should be about multiples, and not about going down a single path. There are potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways to design something. If we only explore one idea, we are constraining ourselves too much and likely missing out on exploring and discovering other ideas that will lead to even better products. Once we narrow down the five or six (or 10, or whatever the number may be) good ideas, we can then make choices as to what is the best solution. From here we can go through our normal process of testing and iteration to transform this optimal solution into the best design that it can be.
Sketching vs. Prototyping
There are two things we need in order to make design decisions. First, we need something to evaluate. We need to create something that represents an idea or some part of our product so that we may be able to evaluate its effectiveness in solving our design problem. Some people may refer to these representations as prototypes. Yet, prototypes are typically higher-fidelity product representations that behave in a way that is similar to the final product. Prototypes can be resource intensive and take a long time to build, so it is usually impractical to create 5-10 prototypes for evaluation purposes. This is where sketching becomes a valuable tool in the designer’s arsenal.
When we talk about sketching, we are not just referring to pencil and paper representations. The word “sketch” can also refer to a short play or comedy skit. Both of these definitions differ in medium, but are similar in message: both are used to tell a story. If we think about sketches in this way and apply them to other mediums, we can then expand the role that sketching plays when evaluating user experiences. We can tell a story about an experience with a pencil drawing, but we can also tell it by creating and arranging physical objects, or video taping actors performing a scenario. Whatever medium we use to produce such sketches, they should always tell a story and be quick to produce.
Bill Buxton’s book addresses the differences between prototyping and sketching. Buxton explains that the differences between the two activities using a continuum. Sketches are quick mock-ups that illustrate the experience of interacting with a product or service. Sketches are used to explore possibilities, provoke thought, and suggest behavior or functionality. Sketches are best when they are ambiguous, as the ambiguity tends to generate questions and criticism from the observers of the sketch. Ultimately, the value a sketch provides is not in the sketch itself, but in the conversation, criticism and evaluation of the ideas that occur when engaging with the sketch. Creating and evaluating sketches early in the design process gives designers the ability to evaluate many design ideas in a short period of time. Ideas are cheap– a small group of people can generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. Sketching allows designers to use a visual language to explore these ideas and quickly eliminate ones that are not viable for the final product.
Prototypes differ from sketches, as they are created to demonstrate the finalized idea for the product. Prototypes answer questions and demonstrate the behavior of the product. They are not a good tool for exploring ideas because they take a lot of time and resources to create. They instead are created to show a detailed rendering of what the final product will be. Prototypes are typically not made in multiples, but they are iterated to flesh out the details of the product before it is built.
A good example of a sketch from Buxton’s book is the idea of two people in different locations collaborating on a
whiteboard. What would the experience of two people in different cities or countries collaborating on a whiteboard be like? Creating a prototype of a system like this would likely be very expensive, requiring networked whiteboards and some type of audiovisual connection. But, an easier way to represent the experience would be to have two participants writing with dry erase markers and standing on either side of a large pane of glass. The two participants can see each other, see what each person is writing, and can communicate and collaborate together. By definition, this is a sketch. It is quickly and easily created (most Accenture offices have some sort of glass pane that goes from floor to ceiling), it tells the story of the experience, and the idea can be either adopted or disposed of readily. Prototyping this experience would be very expensive, risking time and resources on an idea that might be an awkward experience for users. The sketch allows us to evaluate the experience of collaborating at a distance without the cost of prototyping it.
Once we create sketches as described above, how do we know which ideas to keep and which to throw away? We must have some criteria for evaluating sketches to determine if the ideas will ultimately solve our design problems. Creating a set of heuristics based on business goals, user research, technical constraints, etc., is essential to the sketching/evaluation process. Without this set of guidelines, we have no way of deciding which ideas are getting us closer to the end product. This is where prior design research such as requirements gathering, contextual inquiry, personas, etc. come in. From all of the information gathered from this research, we come up with a set of criteria, or heuristics, by which we can judge our sketches. Then, during the evaluation of the sketch, we can refer to the heuristics and make design choices for the product.
Making Great Products by Designing Them
Prototypes are valuable tools for testing and iterating the final product, but they are a poor tool for generating and evaluating ideas. Sketching allows us to quickly generate a large number of ideas, and heuristics give us a benchmark for evaluation of those ideas. And, sketching allows us evaluate ideas early and often with low cost and effort. The combination of sketching and evaluating sketches against a set of heuristics is a powerful combination. User experience designers should be focusing on design activities such as sketching just as much as they focus on inputs to design like user research. Design is the activity that gets us to the actual product. Focusing on the techniques and methods of design is essential to creating great products for users.
I highly recommend reading “Sketching User Experiences” by Bill Buxton. He provides some great examples of sketching and he also makes the business case for why design is so important. Companies like Apple , Zipcar and Netflix are differentiating themselves in the market by focusing on design. In the future, companies will need to focus more on design to compete in the new design focused market place. Buxton’s book is a good place to begin exploring how a focus on design can improve the products you create, and sketching is a great technique for transforming the products you design from good to great.