User Experience Approach: Sketching

Up until a few months ago I was a User Experience Consultant (I just changed jobs). In my past I’ve done a wide-range of work, typically working with clients on IA and strategy, sometimes weaving in my background in web analytics to define great user experiences. Now (the new job) I’m a product manager overseeing a diverse range of online, mobile and telephone banking products used by Canadian credit unions.

Like many in this field, I come from a diverse background. I’ve been a musician, worked in publishing (retail and trade), survived the dot-com, was in banking, taught at VFS, work as a consultant, did heavy lifting with a number of agencies and am now back in banking.

As Bill Buxton (author of Sketching User Experience says “sketching is an essential part of the process when creating new products”. Yet many of us don’t draw, sketch, or play when creating user experiences – especially with clients. I think it’s time for a change.

Looking back on my work over the past few years a few trends emerged:

  • The proliferation of tools, especially for IAs made it easier to work on deliverables and began to draw us away from more hands-on approaches
  • A lot of my work was beginning to be done in isolation. While I’d go to meetings and often work with stakeholders to flush out requirements, my “actual” work was back at my desk producing deliverables (like sitemaps, wireframes, and documents) by myself or with internal members of the team. Clients also felt a bit isolated from the experience of creating, collaborating on solutions.
  • And often felt polished concepts meant it was too late to add feedback/comments or make changes. When we did get feedback, the quality of feedback from those reviewing work was declining. As Kate Rudder from Adaptive Path points out, you need to match the fidelity of the artifact with the nature of the feedback you are looking for. (e.g. High fidelity = detailed/low-level feedback, Low fidelity = High-level feedback)
  • The time involved in re-tooling work already done was eating into project budgets unnecessarily and could be better spent getting the right solution the first time in a more agile way, rather than through iteration after iteration of wireframes.

So I changed my approach and moved back to low tech approaches like sketching.

This was nothing new, interestingly many others have been returning to low fidelity like Dan Roam (Back of the Napkin), Adaptive Path with their SketchBoards and Dave Gray from XPLANE.

So Why Don’t We Draw?

Recently I was watching a TED talk on creativity and play from Tim Brown, the CEO at IDEO. He shared a story about Bob McKimm who once was the head of the Stanford design program and an exercise he would do with his students to evaluate their creativity. I found it compelling as it spoke a lot to “why” we often don’t draw and think creatively and the impact these closed approaches have our work as user experience folks – be it an IA, Designer, Consultant, etc.

What McKimm learned is that we, especially as adults, fear the judgment of peers and that fear causes us to be conservative in our thinking. We self-edit and hold back when being creative.

So, when drawing with clients, the first thing you have to get over is your own fears. Second, you need to help your clients get over their fears.

The tools to become less fearful of drawing and sketching are simple: learn the basics, practice and just do it.

Why Draw?

It’s faster. People get through visual ideas faster. It helps improve communication. Pictures help communicate a more complete idea and can help get everyone involved thinking the same way and moving together in the same direction. It also results in designs that better reflect needs; and the skills and resources needed are minimal compared to other methods.

Did you know kids spend more than 50% of their time playing?

This is how they learn. They toy around, try out ideas and explore the world around them. You should too.

My approach to sketching User Experience

The 4 P’s:

  • Paper. Lots of it. Big rolls, feel OK using it up.
  • Pens. I prefer sharpies, big markers or chalk because they are big strokes and keep you from getting into detail too quickly.
  • People.
  • Place.

The rules:

  • Define the goal. Write it down somewhere (top of the page is fine). Define the goals for what you are drawing. What’s it here to do? What role does this page/drawing play within the larger context? Having a goal will help keep you on track and when you think you’re done you can step back afterwards and ensure you haven’t missed anything.
  • Create a list. List the information you want to include. Resist the temptation to edit. Ask questions like how does one get here? Where would one go from here?
  • Define priority. Define the priority of information. Is it big? Small? Top? Bottom? Just draw boxes to show the priority and where things will be.
  • Flush out the detail. Once you have the priority defined, piece-by-piece flush out the detail. Don’t be afraid to come to conclusions and keep the ideas you’ve come up with so you don’t lose any great ideas, can always go back if the final approach doesn’t work out.
  • Validate your thinking with some scenarios. Walk in the user’s moccasins.
  • Have fun. Really. Stop being so serious.

A few other tricks.

Look out for patterns. As you work on your project you’ll start to see patterns emerge. Leverage these patterns to speed up future work, validate your thinking, spot inconsistencies and help you make decisions about which way to go.

Draw on sticky notes. You can then re-use elements in layouts without erasing or having to re-draw.

Scan your drawings. Get a sheet fed scanner and save to PDF. Post on your extranet/intranet/wiki and share across your teams. It’s a great way to share what you’ve done with your clients too.

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