Book Review: Sketching User Experiences

Sketching User Experiences cover

Review by Leo Frishberg

Published: October 22, 2007

Author: Bill Buxton

Publisher: Morgan Kaufmann (Elsevier, Inc.)

Publication date: 2007

Format: Paperback; 7 1/2 X 9 1/4 in; 448 pages

ISBN: 0-12-373037-1

List price: $49.95

Overview

Sketching User Experiences is a rambling stream of consciousness through Bill Buxton’s head—spanning a treatise on the role of design in business, a history lesson on sketching, and an analysis of specific design solutions. The topics—shifting gently—are often intriguing, and their overall trajectory is completely unpredictable. As, in my current professional context, I am struggling with communicating the power, strategic importance, and benefits of design to the business, I was extraordinarily pleased to find the book speaking about these very topics. You wouldn’t know that you’d find this information in the book from reading the cover or even the first 100 pages.

Organization 4 stars
Content 5 stars
Copyediting 2 stars
Illustrations 5 stars
Book Design 3 stars

With Buxton’s casual style and the nearly complete lack of self-promotion in his book, it’s easy to forget Buxton is one of the leading researchers in design. I picked up my copy of the book at the CHI 2007 conference, where I had a chance to chat with Buxton while he signed a seemingly never-ending stream of newly purchased books. His meandering conversational style is not limited to his writing. Buxton is intrigued by many things—one interest leading quickly to another, in a richly interwoven web of associations.

Buxton’s penchant for free association comes through in Sketching User Experiences. I was initially put off by the unevenness of the writing—at all levels, from specific grammar to topic shifts within a chapter to entire sections of chapters in the overall flow. It isn’t until page 111 that he actually defines sketching and introduces the primary theses for his book. Over the first 100 pages, he meanders through a wide range of ideas, entertaining and regaling us with anecdotes seemingly unrelated to any one idea.

Reading this book was much like reading good speculative fiction—the initial chapters peppered with the vocabulary of an alien race that the reader must master before the rest of the book makes sense.

The book is dense. With its 8-point font, each page is packed with text. Good light and good eyes or a strong set of reading glasses—or in my case all three—are necessary. Thankfully, wonderful imagery accompanies the text—full-color photographs, renderings, and per the title, a multitude of sketches, including online video snippets that show the time-based elements of Buxton’s ideas. To improve the book’s readability, Buxton has kept each section brief. I felt I was making progress even though I was still only a short way into the book. Sections the author calls “sidebars” further break up the density of the copy. These sidebars are saturated marigold-yellow pages, with examples or topics relating to a chapter’s main themes.

On reflection, I have only one major disappointment with Sketching User Experiences: I want to share Buxton’s insights with my management team, but I know they won’t have the time or patience to wade through the book.

Organization

Sketching User Experiences has two primary parts—plus a preface, coda, and reference section. In addition, Elsevier hosts 28 video snippets on its Web site. Here are the parts and chapters Buxton has included in the book:

Preface

Buxton foreshadows our experience with the rest of the book—not only through his informal writing style, but in the wide-ranging topics and examples he uses to discuss his notions about the book and its intended uses and audiences. He says that the book is neither a textbook nor a cookbook, but both teachers and design managers could find it useful.

Part I: Design as Dreamcatcher

“The 22 chapters do indeed cover a broad landscape—subjectively, as a river incrementally covers a landscape over time—not objectively, like a cartographer with a rational grid and a 10,000-foot view.”

Part I of the book, suggests Buxton, “lays the foundation. It talks about the current state of design, as well as much of the underlying belief system that drive my thoughts on experience design.” The 22 chapters do indeed cover a broad landscape—subjectively, as a river incrementally covers a landscape over time—not objectively, like a cartographer with a rational grid and a 10,000-foot view.

The effect is both challenging to the reader and ultimately quite satisfying. Challenging in that it forces the reader to accept on faith that Buxton will ultimately make some point, even as his first turns and twists don’t seem to add up to anything. Satisfying, because as the dots connect and an overall impression settles into view, it is all the more compelling, because we were witness to the details of its formation all along the way.

The evident depth of research, references, and source material Buxton brings to his discussion add to the reader’s satisfaction. He doesn’t make off-the-cuff propositions or engage in frivolous flights of fancy. Each thought springs from a concrete example, documented with extensive photographs, design sketches from their sources, and references to others in the field. Buxton’s obvious depth of experience, along with his openness in referring to the work of other practitioners and academics improves the legitimacy of his arguments.

  • Design for the Wild

Introducing the life-saving attributes of good design, applied to products as diverse as high-tech avalanche safety gear and intricately carved Ammassalik wooden maps, Buxton suggests, “The only way to engineer the future tomorrow is to have lived in it yesterday.”

  • Case Study: Apple, Design, and Business

This is a spectacular analysis of the re-emergence of Apple 2.0 under Jobs. Several pages of charts overlaying Apple stock prices with product introductions are alone worth the price of the book.

  • The Bossy Rule

An overview of the diminishing law of returns from n+1 product introductions—making incremental improvements to legacy products is an unsustainable strategy for long-term company health.

  • A Snapshot of Today

How Adobe’s historic strategy of mergers and acquisitions, while reasonably successful in their case, is not a sustainable strategy for most companies, most of the time. Buxton calls for “an explicit and distinct design process.”

  • The Role of Design

Buxton introduces his model of design’s role in the overall product development process, where Design is Phase 0, Engineering is Phase 1, and Sales is Phase 2.

  • A Sketch of the Process

Further fleshing out his product development process, Buxton provides a richer understanding of the roles of each discipline—Design, Engineering, and Sales—during the three phases.

  • The Cycle of Innovation

Buxton gives Trek’s Y-Bike as a case study, showing how successful design can reinvigorate a mature and stagnant market.

  • The Question of Design

Sidestepping the slippery slope of defining design, Buxton takes to task Donald Norman’s controversial statement, “We are all designers.” Rather than explicitly defining design, Buxton suggests one of its main activities is sketching. By carefully analyzing sketching, we can gain deeper insights into design.

  • The Anatomy of Sketching

A history of sketching as a design activity. Buxton introduces ten attributes of sketching that distinguish it from other forms of design expression.

  • Clarity is Not always the Path to Enlightenment

Sketching must be ambiguous, for its true power of expression is in its ambiguity. Buxton ends this chapter with nine emphatic, boldfaced statements that underscore the importance of sketching to the design process and the design “way of thinking.”

  • The Larger Family of Renderings

A brief taxonomy of drawing types, from sketches to “Description Drawing.”

  • Experience Design vs. Interface Design

A wonderful chapter focusing on Buxton’s very personal experiences with orange juicers. He ends the chapter with this great conclusion: “If it takes this much effort and detail to achieve this standard of quality with such relatively simple things as juicers, why would we expect to get a similar quality experience from our new-world information appliances, without likewise adopting very explicit and deliberate processes directed at doing so?”

  • Sketching Interaction

Buxton proposes a method for sketching interactions is necessary and necessarily different from traditional forms of pencil-and-paper sketches. Whatever form it takes, it must address the notion of time.

  • Sketches Are Not Prototypes

Adamantly defending the notion that a sketch is not a prototype, Buxton sees the two as on a single continuum. One of the key metrics he uses in distinguishing the two forms of expression is the timeframe in which each activity occurs—during early exploration, sketching; later in the design phase, prototyping.

  • Where Is the User in All of This?

A one-page chapter reminds us that the user remains at the center.

  • You Make That Sound Like a Negative Thing

Buxton distinguishes between generative processes, in which the number of choices increases, and evaluative processes, in which the number decreases. Both are inherently creative. And both are required parts of the process he outlines.

  • If Someone Made a Sketch in the Forest and Nobody Saw It…

“Sketches are social things.” Sketching is an activity among designers, not just for the individual. This chapter looks at the Portfolio Wall, a technology that lets designers work collaboratively—“a first generation corkboard.”

  • The Object of Sharing

Buxton extends the notion of the shared experience of design to 3-D objects, showcasing the Techbox, CoWall, and Cabinet.

  • Annotation: Sketching on Sketches

How can we sketch as effectively on the electronic media we use for design as we did on paper? One possibility is highlighted: the Boom Chameleon. The accompanying video provides a nice demonstration of the technology.

  • Design Thinking and Ecology

Buxton takes a moment to reflect on the prior 19 chapters, providing a map to the curves and switchbacks of his thinking. Sketching as a design practice must also respect the dozens of disciplines with which design interacts. Design is part of a larger development ecology.

  • The Second Worst Thing That Can Happen

Why success is the second worst thing that can happen to a new product. This chapter provides the keystone to Buxton’s design process: The things we design are 10 years in the future; the technologies on which they will depend have already been invented—perhaps as long as 10 years ago.

  • A River Runs Through It

Capping Part 1, Buxton suggests that creativity is not the sole provenance of design: “It takes even more creativity to productize a good idea than it does to have the idea in the first place.”

Part II: Stories of Methods and Madness

“The second part of the book focuses on specific techniques and tools designers use.”

As its name suggests, the second part of the book focuses on specific techniques and tools designers use.

  • From Thinking On to Acting On

Buxton tells us why he has chosen to discuss best practices. This chapter is as much for business managers as it is for experienced designers. For the business manager, Buxton provides insight into how design thinking differs from other disciplines in an organization. For designers, he underscores the need to step back and consider the theoretical foundations of design thinking.

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz method: While it is well known to UX professionals, Buxton points out that several international reviewers weren’t familiar with the original reference!

  • Chameleon: From Wizardry to Smoke-and-Mirrors

The tried-and-true technique of using smoke and mirrors to simulate the real thing. It’s the experience that matters, not the artifact itself.

  • Le Bricolage: Cobbling Things Together

In discussing the Video Whiteboard—a remote whiteboarding technique—Buxton brings us rapidly through several possible ways of simulating the experience, focusing on a method he finds elegant.

  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

Buxton reveals that sketching, or using visual media, might limit the design professional too early to notions of form. Storytelling is perhaps the archetypal form of sketching. Letting the reader’s mind fill in the blanks reduces the designer’s tendency to commit to form too soon. Buxton spends considerable time discussing notions of subjective immersion in the world of the user—personal ethnographic experiences. He completes the chapter with key components of a theatrical production suitable for immersive storytelling.

  • Visual Story Telling

Create hand-drawn sketches on digital photographs. Add notes to sketches. Do what it takes to practice your drawing skills! The more important point Buxton makes is that it is relatively easy to sketch an artifact, but it is almost impossible to sketch the interaction with the artifact. He suggests several approaches to the latter, while underscoring the need for such visual storytelling.

  • Simple Animation

As the name implies, this chapter focuses on simple animation techniques, but even simple can be complicated. Buxton warns that creating an animation can pull a designer into something far different from the definition of sketching he wants to promote.

  • Shoot the Mime

Shoot in this case means videotape. Videotape an individual miming the interactions he would perform with a simple animation a designer has created using the techniques from the prior chapter.

  • Sketch-a-Move

An example of video sketching to illustrate a novel children’s toy: a car that travels in the pattern a child draws on its roof.

  • Extending Interaction: Real and Illusion

An example of extending the video process through cuts that communicate seemingly seamless transitions.

  • The Bifocal Display

A circa 1983 solution to the limitations of a text-only display. The designers created a means of simulating a fish-eye lens, using matte board, wooden dowels, and a video camera.

  • Video Envisionment

The construction of entire proposed engagements is the logical extension of the previous video methods. Buxton refers to the classic video “Office of the Professional,” which shows many technologies in a complete day-in-the-life narrative of a hypothetical office. Buxton ends the chapter with the warning that envisionment videos are no longer sketches when they take on a life of their own—communicating a marketing story rather than an exploratory proposal.

  • Interacting with Paper

Returning to paper as a means of sketching interactions in a detailed discussion of several techniques of paper prototyping—or as Buxton prefers to call them, paper interfaces—Buxton underscores the point that a sketch is as much about its aesthetic rendering as it is about its purpose. If a designer uses a light-weight process to explore a concept, it’s likely a sketch. If an artifact represents a more detailed exploration of a user interaction, it might be a prototype.

  • Are You Talking to Me?

Buxton reveals a flaw in one of his studies that illustrates the need for multi-channel communication: Some users provide feedback verbally; others, through drawing.

  • Recapitulation and Coda

Buxton circles around, sharing a little of industrial design’s history and some philosophical considerations.

  • Some Final Thoughts

Buxton shares his nightmare scenarios for the book’s reception, expressing his concern about disappointing the varied audiences for whom he wrote the book. So much of what Buxton presents is new, he can’t provide CEOs, individual designers, or product development teams with many examples of his approaches in practice. This final section sums up many of Buxton’s philosophical tenets.

References and Bibliography

The Bibliography comprises 13 pages; the Index, 7 pages—both in a very tiny font.

Content

“Each chapter in Sketching User Experiences could rightly stand alone, much like a collection of independent articles or, more relevantly, entries in a personal design journal.”

Each chapter in Sketching User Experiences could rightly stand alone, much like a collection of independent articles or, more relevantly, entries in a personal design journal. The general lack of immediate coherency between one chapter and the next does not reduce the power of the points Buxton makes. The chapters are like a plate of after-dinner confections—rich chocolate truffles, all equally dense, with radically different flavors.

Much of the book is sketchy. Buxton’s ideas do not rigorously build upon one another, but rather, create a sort of connect-the-dots figure—one idea linking to the next. He could have started almost anywhere and ended up with the same result. Put another way, the chapters could be rearranged without harming the macro-structure of the book.

The book’s sketchiness is not limited to its overall structure. Even the photographs of Buxton’s intimate engagements with designed objects are messy—for example, in the closeups of two of his orange juicers, juice stains are evident and as much a part of the photograph as the other details he wants to bring to our attention.

Equally sketchy are the links to the videos on the Elsevier site. Although the links are in a similar order to the chapters of the book, they appear in a nondescript list, without any annotation other than their file size and type.

Copyediting

“Buxton’s book would have benefited from at least a couple more editing cycles.”

I have come to appreciate the efforts of editors, in spite of the often painful changes they ask us to make. As I’ve become more familiar with the writing process, I understand where and when a good editor makes good writing into excellent writing.

Buxton’s book would have benefited from at least a couple more editing cycles. Numerous typos, grammatical errors, inaccuracies, and erroneous references appear throughout the book. For example, the captions for Figures 49 and 50 were particularly vexing, because they referred to drawings and figures that promised to be very interesting, but in fact, were nowhere to be found. Such cross-referencing errors abound. These are the most obvious evidence of editorial negligence.

The more difficult examples are in Buxton’s grammatically correct, but awkward sentences. In some cases, these circumlocutions are quaint—viewports into Buxton’s thinking—in others, they stretch the reader’s ability to follow his thought process. Consider Buxton’s summary of a chapter’s discussion about the effort designing a simple mechanical juicer requires:

“So, if we do decide that we want to strive for a comparable standard of experience in the products that we are designing, and therefore adopt an appropriate process for doing so, what might that process be?”

I’ve come to believe the generally poor quality of copyediting results from publishers’ lack of funding for editors for books that will likely have a short run or limited distribution.

Illustrations

“The book’s images are plentiful and fantastic.”

The book’s images are plentiful and fantastic. Everything imaginable is represented—from pencil sketches to deep, glossy photographs, 3-D computer models to technical illustrations, crude pen-and-ink diagrams to highly polished cartoons.

Buxton makes his point about sketching by example as much as through his words. Practically every page has an accompanying image, and just as importantly, the images are relevant to the copy. I greatly appreciated his positioning the illustrations adjacent to the page of related copy I was reading.

Designers, at least the ones I’m familiar with, will gain as much from “reading” the illustrations as they will from reading the text. Buxton understands his designer audience: They are more likely to flip through the book, looking at the pictures and reading the captions, than they are to read his every word.

Book Design

“The book’s design is its least successful attribute.”

Oddly, for all of the book’s discussion about design, the book’s design is its least successful attribute. I want to find out the reasons why its font is so small, why it was printed in paperback, why it has so little whitespace, and why its organization—designer’s journal—wasn’t better represented by its form.

As I ponder the forces working against the book’s success as a designed object, I can only assume it’s because of money.

If only the font were readable from 36 inches away—rather than the 20 inches at which I’m compelled to hold the book. If the pages were formatted as a designer’s journal—with significant margins or at least an interleaving of sketches within the text—the book would have been 1000 pages long rather than its mere 448. Those thousand pages would have had to be in a hardcover book—or, more likely, a few hardcovers—so rather than a single book about sketching, we would have had several tomes on the topic. How ironic that approach would have seemed—a set of very heavy hardcovers on what Buxton himself suggests is a disposable artifact.

Still, even this 448-page paperback is heavy, and I wonder how long its binding will last.

The paper stock is good, with a nice feel, a matte finish that doesn’t distract the eye from the copy or the images. The page numbering is easy to find and unobtrusive. Not so the chapter headings, however—their font is even smaller than the body text, perhaps 6 points, and their position, well within the gutter, forces me to search for them every time.

I particularly like the cover flaps—something not usually found in a paperback. I use them as built-in bookmarks. For some, that may be sacrilege, but I like the convenience and immediacy of being able to use a feature of the book itself to keep my place.

I think the sidebars throughout the book are generally well done, providing relevant examples and illustrations of Buxton’s main points. The saturated yellow almost, but not quite overpowers the copy—saved from oblivion by a larger, blacker sans serif font.

An interesting convention of the book design is the introduction of each chapter with a picture on the leading page—the page on the left. The image and caption draw my eye before I scan the copy, helping frame the purpose of the next few pages.

Conclusion

“I appreciated Buxton’s nuanced distinctions around the act of sketching itself.”

In spite of my 30 years in the field of design, I learned a lot from this book, not the least of which was the brief history of leading figures in industrial design. I was particularly pleased to see a deeper business analysis of the iPod and iMac than I had read before. So, too, I appreciated Buxton’s nuanced distinctions around the act of sketching itself. Buxton discusses the differences between sketching and prototyping—a stark contrast to the discussion of prototyping put forth by the authors of the book I most recently reviewed for UXmatters, Effective Prototyping for Software Makers, who made the case that most acts of exposition are prototypes.

I really enjoyed Buxton’s quick eddies into specific product designs such as the Y-Bike Mountain Bike and the very personal stories about his orange juicers. In addition to being building blocks for his larger theses, these stories were entertaining and easy to follow.

I am grateful Buxton has approached his arguments about the importance of design from the perspective of a business manager. His depth of experience, his obvious passion for the power of design, and his knowledge of his topics establish authority. And the examples he uses should resonate with most business managers looking for the next big thing—so long as they are willing to take the time and effort to work through the book.

What Sketching User Experiences lacks in precision, it makes up for in broad brushstrokes. Should I have expected anything different from a designer’s sketchbook?

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