Review: Sketching User Experiences

As did many cities, London chose Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences as the subject of the inaugural UX Book Club. I kicked off the discussion with my take on the book, and have hence decided to transform my notes into a written review for the benefit of anyone not present.

I found Sketching User Experiences to be an intelligent, far-reaching book that expanded my horizons but also left me somewhat frustrated. Buxton uses an inverted pyramid style, beginning broad and narrowing as he goes. This splits the book into what I felt were three sections (although Buxton himself declares only two parts: Design as Dreamcatcher andStories of Methods and Madness).

The first section, an analysis of the role of design, innovation and its business ecosystem, is to my mind the strongest. The ubiquitous iPod example surfaces early, but Buxton finds a way to inject this familiar narrative with fresh interest, by focusing on design strategy, acquisitions versus innovation, and the fundamental need for companies to create new stuff (faintly reminiscent of Marty Neumaier’s Zag). Buxton also elegantly dispels the myth that we cannot predict the future, demonstrating by historical example that supposedly new technologies typically have a minimum twenty year adoption curve.

The book then narrows to a discussion of process, asserting that “sketching is the one common action of designers”. I initially struggled with this definition, feeling it focused too much on visual output rather than our cognitive process. However, it soon becomes clear that Buxton isn’t interested so much in the sketch as artefact, but in sketching as an activity and a gerund. This culminates in his strongest chapter Clarity is not always the path to enlightenment which describes how sketching acts as a social object; the product of thought but also the catalyst for fresh ideas.

Sadly, from here, the book’s relevance declines. Examples and methods illustrated towards the end, while interesting, are clearly academic in their origin. As such, they may be fine for an M.A. project but, despite protestations of low overheads, they aren’t suitable for the fixed budgets and quick turnaround of agency user experience design. The latter sections are therefore at their best when they focus on simpler techniques. Chapters on tracing and photographs to as aids to sketching, and a convincing chapter on storytelling stand out.

I also remain unconvinced by the book’s overall stance. Buxton is a wonderfully knowledgeable author but his strong opinions often make Sketching User Experiences a paean to what I see as elitist practice. Big design up-front is regularly reinforced as the only worthwhile approach:

“Jumping in and immediately starting to build the product… is almost guaranteed to produce a mediocre product in which there is little innovation or market differentiation” (p141)

As a known Agile sympathiser, I have had Sketching User Experiences used as a weapon against me (“that’s not how Buxton says we do it”) and I found this narrow view hard to reconcile with my personal design ideology.

There are also small doses of intellectual arrogance that diminish the book’s impact. At the end of an unrealistic chapter on physical prototyping, Buxton asserts that any qualified interaction designer should be able to replicate this example in under thirty minutes. It’s a claim that begs the question of whether Buxton, or indeed anyone, has earned the right to impose their view of interaction design upon our community. The net result is that, although the book certainly helps designers, I’m not sure it helps the cause of design.

These ideological quibbles aside, I do recommend Sketching User Experiences. It was a strong choice for a book club and provided some good discussion points. It has also motivated me to draw more, to buy new Moleskines, improve the visibility of my sketching and sketches, focus on stories as important design tools, and to watch The Wizard Of Oz (you’ll see).

Cennydd Bowles