Bill Buxton : Sketching versus Sketchiness, what’s the difference for UX design?

[Infragistics] Joel Eden / Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Buxton gave a nice talk at Princeton University, and a bunch of us from Infragistics attended. Bill is a great speaker and each talk he gives is different, based on where the talk is, usually covering just a little piece of his experience, and usually only covering content from just a few of the chapters in his book, Sketching User Experiences. I recommend checking out this list of online talks of his, which includes this recent Princeton talk.


In this blog post, I wanted to briefly discuss what I think is one of his most interesting points, the idea of sketching versus sketchiness. A coworker of mine recently read Buxton’s book on my recommendation and had this interesting comment for me after finishing the book, “his book isn’t about sketching…I thought from the title it would be about sketching…it’s all about user experience design.” What an interesting comment. I think that as soon as people see the word “Sketching” in the title, “Sketching User Experiences,” it’s safe to assume that this book by this well known “designer” is going to be about artistic sketches and how to use them when designing to make cool pictures of design ideas; many of us who don’t feel that we have inherent, or learned artistic skills probably shy away from this, or at least think this isn’t for us, because we can’t draw well.


Well, what Buxton is talking about isn’t sketching in the artistic, or graphic arts sense (he even says he can’t draw well himself!). He’s talking about the concept of “sketchiness.” So how is this different from sketching? A sketch is a quick, not too thought out, doodle of a concept, and we know that when we are done doodling, we’re likely to just throw away the paper, or napkin that it’s drawn on. Sketching is a great way to work through lots of ideas quickly, without putting too much effort into creating high fidelity versions of whatever the idea is.


Sketchiness is all about using this same idea of low fidelity, throwaway representations of ideas more conceptually, regardless of the materials we are working in. Sketchiness is part mindset, part design process. Experience prototypes, clay models, mockups of buildings, UI wireframes, and of course quick paper sketches can all be sketchy. The important idea is that we are getting ideas out quickly and in great numbers. When we’re creating something with sketchiness, it should be easy to tell that it’s not done, i.e. that it invites critique. Usually, the creator of the sketched out idea isn’t even too sure of many aspects of the idea; only through making an external representation of the idea, does the idea become more complete. Buxton talks about the power of ambiguity in sketches; with the proper holes still unfilled in a sketched idea, interpretation is necessary. This interpretation is necessary not only by someone seeing a design idea for the first time, but also by the person who created it. This ambiguity is a by product of taking a rapid, sketchy mindset when quickly putting out ideas, that leads even the creator of a sketch to get new ideas when looking at it over time. A high fidelity UI mockup on the other hand does not invite critique or (re)interpretation; it instead says “I’m full of finished, mature ideas…I’m done.”


I mentioned that one of the keys to sketchiness in design thinking is rapid creation of lots of ideas. Someone once said that the way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas. Buxton is really big on the idea that when designing, you should have at least 5 alternative ideas, or solutions for any given problem, even smallish problems; and you need to be equally vested in each of these 5 ideas…i.e. no cheating by creating one idea you like, and then four more quick ones just to have a total of five. One of the reasons is that part of a good design process is having others critique your ideas, and using the results of these critiques to break apart the ideas, keep certain pieces of each, and then finally synthesize them back together to repeat the whole process (this is a brief version of what “design thinking” is).


Therefore sketchiness is key to design thinking. In order to create lots of alternative designs for a given problem, we need to create sketchy solutions. We want them to invite critique from others. If the ideas look too finished, people will be less likely to critique them. Or if you have only one idea, especially if you spent too much time on it, critiques of this single idea become more of a critique of you the designer,and it becomes too personal. Instead, having lots of sketchy ideas invites critique, and says you the designer won’t take it personal.


For more on this, be sure to check out Buxton’s site and book…for a great section on sketchiness, and the power of ambiguity in sketchy designs, see the chapter titled “Clarity is not always the path to enlightenment” (pages 115-119) in his book.