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Issue 6.3


Book: Sketching User Experiences

Issue: 6.3 (March/April 2008)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 4,530
Starting Page Number: 9
Article Number: 6305
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I'll admit up front that I was skeptical about a book on design written by a Microsoft guy -- but it turns out Bill Buxton had a long career (including time at Xerox PARC in the 1970s) before he ended up at Microsoft, and he's written a remarkable, breakthrough book.

The book is not what I expected. I assumed it was about software interfaces, but it's much broader, covering any device a person might use, from personal electronics to the design of a blender. It's about shaping the user experience.

Bill's two goals are to advocate that companies think differently about design and to demonstrate the power of "sketching."

The book is full of sketching examples, from the quick line drawings you'd expect to "paper prototypes" and video sketches. Just about anything can be a sketch as long as it's quick and cheap and looks obviously unfinished.

I liken his definition of sketch to brainstorming, for the whole purpose of sketching is that it feels incomplete and unpolished, hence inviting feedback and criticism. Too many companies create actual prototypes or interfaces that are so polished people are reluctant to criticize them and key flaws are not found until late in the manufacturing/development process.

Some approaches to sketching are creative and fascinating, such as using the "Wizard of Oz" technique to cheaply simulate technology that might not even exist yet. For instance, an airline used this decades ago to test a ticket-selling kiosk at an airport -- behind the kiosk was a real person, not a computer -- and invaluable data was collected on what problems users experienced and what features such a system would be required to have.

The book is packed with fascinating illustrations and visual examples which help drive the lessons home in ways that mere explanation could not.

Unfortunately, while remarkable in insight, history, and design theory, the book occasionally feels too much like a textbook: at times it's too abstract and academic.

Another disappointment for me is that the book is focused on team design, with most of the projects being large scale items that could never be developed by a single person or small company. While that doesn't mean the information is any less valuable or applicable, you'll definitely get less from the book if you're a lone wolf developer (whom Bill criticizes).

The bottom line is that this is an important work with some innovative ideas that might revolutionize the way companies treat design. Unfortunately, some of those ideas will appeal more to historians and academics than people in the real world. However, the ideas you do glean from this tome are significant: I would encourage you to check it out and see for yourself. Though I'm not Buxton's target market, I know it has changed the way I think about certain aspects of product design -- which makes it a worthwhile read.

End of article.