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.
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:
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
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.”