Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sketching Ideas

There is an article in Business Week that discusses a new book called Sketching User Experience, by Bill Buxton (Microsoft). Although I found the article to not be particularly meaty in terms of useful information, the concept of the book did ring true for me, coming from a background in business and system analysis and based on our current practices at Balihoo.

Inline with what Clayton Christenson describes in The Innovators Solution, Bill explains that companies are often very good at N+1 - enhancements to current products, but often do a very poor job at creating the next 'N'.

When designing new products people often jump straight into building prototypes, which are typically very detailed and can be very expensive. Sketching he says is the place to start:

Sketches, he argues, are quick, inexpensive, disposable, plentiful, offer minimal detail, and suggest and explore rather than confirm. (It should be noted that he doesn't limit "sketches" to pen on paper—a sketch might be digital or three-dimensional.) The value of sketching is less in the artifacts themselves than in the cognitive process of working through dozens of ideas, of considering as many options as possible, and allowing each option to raise new questions.

In our startup we use the concept of 'sketching' extensively to support rapid development.
With 3 week development sprints we create hand-drawn GUI prototypes in preparation for development planning as well as often real time on white boards during sprint planning sessions. A few great reasons to use hand drawn mock-ups:

  • They are very fast to develop and easy to re-create.
  • There is no need for expensive tools that people will spend excessive amounts of time and energy learning and making something look perfect that will likely be out of date in a couple days.
  • People inherently will provide less suggestions and feedback, the more 'professional' looking the mock up. Rough sketches will make people more open to suggesting changes.
If you do need to keep images in soft copy, use a digital camera and take pictures of white boards, or a scanner for paper mocks. (eg - we need to post images of these online to our offshore testing team). Its not just screens - we use sketching concepts to understand and designing new business processes, data relationships, and business models.

What does sketching do for us?
  • Articulate fuzzy concepts to others (fuzzy front end)
  • Provokes more conversation, challenges, questions, and exploration
  • Translates business ideas to developer better than the written equivalent
  • Developers feel more empowered to challenge, which ultimately helps create a better product

For this to work we:
  • Have a very high 'white board to usable wall space' ratio in the office
  • Use rapid development processes that do not allow for heavy design (focus on working code)
  • promote iterative thinking - Software is like sculpting. Each iteration chips away more of the rough edges. It doesn't have to be perfect the first time.
So what about a prototype? According to Buxton, if sketching is about asking questions, prototyping is about suggesting answers. I would say, let your product be your prototype, and let you customers suggest the answers. However sketching is the place to get you started and moving.

1 comment:

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