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“Sketching User Experience,” and studying ITP students

“Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design,” by Bill Buxton, was really a great read. It was to the point, had well issued pictures and diagrams, and felt like more of a conversation about what the author has found the best methods for design to be. I chose this book because it deals directly with what I’m interested in spending my time at ITP doing, that is, not only creating interactive systems/objects, but more importantly, studying the PROCESS of creating your own interface.

Two points hit home for me, the first being that sketching is just as important in interactive design as it is with any other design form, and the second being that interactive designers should fake it as much as possible.

I have never been much with a pen and paper. My older sister was always better than me in the visuals arts, so as a frustrated little brother I stuck to music. Towards the beginning of the book, when the author began discussing the merits of sketching and becoming accustomed to drawing, my instinct was to reject his claims. However, like myself, he admits to his shortcomings with a pen, and instead discussed the importance of sketching as a representation of ideas, rather than visuals.

While these two approaches seem similar, the author dove into the very nature of sketching, and how even the form of a sketch forces different attitudes towards the idea. For example, when an idea is only just beginning to take shape, the author stresses making sketches very quickly, with little detail other than the basic outlines and features. This allows the onlooker to see it is a rough draft, instead of a finished idea, leaving room for it to grow and evolve into something else. This can then be applied to the work we do at ITP, where ideas need to be “sketched” as fast as possible, also called rapid prototyping. Building something with wires sticking out, covered in duct-tape, allows people to not hold back their opinions and not be afraid of hurting the designer’s ego, because their is obviously still room to work.

The author also goes to great length in discussing the importance of sharing your sketches with other designers, and keeping them on display so that others may feed off of them and help out with your ideas. He writes about how different offices have display panels that show people’s sketches, and one’s cubicle walls would be covered with working sketching and ideas, so that those passing by could ask about them.

This is something that ITP is both very good at yet lacking in some ways. Students are always on the floor, working on this and that, and through conversations you are able to understand what someone is trying to do. If I don’t know the student well, or I just see projects lying around in disarray, I have little to no idea what is going on with them. The blog posts and blog aggregating are certainly a way of alleviating this separation, but student’s projects still feel rather isolated within that class or group of friends. I don’t have a solution to how ITP could make this better

The other side of the book I enjoyed, which goes hand-in-hand with the author’s point on sketching, is that when ever possible, the designer should fake it. That is, while a desired tool or application may not be possible, one can create the illusion of it with some fancy work. The example he uses is how car designers wanted a way to interact with a real-size 3D model of a car they were designing. They were originally thinking of using augmented reality and 3D-goggles and the like, but instead, the author put an iPad on a rotating stand, with the screen always facing out and camera facing inwards. The stand was like a large, double-jointed, microphone stand, so that the area covered by the iPad was roughly the size of a car. The image inside the iPad was then the 3D model of the car, almost as if the user was looking inside a window, showing them an invisible car in the room with them. This, the author says, is faking it.

I love this. There are so many ideas flying around on the floor, and most of them seem rather improbable. Some of my favorite projects are when a student takes one of these ideas, and creates the illusion of its existence, almost like a magic trick. It was said in applications a while back, when the presenter was speaking about interfaces in sci-fi movies, that we should maybe be looking away from sci-fi, and instead towards magic and fantasy stories for our inspiration.

For their final project in P-Comp, Adam and Surya created a story-generating thing, where the user selects pictures to prompt the device to create a story from the pictures. Creating an algorithm that coherently writes stories from pictures might be too much for a P-Comp final, so they had someone sitting in another room writing them in real time, without telling the user. Pretty funny stuff.

6 comments to “Sketching User Experience,” and studying ITP students

  • Ben Kauffman

    Andy, I think there’s a strong connection between your two ideas of sketching and “faking it.” In fact you nailed it on the head with, “This allows the onlooker to see it is a rough draft, instead of a finished idea, leaving room for it to grow and evolve into something else.”

    I think both sketching and giving something only the illusion of functionality release the project from the pressure of “working,” or being “good.” It sounds crazy to say that, because of course you want your thing to at least work and hopefully be good, but being free of those constraints actually allow you to focus on the idea and the design, the “why” more than the “how”.

    On the one hand, ITP is really good at fostering this kind of atmosphere. Professors repeat these tropes often. On the other hand, I don’t know about everyone else, but I also feel there’s an unspoken pressure from the student body for things to be “good,” “cool,” or polished. This is human nature and its fine for the most part, but its good to remind yourself what we’re actually here to be doing: “…studying the PROCESS of creating.”

  • Nancy

    Sketching is another way of thinking. Forget about cool, good and polished.. IT’s the first step in making. It’s not about being good in ‘art’. No one looking for Rembrandt. Same with writing… The more ways you can represent something to yourself the more you will understand it. Also sketches can be for ideas as well as things. About interactions.About rapid prototyping…

  • Yang Wang

    Like Nancy said, this is a preference thing. However, as you mentioned, what ITP lack of, I still have some words to say. We all know that the big difference from ITP to other art school’s interactive program is we have more engineers and programmers, less designers, this is good, this makes ITP to be more technical and cooler. But behind this I realized something absence, humanism, this is a far away from your point – visual ideas or something similar. But yes, that’s what i complain, not only humanism, actually, ITP need more product which need for more concerning about design for its functions or appearance. Perhaps my feeling is just come from some wrong observations, but I will still keep it.

  • Yang Wang

    And back to your point, I recommend everyone in ITP to bring a small notebook and a pencil with them everywhere, sometimes, especially during communication, draw a few lines are much more clear than say a hundred of words. A good design work are not one-time achieved, it must go through several steps, more and more modifications, and finally, you get it. When you get a good idea from your head, you will be careful for that because you will be dominated by passion and maybe your idea could be better after some optimizable change, I know this is not a good way for artistic creating, but if you want to create a amazing design work, you need to claim down and think more about it, draw some sketches and sharing with you partners who come form different background.

  • jz1149

    Sketching is really an excellent way to quickly explore concepts. We could sketch for one or two hours and work out multiple possible solutions to the design problem at hand. This is an essential step in the design process. I found it really save my time to work through concepts on paper before going to the computer. While it is possible to build sketches on the computer, it’s not as fast as sketching multiple concepts on paper.

  • Peiqi "Su"

    Cannot agree more with Yang. From my several years experiences in design, the paper note book and the pencil are always the best friends of designers.

    Some one may argue that laptops or tablets are lighter, smarter and more convenient because they offers opportunity to modify and organize all sketches including multimedia ones. However, from my point of view, the experience of the friction created between the nib and the paper, and between the hand and the paper makes huge difference. Because the texture of paper and pencil is much richer than a cold glass screen. In this way, our brain could receive more stimulation, which is precious for the process of creativity.

    I found a way to combine both advantages of the paper and the computer: take pictures of your sketch book. Then you could be able to enjoy both the experience of sketching and the convenience of digital world. I did this for 2 years, and it works pretty well. Hope everyone enjoy sketching in digital world!