Buxton on Sketching and Experience Design

Jared Spool

November 16th, 2006

At the recent Greater Boston SIGCHI monthly meeting, I had the chance to hear Bill Buxton speak on his ideas on Sketching and Experience Design.

His premise is an interesting one:

It’s hard to describe what design is because it crosses so many boundaries: fashion, architecture, interaction, and mechanical, to name a few.

But it’s easy to talk about what all those different types of design have in common. One thing is sketching. While a clothing designer is trained very differently from an architect or an industrial designer, they all learn to use sketches as basic starting point.

A sketch of a dress

Buxton asserted sketching was a fundamental activity to ideation. It is a quick way to play with an idea. And it communicates the proper stage of the idea to the viewers. Early, rough sketches just scream, “This is an idea! I’m not done!”

Buxton talked about a study of sketching for traditional design disciplines that showed all had common attributes:

  • They are quick to make and timely to talk about the idea
  • They are inexpensive and easy to dispose of (making designers less “wedded” to a particular idea because of investment)
  • They are plentiful (designers should bring many different ideas-as-sketches to the table, not just one)
  • They have a clear vocabulary (such as drawing through the endpoints to show the “unfinishedness” of the idea)
  • They use no higher resolution than necessary (so they don’t waste designer’s time and effort in preparation)
  • Their resolution does not suggest they are further along than they really are (to avoid giving the impression of being more done than reality)
  • They suggest and explore instead of confirming (to support ideation, instead of forcing decisions)

Buxton then suggested “Since Experience Design is a type of Design, it too must have sketching. However, traditional sketching doesn’t work well to represent interactions, so what would sketching for interactions look like?”

Ideation vs. Evaluation

Buxton suggested ideation is a different process than evaluation. In ideation, the goal is to come up with many different ideas, using each idea to suggest others. In evaluation, the goal is to narrow down the choices of ideas, honing in on the best idea. He suggested today’s usability process is evaluation, while ui design is ideation, an idea I agree with.

He made it clear that both ideation and evaluation were necessary.

“It’s like saying there are both girls and boys. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but both are required and it’s important to know the distinction.”

Ideation has to come first. You generate ideas, which you will subsequently evaluate. So, Buxton suggested that sketching has to come before prototyping.

Sketching vs. Prototyping

The attributes of each are different:

Sketch Prototype
Invitation Attendance
Suggest Describe
Question Answer
Propose Test
Destructive Constructive

The idea is you create many sketches at first, then narrow them down, until you’re ready to build your prototype to evaluate with. Because sketches are more lightweight and cheaper than prototypes, they are easy to play with and throw away. When you’ve explored the idea space sufficiently, then you eliminate ideas to a basic few, which you then prototype out with the rigor necessary to evaluate.

“It’s about making many good mistakes. I want to have brilliant mistakes.”

This was just a subset of the great ideas in the 90-minute presentation, but I thought the idea of sketching was a brilliant take on the ideation process I hadn’t heard before. (At least, not quite this way.) If you get a chance to hear Bill speak on this subject, I highly recommend it.

Update: Nick shared this link where you can watch a recording of Bill’s presentation.

15 Responses to “Buxton on Sketching and Experience Design”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    “They suggest and explore instead of confirming (to support ideation, instead of forcing decisions)”


    Sketching removes designers/developers from the one on one Design relationship with the PC and electronic tools. It can bring everyone into a place which is familiar and potentially encourages collaboration. Perhaps something to be learnt from the process of making cartoons?

  2. Sainkho Says:

    Very interesting but “Ideation”? Give me strength. Sketching is what it is, don’t be afraid to say it. Unless, of course, you want to bill more for it.

  3. Jared Spool Says:


    If not “ideation”, what would you call the process at the beginning of design where you explore different ideas?

  4. Francois Aubin Says:

    Bill suggested today’s usability process is evaluation, while ui design is ideation, an idea you agree with. I believe it is a question of perspective. For some, usability process includes design, business analysis, task analysis sketching, prototyping and usability testing. It seems that there is more restricted definition where usability is the process of evaluation. I am fine with this but in that case it means that I am not only a usability practitioner but also a designer. I also believe, the first skill for a designer is having the ability to evaluate. Evaluation is skills that when mastered over time becomes subconscious and is continuous part in the ideation process. It makes design (ideation) more productive (creative). I think design is both constitute of ideation and subconscious evaluation. If you study art, musical composition, a lot of the teaching consist in analyse and evaluate other work. For UI designer, it mean those skills will develop over thousand of usability testing, and observation and become subconscious. Maybe we could one day create simulator or game for training those skills.

  5. Jared Spool Says:


    I agree with some of what you said.

    I believe that design, business analysis, task analysis all need to consider usability issues. But, I wouldn’t go so far as to say usability process includes those things. If you make usability process include everything in the design process, then it loses its meaning as a term. (In your definition, what part of design *doesn’t* include usability processes? If nothing, then why differentiate?)

    Bill’s point was that ideation suffers in the early stages if you impose too much evaluation on it. At some point, you need to fantasize what *could* be, without regard to the constraints. His point was this needs to happen quickly and be very disposable. Evaluation introduces constraints, slows down the ideation process, and leads to investment in design, reducing the disposability.

    By keeping reducing the upfront evaluation, you get better initial ideas, which you then start to reduce to a set that will benefit from the evaluation process.

    Bill also mentioned that designers need to spend more time learning the fundamentals of what was done before. He talked about his music studies (he’s an accomplished musician) and how you studied fundamental composition and music history in addition to experimentation techniques.

    Maybe we shouldn’t let UI designers design anything until they’ve sat through thousands of hours of usability testing of other designs?

  6. Francois Aubin Says:

    Must have been a great evening. I am fine with you point: If you make usability process include everything in the design process, then it loses its meaning as a term.

    By the way, I am an avid reader of Bill’s work and always enjoy his talk. Yes, I agree fully that ideation need to be unobstructed by constraint. To my knowledge, UI design, prototyping tools are countered productive in that sense.

    I don’t know if I succeed expressing my idea but you seem to agree: having designer with great skill in evaluation. I believe that those skills make ideation more effective and productive because they come into play before emergence of an idea. We should not call that skill evaluation at this stage because they are ingrained before the idea.

    Music is a good example because practice, training and learning history do not impair creativity.

    When designing complex system, similar idea bill express applied (in fact we try hard). We called this approach “problem separation technique” where ideation comes into phase in order to remove constraint. Similarly, in UI design at the initial stage you might be interested mapping the task flow and would not care about visual aspect. In a way you remove constraint for more effective ideation.

    This subject is of great interest for me and I am always looking to exchange these topics.

  7. Brat Says:

    Very interesting but “Ideation”? Give me strength. Sketching is what it is, don’t be afraid to say it. Unless, of course, you want to bill more for it.

  8. Nick Says:

    Actually, “ideation” is a fairly common term for the process. Great post, very important to distinguish these phases.

    Besides the examples of sketches above, are there any other resources that show UI/app sketches? Is there audio/slides of the above presentation available somewhere?

  9. Nick Says:

    Never mind, found it here:
    ; )

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    Thanks Nick! I didn’t know they videotaped the session.

  11. Ben H. Says:

    I was introduced to the term IDEATION in my first year of Industrial Design in University. We used this as the beginnings of finding the solution after all the research has been done. Now as a Usability Specialist, designing screens is no different. The best solutions comes from when you combine different ideas together to create a certain mental model that matches with the tasks at hand, no matter what products or application you are designing for. IDEATION (or sketching) is the basis from where great ideas are born. I’m just surprised we don’t use it as often as should be.

  12. Joe Julian Says:

    If you’re going to use our image and bandwidth, please at least credit us and give us a link. Thanks.

    I agree that sketching is an invaluable tool that we use constantly. Nyein Aung, our industrial designer has saved us significant research by sketching new robot designs at the conference table.

  13. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Multi-Touch: Diving Below the Surface Says:

    […] Bill Buxton has been one of the pioneers behind multi-touch devices, which have been advancing since the early 1980s. Jared has mentioned Bill’s influential ideas around these parts before. Bill’s website has a section dedicated to all the attention multi-touch has gotten of late. He’s been deluged with inquiries so he decided an online brain dump was in order. Buxton gives us some of the history and tenets of multi-touch thinking, like Everything is best for something and worst for something else. The trick is knowing what is what, for what, when, for whom, where, and most importantly, why. Those who try the replace the mouse play a fool’s game. The mouse is great for many things. Just not everything. The challenge with new input is to find devices that work together, simultaneously with the mouse (such as in the other hand), or things that are strong where the mouse is weak, thereby complimenting it. […]

  14. Yong Bakos Says:

    I think the road is leading toward comics as a great way to sketch user experience.

  15. links for 2007-07-24 (Leapfroglog) Says:

    […] Buxton on Sketching and Experience Design » UIE Brain Sparks Interesting thoughts on the value of sketching in the design process. I liked the comparison of sketches to prototypes most. (tags: sketching prototyping ux userexperience design process methodology) […]

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