How to Use Sketching in User Experience Design

Have you ever wondered how you could convey your design decisions more effectively to your colleagues and users in a timely and cost-efficient manner? Have you found yourself stuck in a design, unable to see alternative approaches? Are you sure you are applying usability engineering to the right design or to the only design you have? You can rely on sketching, a proven design tool, to help you explore your design space more fully, avoiding the pitfalls of focusing on suboptimal design choices ahead of time.

Bill Buxton, a Canadian pioneer in the human-computer interaction field and a principal designer at Microsoft Research, thinks software development lacks a “design process” that helps UX designers gain clarity about their design decisions before building a system. With this in mind, Buxton and his colleagues wrote Sketching User Experience: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design and Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook to help UX designers (re)discover sketching as a time-tested tool with ample application in the design of experiences with digital technology. Here, we distil the key ideas found in both books for the busy designer to help you (re)discover how you can improve your daily work through sketching.

“… there are techniques and processes whereby we can put experience front and centre in design. My belief is that the basis for doing so lies in extending the traditional practice of sketching.”

Sketches and prototypes have distinctive roles in the development of a design concept and its refinement. You should use them at different stages. Draw sketches first in the exploratory stages of a design to propose, refine, communicate and critique your ideas in a “tangible” format. Later, use low-fidelity prototypes to test broad concepts and specific features.


The ABC’s of Sketching
Lines, triangles, rectangles and circles are the building blocks of any sketch. You can likely draw these shapes with varying degrees of dexterity. Experiment with variations in line thickness and hatching style to increase the power of these basic elements so as to convey the salient features of an object.

As you gain dexterity observing real-world objects to extract their constituent parts in your mind, you will become adept at recreating them on paper through your own sketching vocabulary. Keep in mind, your sketches are not meant to be a detailed representation of an object.

You can use stick figures and variances in their postures and poses, along with motion lines, to represent people and actions. Use subtle variances in the posture of stick figures paired with symbols to convey different emotions.

Faces are our preeminent medium to convey emotions. Use simple variations in the eyebrows and mouths to represent a wide range of emotions in a sketch like those shown below.

You can combine facial emotions, postures and objects to represent actions and situations. Constant practice is the only way to increase your comfort level and reliance in sketching as a key design tool.

Enhancing Sketches – Annotations, Arrows and Notes
Sketches must rely on the written word to convey their meaning in full. Your sketches and accompanying text must communicate your entire design rationale to you and your team. All the following elements play their part in explaining your sketches and the objects, actions and emotions they represent.

Annotations – These are names, labels and explanations located next to different parts of a sketch to expand and clarify the meaning of any element depicted. Tie annotations to different elements in your sketch using arrows, braces, numbering and spatial proximity. Write your annotations using a different colour that contrasts with the sketch proper.
Arrows – Apart from pointing to specific elements in a sketch, use arrows to illustrate interaction flow, a sequence of events, movement and direction.
Notes – Any text, long or short, that provides additional insight into your sketch is a note.


Sketching Methods
You can also use sketching as a collection method. Use sketching to capture the ideas and/or designs you encounter in your daily activities. Other people’s designs are concrete examples of solutions posed to challenges under different constraints. Add them to your knowledge bank to remix, influence, inspire or steer your own ideas in different and perhaps unexpected and innovative directions. To help you in this process, we introduce below two simple approaches to collecting virtual and real-life designs.

1. Scribble Sketching

The idea behind this sampling technique is to capture, as fast as possible and with the broadest of strokes, the essence of the object, design or action we are trying to preserve. Leave out non-important details, decorations, text and other non-essential elements. Include textual annotations (see previous section) in your scribble sketches to clarify functionality.
Author/Copyright holder: Espen Klem. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0
Capture with “broad strokes” the essence of the object, design or action you are trying to preserve.

As a designer, you will find it’s a great idea to make a habit of always carrying a notebook to keep a record of objects, designs and actions that provoke or inspire you. Since you are the main audience of the scribble sketching technique, don’t feel forced to strive for fidelity. You should only provide a level of detail that is good enough to prompt your memory afterwards. Those rough etchings thus become direct touchstones with ideas and also skeletons you can eventually refine into powerful final versions.
2. Sampling with Cameras

The goal of this sampling technique is to use still photos and video to capture some features of the world. You can apply this sampling technique during your weekly grocery shopping, while running your favourite route, on your commute to work, or when you meet friends for dinner. The pervasive nature of smartphones should facilitate this activity. Capture objects, designs and actions that delight, inspire and irritate you.

Record of Failed Design Efforts
Use the two sampling techniques described to keep a record of failed design efforts. Gather objects and situations that annoy you. Write down the reasons behind this negative effect. This exercise will help you develop a critical eye. A critical eye will allow you to identify even the shortcomings of your own work. In doing so, you will develop and show more sophisticated design skills.

Record of Successful Design
You should also use the sampling techniques mentioned to keep a record of successful design. They will help you draw inspiration from multiple domains to ground your design work on features other than those of the digital realm.

The Take Away
Sketching is a time-tested approach to propose, explore, refine and communicate your design ideas. Sketching should be your first line of attack when faced with a new design challenge. Unlike prototypes, you should produce sketches in abundance, on a very low budget and with just the right amount of detail in the early stages of the design process. Use sketches to explore multiple design directions simultaneously. Refine your chosen design with the standard tools of usability engineering to ensure it satisfies all relevant requirements. Sketch, sketch, sketch!

References & Where to Learn More
Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, 2007
Saul Greenberg, Sheelagh Carpendale, Nicolai Marquardt and Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook, 2011
Tohidi, M., Buxton, W., Baecker, R. & Sellen, A., Getting the Right Design and the Design Right: Testing Many Is Better Than One Proceedings of the ACM-SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 1243–1252), 2006:

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