Sketching User Experiences – Bill Buxton


buxton   In many ways Bill Buxton’s book was a surprise. Perhaps I had read too many reviews but what I found was part history lesson, part analysis of design practice and efficacy of tools. On the whole, I felt it was posing the question of what we should be striving towards in our design practices.

The foundations of design theory and practice

The credence behind many of his statements can be found in the immense bibliography that one imagines you attain when you are a principal of research for Microsoft and also a design professor. There is no doubt it helps in carrying weight to his arguments and in many ways it enriches the design education of anybody who is involved in this profession

Occasionally there is a tone that seems to dismiss those who do not have this breadth of knowledge, that they are lacking and are mere naive clumsy designers. That seemed to show a lack of awareness of the way people find their references from different sources these days.

Many find as much information out from blogs of current practitioners, forums and online professional communities. A publisher has given money to see a book complete and seek to recoup this through promotion and sales with profit. A blogger seeks nothing more than to share some knowledge and record their thoughts for the benefit of a community. Neither is more commendable than the other. There are really valuable insights that are written but will never be published in research white papers or books in print. We should not give a book more gravitas because it is on paper. I feel this is wrong and goes against the medium that we practice in.

Of course knowing design history should only be a part of the student’s or practitioner’s ability. Being able to practice your craft with real talent has only a little to do with your reference points. It is practice and reflection in practice (not unlike the ability to sketch) which gets you to a level that is adept. Schon, who wrote extensively about this, gets an early mention;

As Schon was one of the first to point out, product development demands attention to both problem setting and solving, and this is fundamental to the design process. Unfortunately industry has not paid sufficient attention to his teaching.

Cases, observations and stories

The company history of Apple, Adobe and Trek were really worth the read and I particularly enjoyed some of the early ventures into interface design and touch screen interfaces that Buxton was obviously a part of. In many ways Buxton’s work is like a sketch book with so many observations, stories and case studies written about and juxtaposed, sometimes you wonder where the book is taking you.

The book is divided into two sections to perhaps steer the reader and this helps somewhat. But I feel the book is not really aimed as much at designers but rather for business heads and managers of teams who have designers within them. It places design at the heart of successful business and it focuses especially on design process. This it does extremely well however for practical frameworks or approaches to design problems you will not find the answers here.

Buxton neatly stresses the importance of investing in the design process and how by placing design at the centre of a company then very soon its performance will be improved. He also underlines the importance of realising the energy needing in understanding and communicating concepts and that is something that design companies would be wise to take note of;

In order to create successful products, it is as important (if not more) to invest in the design of the design process, as in the design of the product itself.

The future view of IXD

My favourite part of the book was his focus on the transitions between states becoming as important as the states themselves and this can be particularly seen in touch devices such as the upcoming iPad and the Surface table.

He also seems to acknowledgement that the interfaces we have created so far have only scratched the surface of what could be possible. The Courier notebook seems a logical product of this type of thinking, and if this book is anything to go by, one I am sure Buxton has had a hand in.

Verdict: The book is worth the read and there is a good deal of quotes that you will find inspiring and ring true. The case histories were well researched and interesting and design practice was explored in a way that felt realistic and achievable.

I would say that this book will not satisfy a designer who is looking for practical examples of approaching work or a framework to work towards. It will not answer those questions but rather, as in the ending of the book, will ask you to think of the answers to the questions yourself.

In many ways the route to getting the design right with the right design is by getting out your pencil and drawing, reworking and reframing the problem. Iteration and adaptation are the key points to this book, in design and business respectively. If businesses appreciate the role design plays in successful products then this book has achieved an important goal.

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