29th Drive, a software design group in Phoenix, recently hosted a webinar on using sketches in the process of designing user experience (UX). One brilliant thing about their presentation was a willingness to actually show the process of sketching. They didn't just talk about sketching in the abstract or tell stories in retrospect. Instead, they sketched in real time while people on the webinar watched. Courageous.
By "they," I mean three designers sketching at the same time. Each designer drew, pen on paper, under one of these nifty cameras, and all three streamed simultaneously. The effect was the sketching equivalent of a three-ring circus.
This style of presentation beautifully illustrates important truths about sketching, such as:
- Seeing three people succeed in different ways, it's clear that there's no one right way.
- Watching this happen in real time illustrates some patterns for sequence, e.g. first I draw the big box, then the detail I'm focused on, then I fill in enough around it to give viewers some context.
- How much polish is possible in just a few minutes is tangibly demonstrated. These aren't framed stills from Fantasia; they're just quick sketches. And that's the point.
After six minutes they put their pens down and each designer talked through what they'd sketched.
The discussion emphasized that these sketches are a means for presenting ideas. If the sketch communicates the idea, it succeeds.
User interface is notoriously difficult to talk about and high resolution mockups are slow and expensive. What this webinar showed was the effectiveness of sketching to quickly and clearly share ideas.
For example, one of the ideas was "unlock your phone by snapping your fingers above it." As the designer talked through this interaction it was clear that visually conveying the idea of a finger snap was helpful, but he didn't need to draw the perfect likeness of one hand snapping to convey the idea. And by placing the finger snap in a series of sketches, the story of this proposed interaction becomes quite clear: the phone is like this, then the user snaps, then this happens.
Many simple, practical tips could be gleaned from the discussions of the sketches:
- Number your sketches to make it easier to talk about them.
- Use a piece of paper to cover the sketches you're not currently talking about to keep people focused.
- If you need to show a user clicking through a series of screens, use color to show what was clicked.
- If you want to show animation, sketch a few key frames.
And so on. Each of these was presented in context, as a way of overcoming a communication problem. That context made the tips much easier to understand and the use of the insight was immediately obvious. By showing process, the webinar demonstrated how sketching can accelerate design, clarify thinking, and enable collaboration.
And this got me thinking about the potential for showing process in other disciplines. Take literature for example. I'd love to hear a lit professor talk through the process of how she approaches a new piece. Say she's about to read a poem for the first time. Does she read it aloud? Does she look up obscure words as she finds them or just push through the entire work once and then go back and dig deeper? Does everything make sense on the first read? (It certainly doesn't for me.) And if it doesn’t, what does she do to better understand it? Does she outline it? Make margin notes? Read critiques by others or seek out interviews with the author? I remember being told to read things from Norton's Anthology, but I don't remember any tactical suggestions on how to read better.
Or, consider social science. Rather than just sharing the bottom line of a study, what if an instructor took the time to reveal the process which produced these results? Maybe start from the initial research problem and tell the story all the way through to revise and resubmit notes from the journal which ultimately published it. This might reveal the work to articulate the right questions, to design the experiments, properly evaluate results, and then communicate them clearly; in short, all of the struggles and failures along the way. Would that be a waste of time and seen as irrelevant by students? Or would it make the process of social science unforgettable and easily transfer to a deeper understanding of all subsequent studies?
The process is so often more interesting than the result. And a result has more meaning, and more stickiness, when we know how and why it came to be. Consider a business student seeking to understand market segmentation. Or history–where, jumpin' jiminy, do historians have great stories of how they came to know what they know– stories that they consistently forget to share with students.
Knowledge is the by-product of trying to do something, fix a problem or resolve a mystery. These insights are hard-won and shared by people who see how that knowledge could be helpful to others. Yet too often we teach the results of discovery as a given; as a fact without a past or a future.
When we teach without revealing process, without struggle and without a sense of how this will be useful to the student, we devalue the very insights we're most eager to share. But by demonstrating techniques, and revealing the process through which people learn and apply what they learn, we can make the ideas easier to understand, remember and appreciate.