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[Book Review] Sketching User Experiences – Bill Buxton February 13, 2008

Posted by Pankaj Chawla in Bill Buxton, Book Review, Interaction Design.
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Update [28th Feb 2008]: Today this book review got published in the Feburary 2008 edition of the monthly newsletter published by “Design For All Institute of India, New Delhi”.


I would like to start this review by posing a question? Why do people read biographies and history? To my mind the single most important reason is because people want to connect to those people/events in the pages so as to derive inspiration and parallels in their own life-a feeling of knowing oneself better by reading through the lives of others. “Sketching User Experiences” by Bill Buxton is one such book.


As you read through the pages it takes you through a biographical journey through time of the topic at hand called Design from the eyes of a person who knows design so well. It is not a hands-on book and you will not get step-by-step instructions of going about doing design but it exposes you to the craft of design – its history, its richness, its best practices and its ambiguity. Yes design is a pretty ambigious entity and people have spent years trying to give it a two line definition but just like any other art form it is difficult to capture a craft of creativity in two lines. Bill also started with not giving any definition of design and instead started with answering the question “what designers do” and the to and fro journey between present and past of design loaded with examples, quotes and personal accounts made it a thought provoking reading. Suddenly on page 145 he springs a surprise by giving his 2 lines of definition and which to my mind was as exact as it could get for a craft of creativity:
Design is choice, and there are two places where there is room for creativity:

  1. the creativity that you bring to enumerating meaningfully distinct options from which to choose
  2. the creativity that you bring to defining the criteria, or heuristics, according to which you makes your choices.

Four pages later he added to the definition:
Design is a compromise. 

To me this defines the whole craft of design as a free flowing creative process that ultimately leads into that one singular choice constrainted within the confines of business needs, technological limitations and user expectations. That sigular choice is what we call the product. 

The second part of the book is dedicated to design practices and methodologies but again going by the flow of the book it is not about hands-on methodologies that one can use off the shelf but again a biographical account of some of the ingenious practices that people used to get their designs right and the right design. They are thought provoking and a pleasure to read and go on to showcase that the process of design also needs to be designed well :-). 

The best thing I liked about the book was that Bill used a lot of personal context to the whole book and used phrases like “to my mind”, “atleast to me this is what it means”, “my personal view” which goes on to create the right context and as a reader I can make a judgement that this is what the author believes in and I am free to agree or disagree. I have come across a lot of books where the author tries to drill in his thought process into the readers mind and many a times readers come out blindly believing that whatever the book said is some kind of a rule or a law that you have to live with all your life. 

It’s a must read in case you are a person that derives a lot of inspiration from the other people experiences and thinks that history always gives the context to make a better future. If you are looking for how-to-do design instruction book then I won’t be surprised if you come out disappointed by the book even though this book has a lot of valuable advice. Don’t forget the central theme of the book is sketching and so it’s full of practical advice on what is sketching, how it is different from prototyping, why and how to go about doing it and why it is an integral part of the design process.
Oh yes, before I forget, this book is also a visual treat with tons of illustrations and pictures from the past and present that make this book into a true biography of design.

After Notes:
Some interesting quotes from the book (reproduced as is):
“The only way to engineer the future tommorrow is to have lived in it yesterday.”
“Everyone is essential, but no person or group is sufficent on his or her own.”
“If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes.”
“It is better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your collegues while there is still time to do something about it-no matter how difficult the criticism might be-than to have finished project torn aprt by strangers in public.”
“If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old.”
“Innovation in process may trump innovation in product. But innovation in both trumps either.”
“If you are going to break something, including a tradition, the more you understand it, the better job you can do.”
“How can you do experience design without a rich body of personal experience as an individual and as a group?”

May you dream in the day – Bill Buxton.