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Book Review: Sketching User Experiences

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – October 8, 2008

This review takes a personal look at Bill Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.



Cover of Sketching User Experiences     

Bill Buxton
Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design
Morgan Kaufmann, 2007
ISBN-10: 0123740371, ISBN-13: 978-0123740373




Photo of Bill BuxtonBill Buxton is a designer, researcher, and teacher.  His work reflects a particular interest in the use of technology to support creative activities such as design, film, and music. Buxton's research specialties include technologies, techniques and theories of input to computers, technology mediated human-human collaboration, and ubiquitous computing. Buxton is a relentless advocate for innovation, design, and – especially – the appropriate consideration of human values, capacity, and culture in the conception of new products and technologies.  This is reflected in his numerous talks and his writing.
(From homepage, adapted)





When I attended the INTERACT 2005 conference in Rome, Bill Buxton was one of the invited speakers. In his talk, he promoted the use of sketching as a tool for the early stages of design and for exploring as many design ideas as possible. He contrasted sketching with prototyping and argued that prototypes are already concrete answers to design problems, whereas sketches are only questions or proposals and are thus much more open. At the CHI 2008 conference, I encountered Buxton again and, in addition to a number of other appearances at the conference, he also gave the closing plenary address. During the lunch break on the final conference day – and before Buxton's talk at the closing plenary address – I saw people carrying his latest book Sketching User Experiences. The book had apparently appeared at the Morgan Kaufmann booth on that very day. However, when I tried to buy the book, the booth had already closed, so I bought it after I returned home. What do you think it is about? You guessed it – it's about the topic of Buxton's INTERACT 2005 plenary presentation, namely sketching. It also contains a number of ideas that Buxton mentioned in his CHI 2008 talk, and thus spans a period from 2008 back to at least 2005. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The book actually brings together thoughts and ideas that Buxton has developed over decades during his professional life, and these – if I understand Buxton correctly in what he writes about the life cycle of products in his book – will probably remain valid for the same period of time in the future.

Bill Buxton 2005      Bill Buxton 2008

Figure 1: Buxton in 2005 and 2008

What is the Book About?

Buxton characterizes his book, Sketching User Experiences, as "a book about design." He defines design as the "design of appliances, structures, buildings, signs, and computers that exist in both the physical and behavioral sense." So we can safely assume that the design of software applications is included, even though these lack a physical representation. The behavioral aspect of design is particularly important for Buxton: He sees design today as being in a critical and significant state of transition , similar to the transition in the 1930s, and, like many other authors, attributes this transition to the embedding of microprocessors in products (including wireless capabilities, identity tagging, and networking – some authors speak of an "Internet of Things"). According to Buxton, embedded computers add the dimensions of dynamics and time to design, and provide products with a new richness of behaviors. On the other hand, Buxton is convinced that this richness will "be matched, and exceeded, by the expanded range of human behavior and experiences" that this new breed of products will "enable, encourage, and provoke." Thus, the design profession has changed its role from designing physical, tangible artifacts to designing experiences, that is, to designing – or eliciting – new behavioral, emotional, and experiential responses.

Buxton wants designers to play a prominent role in this transition process, because, at present, "there are many bad products out in the world". His corollary to Kransberg's first law, "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral", says: "Without informed design, technology is more likely to be bad than good." Thus, design is the key to better products. But this insight is not universally shared. Buxton complains: "Today's reality is that the value of design is too often being questioned," and adds that "design is regarded as an expensive luxury." Buxton's book is an attempt to change this attitude and is based on the premise that design is a distinctive discipline. For Buxton, design involves unique skills – these form the core of his book – that are "critical to the molding of these emerging technologies into a form that serves society, and reflects its values." Buxton does not regard design as a luxury – instead, he believes that "informed design is essential from the technical, economic, and cultural perspective."

While design is essential for Buxton, he does not see it as being sufficient on its own. He sees it as one – albeit important – "component requisite to the development of successful, appropriate, and responsible products." He opposes professional "silos" and emphasizes that no-one can develop successful products alone and that each professional contribution requires creativity. Nevertheless, Buxton highlights design as a "special" discipline and strongly contradicts Don Norman's statement that "everyone is a designer." For him, designers are professionals, that is, "people with a specific education and background in history who play a special role in multi-disciplinary teams developing products." So, what constitutes a designer and what is his or her role in the development of products? Buxton answers this question only indirectly by pointing to the designer's archetypical activity: sketching. I will discuss sketching further down. Regarding the designer's role, Buxton sees the designer's ultimate goal as "getting the right design." "Getting the design right" is the job, for example, of the usability and technical engineers.


Having established that Buxton's book is about design, designers, and their role in product development, let us now look at the target audience for the book. Buxton states that he has tried to address the following key groups: user interface designers, industrial designers, related design professionals, software engineers, usability engineers, product managers, and executives.

Although it is neither a textbook nor a recipe book, Buxton hopes that his book will also appeal to students, teachers, practitioners, and researchers.

All in all, Buxton wants to "paint a larger, holistic picture" of design in his book and help "this diverse cast of characters better understand their role in the larger, intertwined performance that constitutes our companies, schools, and practices." He tries to keep a balance between going into sufficient depth to make the book relevant to the specialist, "while still sustaining comprehensibility and interest for others." In the author's notes, Buxton comments on the compromise that he is aiming at: "On the one hand, I have tried to write in an informal and approachable style. ... On the other hand, I have worked very hard to ensure that there is a solid scholarship behind what I write. The challenge is to figure out how to balance these two things. For one group of readers, my casual style may be off-putting. For the other, my embedding of citations in the text will be unfamiliar, and disrupt the flow of reading." I will return to this issue further down.

Overview of the Book

In the preface, Buxton provides the context for the book and his motivation for writing it (I discussed already a number of his points in the introduction above). Here, he also defines his target audience and provides an overview of the book. In the Author's Notes, Buxton comments on his writing style as well as on structural elements used throughout the book, such as quotes, comments, and sidebars.

In Part I: Design as a Dreamcatcher, Buxton lays the foundations for the book. Instead of listing the different chapters, I present (mostly) Buxton's own characterization of this book section. It covers:

  • The nature of design
  • The importance of sketching (as a basic activity of designers)
  • The plurality and variety of approaches that sketching affords through being quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, plentiful, and ambiguous
  • The capacity of sketching to allow fluid, simple, rich, and spontaneous annotation as a means of communication between team members
  • The difference between sketches and prototypes, with the latter requiring a larger investment than sketches
  • The social nature of design, in terms of both people and sketches, particularly the sharing of sketches
  • The importance of having persistent displays that enable work to "bake in " to the shared consciousness of a team
  • The fundamental role of critique in design education and process, a central ingredient of the design profession that is less common in others

For Buxton, designers are professionals who integrate these elements into their thinking and working life. Thus, we have finally arrived at something like a definition of what constitutes a designer.

Part II: Stories of Methods and Madness covers design methods and relies heavily on case studies and examples. The motto of this part is: Look at the work and working methods of very good designers. According to Buxton, this approach serves five functions:

  • To illuminate what Buxton perceives as best practices
  • To help those within the design team to better understand these practices and their output
  • To foster a shared literacy among the design team (by providing "classic" examples)
  • To show exemplary student work (side-by-side to pioneer work) to demonstrate what is attainable
  • To give a sense of some of the basic competencies that Buxton would expect in an interaction or experience design team

Here is a collection of the methods that Buxton presents and discusses:

  • Magic: Wizard of Oz (humans perform some of the functions of the system), "smoke and mirrors" (clever use of technology and techniques)
  • Stories: storytelling, role-playing, visual storytelling (storyboards)
  • Animation: simple animations, animation mediated by persons, movie sketches, video simulations, video envisionment (example: Apple's Knowledge Navigator)
  • Paper: The use of paper and interactive paper interfaces

According to Buxton, "the most important value in using these quick and inexpensive techniques is not that they save money in making a prototype. It is that they make it affordable to make and compare alternative design solutions to problems throughout the design process."

The final chapter, Recapitulation and Coda, provides a summary and a discussion of a few issues that trouble Buxton. First, he turns to the process versus product innovation issue to which I will return briefly further down. He then attacks the "demo or die" mentality of many organizations. He sees the risk that making demos becomes confused with design or research, and he makes it clear that demos are not an end in themselves. In this context, he complains about a general lack of scholarship and sense of history of the profession in many areas. This viewpoint also implies moving away from the cult of the individual, that is, from the "designer genius," and acknowledging the social aspects of design. I would summarize Buxton's view as: We all stand in the tradition of our predecessors and hold the hands of our team mates.

The book ends with an extended References and Bibliography section, and, of course, an index. It is accompanied by a book companion Website, which offers nearly 30 video clips that complement Buxton's statements in words and pictures by revealing the dynamics of a number of design methods described in the book.


Buxton promotes sketching as the archetypical activity of design and adds that it has been thus for centuries. He does not so much refer to the activity of sketching itself as to the habit of exploring design alternatives, discarding a large number of them, and then honing in on the relevant ones. For Buxton, sketching is not just a by-product of design, it is central to design thinking and learning. He sees both the creation and reading of sketches as specialized skills that distinguish designers from nondesigners, and even experienced designers from student designers.

To understand Buxton's view of sketching it is helpful to look at the attributes that he assigns to sketching: quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, plentiful, and ambiguous. These attributes set sketching clearly apart from prototyping. For Buxton, sketches are not prototypes. They dominate in the early ideation stages because they cost relatively little and are thus easily disposable, while prototypes are concentrated more in the later design stages. The investment in prototypes is higher, and they take longer to build. As a result, there are fewer of them, and they are less disposable.

For Buxton, ambiguity is an essential characteristic of sketches: "If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes." Ambiguity makes sketches an ideal communication tool. Because of their vagueness, they suggest, propose, and question, while prototypes already tend to provide answers and thus discourage criticism and new ideas. The ability to criticize one's own work and the work of others is a habit that sets designers apart from other professionals, and is an important aspect of their role within a team. Buxton emphasizes the constructive aspect of criticism: "One of the most positive forms of criticism is a better idea, and frequently, that better idea would never have come about were it not for the idea that it replaces." In this vein, he highlights the ability to understand good ideas and states that "it takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea, as to have it in the first place." Particularly, sketches can help in understanding the rationale of a design without becoming the prisoner of one's own ideas or decisions. Buxton also discusses at length that sketches are inherently social in nature and can be used in many ways to encourage a team's communication about a design (he presents a number of approaches, such as the Portfolio wall and the TechBox). Annotations, or "sketches on sketches," can also improve the communication about a design. Last but not least, sketching allows users to be involved earlier.

To accommodate the new breed of "intelligent" products that are emerging, Buxton stretches the concept of traditional sketching to include interaction and the behavior that they exhibit. This is feasible because the sketching that he has in mind "has more to do with exercising the imagination and understanding (mental and experiential) than about the materials used." And he adds that "sketches for experience and interaction design will likely differ from conventional sketching since they have to deal with time, phrasing, and feel – all attributes of the overall user experience." As already mentioned in the overview, the second part of the book presents numerous examples of sketching interactions based on techniques such as storyboards and animations that make it possible to capture dynamics.

Design Process

Despite not being a process fanatic, Buxton makes it clear that establishing a design process in a company plays a crucial role in determining whether designers will be able to fulfill their role successfully. He asks: "How is it that we can never afford to do proper planning and design, yet we always seem to be able to afford to pay the cost of products being late as well as the cost of fixing all of the bugs that inevitably result from inadequate design, planning, and testing? ... How can this be when the cost of design and planning is nothing compared to the cost of being late to market or having a defective product?" So, there is no economic reason not to have a reasonable design process, and according to Buxton, there is also one more reason why such a process should be in place: "My belief is that one of the most significant reasons for the failure of organizations to develop new software products in-house is the absence of anything that a design professional would recognize as an explicit design process." As this statement indicates, and Buxton returns to this point at the end of his book, he regards the design process as an important factor in making innovation happen: "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 products itself." But the best situation is to have both: "Innovation in process may trump innovation in product. But innovation in both trumps either." Perhaps I should add that it is not only important to have a design process in place, but also that the company "lives it" from top to bottom.

Daily Design Practice...

Having put all the pieces together, I do have one question: How does the "model" of a designer that Buxton puts forth in his book fit into my daily practice in a large company that sells enterprise software? In short, I find it hard to connect this designer model to my own professional environment. So, who and where are the designers that Buxton is talking about? Probably not so much in large companies that make business software – apart , maybe, from some visual designers. In a large software company, the activities of UI designers are diversified; designs are based on layered standards, and prototypes follow these standards and are often at the "high-fidelity" end of the spectrum. Thus, the designers' activities are mostly centered around "getting the design right" and are rarely of a "sketchy" nature or in the "getting-the-right-design" domain. In addition, many of today's UI designers do not have the professional design background that Buxton has in mind. Instead, they come from various backgrounds, including psychology and computer science. This may, however, change in the future, when UI design will have become an established branch of study at universities. This discrepancy does not render Buxton's book irrelevant for this target group, but Buxton's arguments have to be viewed in perspective and context. The book also contains a lot of ideas and practices that can be integrated into our daily work in one way or another. For me, the concept of producing a large number of initial ideas and discarding the inappropriate ones and of communicating and openly criticizing designs are the most important "take-aways" from Buxton's book.

How to Approach this Book

I have already mentioned the diverse target groups for Buxton's book and the compromise in writing style that he has tried to find. In my opinion, Buxton has found a very good compromise. In contrast to many other design books that I have read and reviewed, I find this book easy and refreshing to read and I love the embedded quotes and citations, as well as Buxton's own remarks. In addition, the book not only boasts a wealth of photos and illustrations, there are also sidebars with a yellow background that highlight certain issues. Thus, while Buxton worries that the embedded citations might disrupt the flow of reading for some readers, there are in fact many more interruptions caused by sidebars and full-page illustrations that often extend over a number of pages. Personally, I do not mind these interruptions, but some readers might, because they are fairly unusual in a book. Admittedly, many books written by designers that I have reviewed did not contain any illustrations at all...

In my opinion, this is not a book that you read more or less in one go and then return to the bookshelf. It definitely makes sense to read the whole book first to gain an overview of Buxton's ideas. After the initial reading, you can then use the book in many ways: You can scan it for the many citations and remarks; you can look for sidebars; you can peruse the many illustrations; and while looking at them or while reading certain text sections, you can also visit the book's companion Website. It offers nearly 30 videos, plus a log file with additional data, such as the corresponding section in the book. Downloading and viewing the videos that accompany the respective illustrations or text will enhance your "user experience" of the book.


Another way of using Buxton's book

Figure 2: Another way of using Buxton's book (from Bill Buxton's homepage)


I have encountered very few books by designers that looked as if a designer had written them. Happily, Buxton's book, Sketching User Experiences, is one of them. It is a book about design and the role of designers in the current historical transition phase in which the design profession is moving from the design of physical objects to the design of experiences. Buxton points to the changes that will affect a large number of objects in our environment: They will acquire richer behaviors because of the embedding of microprocessors and elicit even richer behaviors in their human users – which is why we refer to the "design of experiences."

The designer's role, as Buxton sees it, is to use the professional background and abilities that make designers "special" to take responsibility for the quality of these new products. The main questions in this book are: What makes a designer "special", and what distinguishes the design profession from all others? For Buxton, the generalized ability of sketching lies at the core of design. Therefore, this activity is described at length in the book through words, pictures, and examples, and further extended to include dynamics and accommodate the upcoming "intelligent" products.

No matter whether one can identify with Buxton's "sketch" of the designer or not, this book is definitely a mandatory read for every designer – whatever "breed" he or she may belong to. I also recommend the book to professionals who work in teams with designers and to people who manage multidisciplinary teams.


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