Book Review: Sketching User Experiences

buxton_sketchingLast fall, I took a Human-Computer Interaction course offered by Stanford’s Scott Klemmer on Coursera, and one of the books he recommended was Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.  Subtitled, ‘getting the design right and the right design,’ the book is highly engaging and full to the brim with rich content.  Published in 2007, the title is a few years’ old in a space that is constantly evolving as technology continues to advance and innovations in design abound, but the principles Buxton espouse transcend specific technologies or implementations of design paradigms, and thus, I believe the book will have a premiere place on the shelf of anyone that has anything to do with user experience design for a long time to come.

Best Practices +

A major goal of the book is to discuss best practices, specifically in an area that is common to the design of all things, whether physical products, software, hardware/software combo, or services.  The central thread among what could be perceived as a disparate collection of “things,” is the concept of “sketching the user experience.”   Buxton’s use of the term “sketching” is much more broad than you might think, which could be a drawback for someone that wants to focus on developing better literal sketching-with-a-pencil-or-marker skills, though he does address the topic, and has since published a companion workbook with some colleagues that supplements this  book well in that regard.

When I put the book down, I felt “sketching” referred to a collection of activities, perhaps best described by “discovering, thinking of, experimenting with, tinkering with, planning, and ultimately, capturing and representing” various complete user experiences, including less tangible things like the space between objects, screens, points in a process, and states, and the motivation for choosing to engage or not, deciding when to disengage, and whether to return.  A designer or design team’s ability to accomplish that set of activities relies on using many, many tools that go beyond the pencil and paper sketch, though the simple sketch holds a very significant place in the arsenal of design weapons.


One of the things I liked best about this book is the way Buxton reasons about design.  For every point he makes, he raises and tackles the counterpoint as well, making for some very convincing reading.  His writing has a noticeable scholarly bent to it, which I found refreshing in a field where many books are about passing trends or the latest technological approaches to design.  Buxton makes a strong case for the development of much more robust curricula and design programs in higher education, while also imploring industry to take design more seriously, especially at the C-level.  Still, this book is full of practical advice; it just happens to be very well backed up by research.


Buxton’s passion for design jumps off of every single page, and I think this makes his writing very compelling.  It’s hard not to get sucked in by a writer who is not just excited about what he writes about, but also frustrated at every turn that there are so many gaps in the literature, so many companies that don’t “get” design, and little to no formal study of the history of the field, as you would see in other arts.  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a book that’s about complaining.  To the contrary, when Buxton points out issues, he also offers solutions, which is largely what makes this book so useful.  I particularly liked that one of his aims was to “lift up the covers” about design thinking for the benefit of non-designers, while placing responsibility on both groups to put some effort into understanding each other’s language, challenges, goals, and processes.  He repeatedly emphasizes that different types of resources belong in the design process playing different roles at different stages, and I think he does an excellent job illustrating, for example, how engineers and designers complement each other, but do so best when they are utilized the right way.

I strongly recommend this book for designers and non-designers alike, along with its Workbook companion.  Even if you think you have a job that has nothing to do with experience design, you will walk away richer for the experience of having read it.

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