Are *five* sketches too many?

I first heard Bill Buxton talking about sketching in Texas, at the UPA 2007 annual conference. I was running around with a video camera asking people what they thought of Bill Buxton’s presentation. Everyone loved it, including his ideas on sketching and design. But almost everyone I spoke to also said Buxton’s requirement for five sketches was several sketches too many.

Buxton’s probably heard this objection a few times, because he addressed it at Mix09, last month in Nevada. He said:

Image derived from a screen capture of Mix09 videoI can hear your clients and your managers saying: “Well, Mr Buxton may have told you that you have to be able to do five different versions for every single question you’re asked—each one equally valid—but we can’t afford it because we’re already behind schedule. We don’t even have time to do one solution, and you’re telling me we have to do five?”

What are you going to say to them?

It’s a good question. Buxton also had an answer. “Doing multiples is critically important” because it’s how you saturate the design space with enough ideas to rapidly iterate to the best design solution. The challenge, says Buxton, is to balance “doing multiples” with the budget, with dollars, time, and personnel.

It comes down to technique.

Sketching is a fast, inexpensive, and therefore disposable way to capture ideas. And five really is key. In my experience, when I asked design participants for two or three sketches, they each brought “two”—actually versions of the same sketch where one had an extra squiggle or mark on the page. This is not how you saturate a design space. It has to be at least five—hence the name, Five Sketches™. The sketches have to be fast. They have to be low fidelity. The sketches have to be disposable.

Sketching is the right tool. You also need the right team, working at the right time. The right team has an understanding of generative design and knows that there’s a time to sketch, a time to iterate and analyse design ideas, and a time to code or program. (A team of three or four design participants can learn and practice everything but the programming in a half day.) In my experience, design participants—developers, QA staff, marketing staff, support staff—can sketch and produce great software and web designs as effectively as a graphic designer or industrial designer can.

Again: it comes down to technique. And since sketching is cheap, you can’t afford not to design.

2 Replies to “Are *five* sketches too many?”

  1. For me, five sketches was just enough for me to break through common design hurdles and not burn out. As a newbie the process to draw five different designs took me two hours in a Starbucks. I can guarantee for my next project each of the five sketches will focus more on the interaction, yet still be of the same fidelity in the same time span.

    To Matthew, good point that five may be too few. The concept is that each member of the design team should explore five sketches, which I found to be a workable maximum before reusing too many elements from previous designs. A team of five people, from project manager through module X programmer, would provide twenty-five sketches to review.

    However, there is nothing to stop someone comfortable with the concept from designing ten, or even a hundred, radically different sketches. If you have a member like that on your team, then they need to go into business for themselves! If you are a member like that, I need to speak with you!


  2. Hi Jerome, I’ve just discovered your blog so browsing your posts and really enjoying reading them.

    I don’t understand how 5 is chosen as the key minimal number of multiples to explore.

    Nielsen suggests that with usability evaluations testing with 5 people gets the best return on investment ( but a usability evaluation is uncovering a finite number of issues, design ideation is really exploring an infinite design space.

    Your distinction between “versions of the same sketch” and a ‘real’ multiple is spot on! But I think you’ve glossed over how difficult it is to come up with actual ‘real’ multiples. As a professional I think I have some skill and techniques that I draw on to help me with this, but I still find it a challenge!

    I like to use participatory design techniques to involve ‘non-designers’ into a design process, but I use sketching here to help them imagine possibilities they might not have imagined otherwise – I never expect them to be able to actually produce directly useful designs.

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