Developers can learn ¾ of Design

Microsoft’s Bill Buxton recently wrote an article for Business Week, titled On Engineering and Design: An open letter. In it, Buxton explains that developers can improve the user experience of the product that they’re building by learning three of the four layers that engage designers:Four layers of design
  • Design awareness.
  • Design literacy.
  • Design thinking.

Buxton also mentions a fourth layer, design practice. He explains that design practice represents a fulltime job for highly trained professionals, and that it’s rare to find a developer who straddles both. (In my experience, small- and mid-sized companies may get by without a design practitioner, if their designs are constrained by the rules and standards of the operating system and hardware, and if their competitors do no better.)

Buxton thinks non-designers can easily learn about and appreciate the first three layers of design. On the third layer, design thinking, Buxton writes:

Cognitive science makes it clear that the strategies designers use in approaching problems or questions are different (not “better”) than those employed by those trained in engineering disciplines. Both strategies are complementary. Given the complexity of the problems that confront us, it seems to me that expanding our collective arsenal of techniques is something we could all benefit from.

This difference in problem-solving strategies is the ideation-judgement axis that I wrote about in Please exit your comfort zone. Learning to use these different strategies—at the right time in the design and development process—is what Five Sketches™ teaches to developers and other non-designers.

Low-fi sketching increases user input

Here are three techniques for eliciting more feedback on your designs:

  • show users some alternatives, so more than one design.
  • show users a low-fidelity rather than high-fidelity rendering.
  • ask users to sketch their feedback.

To iterate and improve the design, you need honest feedback.  Let’s look at how and why each of these techniques might work.

Showing alternative designs signals that the design process isn’t finished. If you engage in generative design, you’ll have several designs to show to users. Users are apparently reluctant to critique a completed design, so a clear signal that the process is not yet finished encourages users to voice their views, but only somewhat.

Using a low-fidelity rendering elicits more feedback than the same design in a high-fidelity rendering. Again, users are apparently reluctant to critique something that looks finished—as a high-fidelity rendering does.

hi-fi_vs_low-fi_sketching

The design is the same, but it feels more difficult to criticise the one on the right.

Asking users to sketch their feedback turns out to be the single most important factor in eliciting feedback. It’s not known why, because there hasn’t been sufficient published research, but I hypothesize that it’s because this is the most indirect form of criticism.

Where’s the evidence for sketched feedback?

The evidence is unpublished and anecdotal. The problem with unpublished data is that you must be in the right place at the right time to get it, as I was during the UPA 2007 annual conference when Bill Buxton asked the room for a show of hands. Out of about 1000 attendees, several dozen said they had received more and better design-related feedback by asking users to sketch than by eliciting verbal feedback.

When you ask a user: “Tell me how to make this better,” they shrug. When you hand them a pen and paper and ask: “Sketch for me how to make this better,” users start sketching. They suddenly have lots of ideas.

My own experience agrees with this. In Perth, Australia, I took sketches from a Five Sketches™ design session to a customer site for feedback. I also brought blank paper and pens, and asked for sketches of better ideas.

Not surprisingly, the best approach is to combine all three techniques: show users several low-fidelity designs, and then ask them to sketch ways to make the designs better.

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.

Generative design vs. Five Sketches™

© Leah Buley, from her presentation on SlideShareLeah Buley talked about generative design at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, today. Buley feels design methods are lacking in the set of professional tools we use for software development: “We don’t have so many good, reliable, repeatable design techniques.” I agree with her.

Buley tells how, in her first design session at Adaptive Path, she was handed a pen and paper, and told to sketch. The point was “to crank out a lot of ideas in a short time.” That’s what generative design is all about: saturating the design space with ideas. Design programs teach generative design, but there’s no generative design taught in programs for developers, QA staff, technical communicators, product management, or marketing.

There are already several design methods for software development teams to choose from, including Buley’s wonderful grab bag. Others I know of are Five Sketches™ (obviously) and Design Studio, both of which focus on the complete process of producing a design, start to finish, with all its challenges. Microsoft’s Bill Buxton told the UPA 2007 conference that he insists on generative design, and I’d love to see that in action. Each method differs slightly, but they all work because….

Why do they all work? Because of generative design. Generative design addresses what Buley calls her “dirty secret.” She freely confesses, about her design work before Adaptive Path: “I had very little confidence that what I was presenting as the design was in fact the one, optimal solution to the problem.” My experience teaching Five Sketches™ tells me that once you’ve participated in a generative-design process, you’ll know that you can have that confidence.

Buley’s great presentation (slides with audio) is here. Have a look:

A tangential question: when will computer science programs teach Basic Design Methods?

From napkin to Five Sketches™

In 2007, a flash of insight hit me, which led to the development of the Five Sketches™ method for small groups who need to design usable software. Looking back, it was an interesting journey.

The setting. I was working on a two-person usability team faced with six major software- and web products to support. We were empowered to do usability, but not design. At the time, the team was in the early stages of Nielsen’s Corporate Usability Maturity model. Design, it was declared, would be the responsibility of the developers, not the usability team. I was faced with this challenge:

How to get usable products
from software- and web developers
by using a method that is
both reliable and repeatable.

The first attempt. I introduced each development team to the usability basics: user personas, requirements, paper prototyping, heuristics, and standards. Some developers went for usability training. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that none of this could work without a formal design process in place.

The second attempt. I continued to read, to listen, and to ask others for ideas. The answer came as separate pieces, from different sources. For several months, I was fumbling in the metaphorical dark, having no idea that the answer was within reach. Then, after a Microsoft product launch on Thursday, 18 October, 2007, the light went on. While sitting on a bar stool, the event’s guest speaker, GK Vanpatter, mapped out an idea for me on a cocktail napkin:

  1. Design requires three steps.
  2. Not everyone is comfortable with each of those steps.
  3. You have to help them.

The quadrants are the conative preferences or preferred problem-solving styles.

I recognised that I already had an answer to step 3, because I’d heard Bill Buxton speak at the 2007 UPA conference, four months earlier. I could help developers be comfortable designing by asking them to sketch.

It was more easily said than done. Everyone on that first team showed dedication and courage. We had help from a Vancouver-based process expert who skilfully debriefed each of us and then served us a summary of remaining problems to iron out. And, when we were done, we had the beginnings of an ideation-and-design method.

Since then, it’s been refined with additional teams of design participants, and it will be refined further—perhaps changed significantly to suit changing circumstances. But that’s the story of the first year.