Why pen+paper is better

When solving a software-design problem or a web-design problem, you get the best results from following a design process. I’m not referring to something I made up. I’m referring to something that people who are trained in “Design” will recognise as a design process. And such processes inevitably include divergence and convergence.

Divergence is the stage when the designer or design participants come up with ideas. Lots of ideas. Not just comfortable ones, but ideas that push at the edge of the envelope. Ideas without judgement.

Convergence is the stage when ideas are judged, rapidly iterated, assessed, and checked against the requirements.

In my experience, divergence is best done by sketching, with a pen on paper:

ideation-methods-on-a-graph

Sketching on paper with a wide-nib pen is best because this “technology” is familiar—it’s easy—and inexpensive. Everyone can Wide-nib markerhave a pen and paper, so there’s no need to wait your turn. Sketching is fast, so designers have little invested in any one sketch. Modifying or iterating any one of the ideas is easier to accept. Most importantly, for inexpert sketchers, the sketching process intrinsically discourages high-fidelity work and the wide-nib pen discourages sketching the fine detail that detracts design participants from getting the ideas out, fast.

Software that’s intended to help people “sketch” detracts from a good result. The software often lets users build prototypes with a great level of interaction detail. The problem with this: attention to detail is a distraction at the divergence stage. When filling the design space with ideas, it’s sufficient merely to evoke the idea and share it. Ambiguity actually helps the team see more than one idea in the same sketch; each interpretation of the idea can be iterated. Software that’s not intended to help people to “sketch” slows them down at the divergence stage—just when we need ideas to flow quickly. Divergence is about filling the design space with lots disposable ideas.

Read my blog post about why ideas are disposable.

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.

Design Studio vs. Five Sketches™

I came across a software-design approach similar to Five Sketches™. It’s called Design Studio, and was developed in the USA. I was intrigued to learn about Design Studio. When separate teams develop a similar response to the same challenge, it validates both solutions. In this case, the challenge is to support software developers as they design the mental models, interaction, and GUI for their products.

Video no longer availableDesign Studio was presented at a 2007 conference, and you can watch it on video: but the BrightCove video is no longer available to watch.

If you have information about Design Studio, please comment, below. Found it! Jeff White and Jim Ungar presented their Design Studio method at the IxDA 2008 conference, in a presentation titled User Interface Design in an Agile Environment: Enter the Design Studio.