Sketching as Work

Earlier this week I led a group of Product, Technology, and Experience pros through a lengthy session to plan some challenging work to unify a diverse product portfolio. Several weeks ago, another group and I planned ways to improve an important business challenge: increasing renewals for a critical product line. In both sessions, I asked the teams to do something that might have seemed frivolous: I asked them to draw pictures.  Using markers and big sheets of paper, we quickly drew the experience we wanted to create, in a comic-strip like format, and we drew user interfaces that depicted the experience we imagined.

While every participant in these sessions made great contributions, I sensed some discomfort, especially at first. I think some of the participants hadn’t been asked to draw a picture since about 3rd grade. 

But sketching user flows and user interfaces is one of the most effective and efficient tools in a technology pro’s toolbox. When we draw, some important things happen:

  1. We are forced to make choices. It’s easy to say, “let’s make a new landing page where the teacher can see the student’s progress,” but as soon as we start to sketch that page, to lay it out visually, we have to ask and answer questions about hierarchy, data, labels, interactions. It’s difficult to identify those choices, let alone make them, if we aren’t sketching.
  2. We ferret out disagreements or inconsistencies, and therefore more quickly reach agreement. We might all agree verbally that we want that new landing page or that map of the learning path, but your conception of it might be totally different than mine. If we pull those pictures out of our heads and put them on paper, we can see where we differ, where we agree, and where we need further work.
  3. We produce an artifact that we can easily share with colleagues, even with customers. This can be used for further feedback and refinement. In this way, a sketch becomes our first prototype.
  4. Importantly, we advance our product work quickly and cheaply. In that session the other day, we spent less than an hour and a few cents worth of paper and ink getting our ideas on paper, where we could react to them right away. If we had written detailed formal requirements and handed them to developers to build, we’d spend entire sprintsworths on something we might have then thrown away. That’s really expensive.

So when you think about the essential tools of a modern technologist, don’t forget the paper, the straightedge, the markers.  In the words of Yale computer scientist and theorist David Gelernter:

“We ought to start teaching Velázquez, Degas, and Matisse to young technologists right now on an emergency basis. Every technologist ought to study drawing, design, and art history…. our technology would improve, our technologists would improve, and we would never regret it”

-David Gelernter, Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/digicult/dg7.htm

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