You’re sitting on the 22nd floor of a highrise blankly staring out the window at the Los Angeles skyline. You anxiously tap your feet to the rhythm of the setting sun. In front of you sits a 2.7Ghz i7 macbook pro (1TB SSD and 16GB of RAM) that’s docked to dual 27 inch Thunderbolt displays; you have the full power of the “Creative Cloud” and a half dozen different flavors of prototyping tools at your beck and call. Yet for some odd reason you are frozen completely with inaction due to the pressure of a looming deadline. You’re stuck worrying about presenting your ideas to an eager group of business stakeholders. They somehow believe that you and you alone have the power to completely transform your company. What are you going to do?
I’m sure we all have been in this position before. Its frustrating to know that despite our utter and complete faith in technology to solve all of our problems that often it lets us down in epic proportions. The best ideas most often do not come from sitting hours in front of a computer screen. The simplest and best solutions often come to you when you manage to drag yourself away from the keyboard and pick up a pen, pencil, or dry erase marker.
So how exactly does sketches help to bring value innovation to enterprises? I chock it up to three simple facts.
1. You think better with your hands.
Regardless with the medium you’re working with but there is something to the simplicity and elegance of working with your hands that allows us to think better. Generally when you’re working on a computer there are numerous restrictions: physical movement, workspace, and visual perception. Being able to utilize a large space such as a whiteboard or even allowance for more freedom of movement such as when working with pen and paper helps to free your perception from the constraints of a digital medium.
2. Making mistakes is easier and less frightening.
When working to produce digital deliverables there is always a drive to get it perfect. You spend just as much if not more time tweaking pixels of an original idea than exploring various options. The decision process is driven by the need to refine and perfect. This can lead to a lot of wasted time. When sketching, you allow yourself affordance to make more mistakes and can recover from those mistakes a lot quicker. Making a mistake feels a lot less permanent when you present a sketch rather than emailing a PDF or prototype to a large group of people each spending valuable time in reviewing each individual screen. By working on sketches early on its much easier to abandon your fear of failure and open an honest dialog about a design rather than requesting exhaustive feedback.
3. Sketching can be a performance and make us better at presenting as well as giving and receiving feedback.
This is the part that usually drives the introvert in us all crazy. None of us like to be put on the spot but doing group sketching allows us all to treat the design process as a performance rather than a mundane task. Once you get the jitters out, you will find that the entire group will feed off the energy in these collaborative sessions. Bring other designers, developers, even the business stakeholders into these sketching sessions and you might find yourself getting better at making design decisions and needing less direction in the future. Don’t be afraid to also let others join in on the sketching process. This can help to clarify (or avoid) stodgy requirement documents and allow developers to feel personally invested in the entire process.
By having multiple individuals help guide your hand in design it can be beneficial to everyone’s understanding of the product you are building. You will be surprised by how stakeholders back down from including overly complicated (and often unnecessary) requirements or how developers will help in simplifying complex problems before they write a single line of code. By bringing together the collective value of all team members it is a low cost way to spur innovation in the enterprise. This can rarely be done by sharing a PDF or showing a prototype. However the simplicity of sketching allows multiple contributors to share their ideas early on and could prevent costly rework down the road.
Sketching on Screen is not Quite the Same
Yes, I know that “sketching” can also be done on a computer screen and there are many types of software to generate rough wireframes and rapid prototypes. I am not knocking these options out as they can be great assets in fast paced agile environments. These tools are great for presenting early concepts, however I am still a fan of using sketches during the ideation phase of a project.
If you have the time (which you always do) then pick up that pen and paper to start sketching right away. You won’t regret those extra minutes spent and the benefits to this offline task greatly outweigh the risks.
Have anything to add? Please feel free to leave a comment and continue the discussion.
Paul is a UX designer and web developer who founded Lab Coat Media and works as a consultant for Ness SES. He balances his time between design and development projects and teaching workshops on Axure prototyping and UX design. He is an active member of the local community in Los Angeles and is a co-organizer of the LAUX meetup group.