Cameron Ley, one of my coworkers was fortunate enough to hear Bill Buxton speak at U of T and Cameron has graciously allowed me to post his thoughts on the event:
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Bill Buxton (http://www.billbuxton.com/) the principal researcher at Microsoft Research, speak at the University of Toronto. It was an excellent talk and he had a lot of great insight into the design process and his experience as a professional designer. The overall theme of the event was the same as the personal mantra he displays on his site. “Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the “things” that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.” Below I have summarized his main points from the talk.
1. The best designers have a process, which includes sketching.
He began by saying that excellent designers are serial offenders. They can do it on demand, without any divine intervention. Comparing designers to athletes, he claimed that designers are trained to explore the design space and generate ideas. Sure athletes might have more natural ability, but the best athletes work at it day in and day out. If you work at your craft it can become an activity that you can do when called upon. “Ideas are cheap”, he said. “They’re a dime a dozen.” With enough practice, a good designer should be able to brainstorm a good idea in about 30 min. His main point at the start of the talk was that excellent designers have a process that has been tested and proved to work. When they have a process, they can generate ideas quickly and systematically.
2. Comparing the current state of experience design to the state of industrial design in the late 1920s.
Current companies that have produced excellent experience design time and time again have done so by implementing an organized design arm that is imbedded in all aspects of the company, as well as having a design manager who is on par with every other senior VP in the structure of the organization. So a President of sales should be at the same level in the company as the President of design (or vice president). If design is not represented at a high level, the president / ceo is saying “I don’t value design, and neither should you” to the entire organization.
The way he connected this idea to industrial design was by comparing case studies from the late 1920s to current successful companies. While I couldn’t take notes on it all, the basic premise was that certain companies (I think it was in the automotive industry) in 1927-9 established internal design consultancies, and those who did survived the 30s. From this, he stated that it is clear that design is not superficial, it is essential for successful companies. Fast forward to the modern day, and we find Apple using the same techniques to become one of the most highly regarded, design focused companies in their field. Jonathan Ive, who is responsible for a lot the big successes at Apple including the upcoming iPhone, joined Apple in 1992 and was a lead designer when they were on the down turn (if I remember correctly from the talk). When Steve Jobs came back in 1997, Ive was given the title of “Senior Vice President of Industrial Design”. Now, Apple is considered a leading company and a lot of its success can be attributed its focus on design. The point in which the company turned itself around coincides with the return of Steve Jobs and the elevation of Ive. Was the title change all that was necessary to turn things around? Not at all, but the elevation in status sent a message to the company about where they were headed. It was representative of the changing culture in Apple, a culture that has separated them from the pack and is currently a key element in their success.
After going through a lot of the history stuff, he then turned to the more tactical stuff.
3. We Design by exploring the design space using alternatives.
This was where defining the whole “sketching” part came in. Buxton claimed that the most important quality of a sketch was that it was ambiguous. It was intentionally ambiguous because that meant that the team needed to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Sketches are social beings, he stated this over and over. They want to be with other sketches, and with other people. Leaving sketches and ideas ambiguous would mean that they need to be with people to discuss the direction, and eventually from this discussion, be with other sketches. This process would maximize exploration and discovery. Sketches are also very high fidelity pieces of work, they are just high fidelity when the purpose they serve is taken into account. A sketch of a hinge is high fidelity even if you don’t show the door, or draw the hinge in proper ratio, or use a ruler.
Buxton also mentioned that designers need to incorporate the transitions that occur during the experience to truly capture it holistically. The arrows in a storyboard are just as important as the frames themselves. This was his example. We go to work and back home each day, but the bottom example captures the experience of it much better.
The transition(s) during an experience is just as important as the frames of the experience.
4. Sketching does not mean drawing.
We can sketch experiences by utilizing any type of medium that is available. Palm designers for example (I think, but don’t quote me on this) made a prototype out of wood and carried it around in their pockets to make sure that the form they would go with “felt” right. This example was a good definition about “sketching” an experience.
Obviously this summary doesn’t really do such a great talk justice (it was almost 3 hours), and a lot of the techniques he described were ones that are already used by Cm. But it was an excellent lecture, and I wanted to share some of the great stuff I learned. If this kind of stuff is something you’d like to read more about, his book is available now. Here is a link to a sample: http://www.billbuxton.com/bookFlyer.pdf