The Power of the Pen
It's called a pen. It's like a printer, hooked straight to my brain.
My UX colleagues and I are continuously refining the description of our value so that we can better communicate why our participation in software development will improve the user's digital life.
A sketching date with my pen
The other week, fellow UX’er Fredrik and I spent a day lying on the floor in our big workshop room. Apart from my Mac, which played country music discreetly in the background, there were no machines in the room with us. Instead, a long strip of sketching paper covered the floor under us and markers in all colours were spread around our working space.
Using Jayway’s standard design process as a foundation, we discussed what the UX designer’s role is. The description we landed on goes something like this:
“As a UX’er, we are in touch with the client, the user and the developer and we find the best solution that combines their wishes. The client wants it to be viable – they want to make money. The user wants it to be desirable – they want a product they can use that will enrich their life. The developer wants it to be feasible – they want to use new, cool technology and follow trends, but they also want it to be possible within the time and budget. The UX designer finds that ‘Sweet Spot’ in the middle.”
Do you understand exactly what a UX Designer’s role is from that description? You might have an idea, but maybe it’s not quite clear what we mean. We were also not sure we understood each other entirely, so we grabbed pens and started sketching the UX designer’s role.
The drawing looked like this:
Words can easily be misunderstood. The imagination of each individual works differently, and it’s never certain that what I think I am describing is what you are picturing in your mind when you hear me talk. With drawings, the risk of talking past each other is significantly reduced. Looking at our drawings, there’s no doubt where the UX Designer is positioned in relation to the client, the user and the developer.
That is the power of the pen – even with simple strokes and minimal drawing skills, you can transport your thoughts from the hidden nooks of your mind out onto the white canvas, where the rest of the world can see them, discuss them and understand them.
The pen in practice
I am currently working on a big European Union project - Project WATCHME. It has got a long timeline and many partners spread across all of Europe. Partners don’t see each other very often, and most of our collaboration takes place via Skype meetings and emails.
You can imagine that this collaboration setup creates an environment where nobody really knows what the others are picturing. It’s a minefield of potential misunderstandings!
When I joined the project, there was already an overwhelming amount of specifications documents that tried to describe with words what is expected from the product. After attempting to understand it all, and failing miserably, I grabbed my pen and started drawing the software as I imagined it.
I was probably drawing the wrong things in the beginning and my first sketches will likely be discarded as we proceed with the design process. But as soon as I put my pen to paper, the project started taking shape. Conversations with my colleagues became more concrete: rather than talking about ‘some graph’ that shows ‘some data’ in ‘some way’, we were able to point, explain, show, suggest changes.
With those initial sketches – and we are talking super low fidelity pencil drawings – I managed to not only show the look of the product, but also describe the context in which it would find its use.
Very quickly, the sketches became digital wireframes:
In no time, I was presenting a clickable prototype of data visualizations to our project partners and future users.
Since then, our conversations are much more informed. When we discuss the product, everyone knows what we are talking about and we can follow each other’s thoughts and opinions.
The pen comes first
There are all sorts of UX design software and tools that help us in our work. In the course of an average week, I use InDesign, Sketch, MarvelApp, Photoshop, sometimes Axure, and many other programs. But my work always starts with a simple pen stroke on white paper.
A pen is the fastest and easiest way to establish a common understanding with the client, the user and my colleagues. A pen is truly a printer hooked straight to my brain.
This blog post talks about the case study: Project Watchme.