Sketching as a Practice in Observation


In the realm of UX design, observation is a critical skill to be nurtured. It’s a way of learning through the experience of others, which is central to the work of a robust UX practice. With a developed sense of observation it’s possible to better cultivate ideas, perception, and empathy. The benefits are vast, but like any other skill it needs to be honed, and this takes practice.

So how would someone do this? I imagine there are many ways to grow observation as a skill, but sketching is likely the best. By its nature, sketching is a practice in active observation.

100 Sketches in 2 Days

I recently conducted a sketching project with the aim of exercising my own observation skills. For this reason, I kept the activity simple: 100 sketches in 2 days, of people, things, contexts, spaces, and flows. Using only 3 x 5 inch white index cards, a sharpie and gray marker, I sat in different places all over San Francisco, to witness the way people move and interact.

Some Learnings

At about sketch number 80, some major learnings surfaced. Specifically, my ability to capture and translate ideas more quickly. When starting off, each sketch took roughly 5 minutes to complete. Towards the end, it was close to a minute or less. I’ve noticed a positive difference in my visual communication skills. Now when working with a team in an ideation session, I’m able to better articulate ideas by rapidly sketching UIs and flows with greater efficiency.

An example of this discovery is expressed in the sketch below. During a sketching session at the Ferry Building, I observed someone shopping for postcards, and realized the ease and convenience of this experience. The customer can stand in a single spot, while evaluating many options by simply spinning the card rack. I had never given much thought to shopping for postcards, it always seemed so simple. But now I see the flair in this experience, and imagine this insight will prove valuable as a metaphor within a web or mobile context.

#2, The Ferry Building

Similarly, I had another insight when sketching at home. I’ve always found the TV remote a little intimidating, and when examining it in more detail I discovered why. After counting several times, the total number of buttons came to roughly 53, and that seems crazy to me. I only use 4 buttons total on that thing, because I don’t know what most of them are for. It’s a difficult piece of hardware to navigate and understand, and I think of it as a negative experience. This serves as an example of what not to do.

#52, At Home

Below are several other sketches of people, things, ideas and flows.

#18, Cafe Reveille
#11, View from Cafe Reveille
#8, The Ferry Building

Lastly, some bonus things: My sketching technique is advancing, and now I have artifacts to add to my visual library, each piece serving as a resource for ideas, metaphors and inspiration.

If you’re interested in seeing more, please follow me on twitter @vhmartini. I’ll be rolling out the other 95 over the next month or so.

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