Sketch, sketch and sketch some more..

My name is Tim Street and I’m the Digital Development Team’s Apprentice at the City of York Council. My role is to help the team design and develop projects from start to finish, making wire-frames, mock-ups and user journeys, etc. along the way.

So the time has come when a project is underway, people have been interviewed for user research and finally there is clarity in what your team is going to be building… Our team for example build web-based products to help fellow people in the council with their day-to-day lives. But what is the product going to look like? How can users feel comfortable when navigating it? Is it actually usable? It’s all very well having all the information out in front of you, but transferring that into a user-friendly design can be difficult, and without being prepared this could lead to many usability issues later down the line when production has started and people start using the product.

Sketching is quite a new aspect to our preparation work when starting a project. Following the user research that we have collected, we can solve some potential issues before development has even started. You could say, “Design it before you start designing” (I just made that up), which may seem a strange way of putting it, but it works when you put sketching into practice and put those initial ideas from your head down onto paper.

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It all starts around a desk or table armed with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper. With the objective in mind, we set ourselves 5 – 10 minutes to draw some initial thoughts down onto the paper. Our team tries to then come up with 6 or so different ideas for the particular subject we are working on and then present the ideas to each other explaining our thought process and why it could work.

As an example; there is the homepage of a website that you have been asked to design, although the content of the page is quite basic, the placement of where the features will be displayed is important in terms of how usable and friendly the user will find it. If the main feature is the ability to search, then the search bar should be prominent on the page, but how will this look? If the page just wants to hold information and wants to look clean and concise but not look too crowded, how would this look?

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Even if the sketches are completely rubbish, there may be one design in there that could show some kind of promise, this can be then taken forward, fleshed out and progressed until there is a sketch that you are happy with. This could take a few attempts of narrowing down the ideas, not only will the good ideas be handy, the bad ones will show progression and could bring up those pesky hidden issues there and then.

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After the first stage of sketches have been completed, you can then stick them up on a wall and add Post-It’s with your thoughts, maybe recommending anything that could be added or removed to help how the sketch comes across as an idea. Even a quite simple thought process is good enough to go on one of these Post-It’s, at the end of the day there are no right or wrong answers, and it could open up potential avenues and improvements that other people may have missed. The stages of sketching finishes when one final mock-up has been agreed on by the group.

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In our case as a team, the importance is to show and test these designs to the customers up front even before a line of code has been written. If you have gone off in a different direction with these sketches, then these early meetings can get everything back on track. Even if you stick it up on a wall for them and then go through another Post-It session with the customer, it will be highly beneficial allowing them the chance to have more of an important role in the production of their product.

As a designer it makes the whole process more comfortable having these sketches displayed in front of you. Though they may not be the final product, it can give a good indication of where to start and what direction it is going in.

It doesn’t just apply to design work of course, if you are struggling for ideas, whatever the issue, and whatever the subject, grab a piece of paper and a pen and get sketching!

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