Author: Maggie Iglesias Pena

Sketching is one of the many important skills UX designers should refine. UX Sketching has various meanings, but for the sake of this article, it's meant to show how we can illustrate ideas, concepts, journeys, maps, personas, and flows used in our design process. It's not limited to just only how an interface could look like - it's covering every piece of the user experience.

I should emphasize that sketching is not drawing, illustrating, nor creating high-fidelity or fully-polished renderings. Sketches are meant to be quick and concise - essentially, as long as your sketch can convey an idea, it's probably a good sketch.

Why should you sketch more?

Sketching is meant to allow the sketcher to quickly come up with different ideas without having to worry about too many constraints. This is followed by many iterations and experimentations, which can be done by practicing diverging and converging ideas, or crazy 8s exercises.

With time, you should be able to develop your sketching muscles and even develop your own visual and sketching language to communicate with others. Focus on developing less abstract sketches that can be easily understood by others.

Other awesome benefits of developing your sketching skills include, but are not limited to:

  • Practicing for future whiteboard interviews
  • Generating a lot of ideas and get them out of your head
  • Collaborating better with other stakeholders
  • Iterating on ideas quicker

Before you get started, make sure you have a goal in mind. If you're looking to explore or ideate, consider what is the end goal, purpose, constraints, and maybe audience. This can help set the stage for how, what, and even where you should sketch. It also shows that there is a clear goal or focus, so that you don't end up going too off rails, or in a totally different direction than what you originally intended. As designers, we should know how to work with constraints, as often this also makes us more creative.

In this exercise, our goal will be to sketch out some general concepts of task flows which can be turned into wireframes. With that said, let's break down some task flow sketching approaches. If we break down how we sketch, to the atomic level, we end up with some basic shapes (as shown below).

The good news is if you know how to sketch these basic shapes, then you pretty much can sketch anything. When you think about user flows, or flows in general, we often see a combination of these shapes.

The breakdown:

When you put all of those shapes together, you end up with the skeleton of a user flow, which you then ideally fill out and cater to your specific project needs. You then use all of the shapes above to indicate different concepts such as decision points, connections, flows, direction, and self-contained processes.

A simple user flow example:

A longer user flow example:

User flows are usually a great way to start sketching some of these basic shapes, they don't require any fancy shapes nor advanced skills and can be one venue to practice your sketching skills while still moving forward with your project.

Now that you have those basic shapes down, and you're ready to move from a user flow into a wireframe, we can start looking into more detailed sketching practices. An important thing to note is that sketching is not about having all the details, you just need enough to convey an idea. So before you keep adding on to your sketches, take a moment and ask "is this enough to convey my message or what other details should I add to make this clear for everyone?"

When I asked a bunch of my non-design co-workers if they could sketch an email interface, this is what the came up with:

Notice how they used lines, squares, circles, and other simple shapes to convey the idea of an email interface. This was just enough to get their message across.

When sketching wireframes, start simple and simplify how many lines or shapes you put into a sketch. Think through why you need that detail and if it's truly necessary. That doesn't mean you can't keep adding more details as you continue to iterate or change the design, but by keeping it simple, you're also welcoming more ideas and iterations, not to mention that you can quickly move from one sketch to another. Just make sure that you're including the shapes you need based on your goal and previously stated constraints.

Here's an example using some of our previous shapes:

When it comes to wireframing, our shapes do take on a different meaning to better suit their purpose.

Now if we put it all together, we can apply that same knowledge and guidelines to larger diagrams and flows like the one below.

Don't be afraid to use this as an opportunity to add more annotations and connections as long as it helps clarify your thoughts and your sketches. Remember, it's about just enough details, but also your audience. I'm guilty of going in tangents and making annotations, could be around future explorations, or even questions I need to get answers to. Annotations and connections can also come in the form of arrows, directional lines, notes, numbers, and even gestures.

When ideating, keep sketching until you feel like you've achieved your goal, or even time-box your sketching time to really challenge your speed. But never delete nor erase your sketches, just keep going. Focus on refining and generating more sketches rather than fixing the one you're currently working on; this will only slow you down. By not deleting or erasing your sketches, you can easily follow your train of thought, as well as show off process. You never know when a sketch might come in handy!

So remember to keep sketching, keep practicing, and find your style; if you want to get better, start making it part of your process. Now go and grab whatever tool's the most accessible to you, whether that's a whiteboard, a tablet, an online program, or good old pen and paper, and start sketching now!

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