UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 511 April 6, 2010

Ideate: A Digital Sketchbook

Communicating thoughts and ideas can be one of the biggest challenges in an industry that relies so heavily on visual interpretation. If you’re working on an idea by yourself, with a colleague or a client, it’s one thing to see an idea in your mind and another to get it out for others to evaluate. As a UX designer, sketching is a daily necessity. It’s one of the most valuable tools you can wield.

In my office, I’ve watched co-workers use EffectiveUI-branded sketchbooks to draft and scribble ideas for years. The books’ grid- and dot-bearing pages take the guesswork out of sketching for specific device-monitor dimensions—whether it’s a mobile or desktop browser window. These sketches have been our primary means of communicating with clients. Our teams collaborate to sketch initial ideas, scan each page into our computers, prepare sketching documents into folders and email them to project stakeholders for review. It’s a workable process, though by no means perfect or particularly eco-friendly.

EffectiveUI sketchpads

With the introduction of the iPad, a new opportunity presented itself. We could take our successful sketchbooks and make something even more useful by bringing all the things we love about sketching and marry them with a wonderful digital device that was roughly the size of a sketchbook. This idea set in motion a project that would bring forth a sketchbook application for the iPad called Ideate.

Ideate iconThere’s a lot of interest in iPad app design and development, and sketching is a subject very dear to the hearts of most UX designers, so I thought I’d share my experience with developing the Ideate concept and application.

Why take sketching—something that’s so simply splendid—and make it digital? Well, we wrestled with that a bit. Believe me, I love the smell of Sharpies as much as the next person. Give me a black pen and a highlighter and I can share ideas with the best of them. However, there are limitations that I kept experiencing using good ol’ pen and paper. Those were the things we were looking for. We weren’t looking to replace the sketching experience, but enhance it.

Ideate fashion sketch

Every time I want to share a sketch I go to our copier/scanner, scan my sketch and email it to myself. I then email that on to someone. Or, I use my iPhone to snap a picture, but if lighting is bad, my sketch looks bad and that’s not good. It was this experience that drew us to making sharing sketches easy. The thought of sharing sketches right from my iPad to Flickr or via email really excites me.

Another thing I would do is draw out a template as a base for what I would be sketching and then make multiple copies to sketch on. For example, to accurately represent an idea for multiple states of a Web application I would draw out a Web browser, make copies of that and then sketch over those copies. The custom EffectiveUI sketchbooks alleviated some of this, but we thought it could be even better. As a result, we incorporated a wide variety of templates you can load as backgrounds and sketch right over them. Bye, bye copy machine.

For every design, there are always sources of inspiration. I always bookmark sites, take screenshots, clip magazines, and maintain my own little inspiration library. We wanted to bring this idea into Ideate as well. The Web is an infinite source of inspiration, so why ignore that? You can clip images from the web via Safari, bring in images from your Photo Library or access Clips that come with the application to use as reference, provide inspiration or add to your sketch.

Designing and building an iPad application was particularly interesting, especially because we didn’t have access to the device. To get over this hump one of the developers, Jonathan Branam, fashioned a prototype of wood, paper, and boxing tape. Lo-Fi, yes, but also incredibly helpful. He also made it so you could slide different printed templates in and out. This prototype helped us make some valuable decisions, like the placement of the pen tray. It’s placed there so you can quickly switch between pens with your thumb (if you’re right-handed) as your sketching, but expect customization soon.

We had big ideas for this application and it shows because of how many features we cut, including some of the delightful animations that are so prominent in Apple’s own applications. The process was completely agile and while we cut features we made sure the application was still useful. One of the things that really helped make progress was relying on the user interface elements and guidelines Apple gives you to work with. They put a lot of thought into the interface behind the iPad, so we leveraged that as much as possible.

Ideate hand templateOne thing we found and didn’t really expect was how useful Ideate is for other industries. As we were working on the application people in the company mentioned the idea to their doctors, architect friends, and teachers. What we found is that the same ideas around templates, sharing, and drawing as a communication tool resonated with so many people. This pushed us to make more custom templates to support these use cases we came across.

Thinking through and building an iPad application has done wonders to help me understand what it takes to make something for this new device. Will Ideate replace the familiar pen and paper? No. The application is another tool that can be used to support your own thought process. For myself, it’s been something I’ve been waiting for. Now all I need is an iPad.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Senior Editor, UX Magazine

Juan Sanchez is an experience architect at EffectiveUI, founder and operator of ScaleNine (@scalenine), and author of Creating Visual Experiences with Flex 3.0. Follow Juan on Twitter @juansanchez.

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Comments

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Actually I would buy this for Mac&PC and simply use my Wacom. This is seriously more suitable for that than iPad. Atleast in my case, a doctor might like an iPad, good ideation ;)

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There is some not-official stylus options out there... Like Pogo:
http://tenonedesign.com/products.php

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I agree with the other posts. A stylus is a must for this to really work. Right now Autodesk Sketchbook Mobile Express is available for both the iPhone and the iPad. I have it on my iPhone and it is very hard to control the line with the tip of your finger.

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stylus*

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Why wouldn't you just use a tablet PC and One Note? It pretty much lets you do all the same things and has styles support.

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I believe this could be another great way of using the mighty iPad.

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Its a good idea and a dream of anyone who has been eyeing up a Wacom Cintiq over the years but just couldn't pull the trigger (sigh, one day).

As Luke mentioned, the lack of stylus is a deal breaker. Having not so delicate fingers makes the stroke of any thin line difficult to control/see.

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That is awesome! That would be very useful! Now I just need to get an iPad!
When I do, this will be the first app I buy.

Are yall developing a stylus? What would be cool is if was shaped like a pencil and your app would recognize the surface area and allow you to use the pencil end or eraser end. That idea has probably been done, but if not, just make sure you name it after me! : )