Earlier last week, I found out that there was a SketchCamp hitting Chicago. It was $25 for the day at a local design shop, GravityTank, and it was a good investment of my time (and money). I chase after opportunities to draw and use other tools in the toolbelt after a very good (but very packed) two months of work behind the computer and on the phone for The Learning Registry. This was just what the doctor ordered.

This SketchCamp (@SketchcampChi) was set up in the BarCamp model, which means it was an unconference. Rather than having a fixed agenda peppered with names and faces that tend to draw a crowd, this event and its offerings were shaped by the participants; the sessions were largely drafted and organized by attendees. There was some infrastructure defined in advance (the location, mealtimes, etc) but the rest was ad hoc.

What I Learned

Pixar discussion at #SketchCamp Chicago

I arrived about fifteen minutes late, but a few designers from Pixar were captured on video to discuss a bit of the process for creating A Bug’s Life (I can’t find the link to the video, sorry). The idea that the interview really nailed home was about the marriage of sketching and improv: storyboard live — storyboard everything that comes to mind. As you walk through the story with others, that’s where improv comes in — to play with the ideas.

With different speakers throughout the day and different ways of saying it, this became an emergent theme: sketching is acting is prototyping.

Process for "storyselling" at #SketchCamp Chicago

As Craighton Berman (@fueledbycoffee) presented next, the process employed at GravityTank includes (basically):

  1. Define characters
  2. Define the setting
  3. Write the script
  4. Make it visual
  5. Brainstorm
  6. Select the best ideas
  7. Shape the future experience
  8. Pitch the story
  9. Get feedback.

Craighton also dropped a great line by Matisse.

To draw is to sharpen an idea. Drawing is the precision of thought.

Nice, huh? Next up was Keith Tatum (@slingthought) who did a pretty good improv through his session on Storytelling. Huddling up the entire room of about 100 people, Keith talked a bit about his development as a designer (hint: hold onto those drawings from your youth, as they they tell you from whence you came). He focused on the use of stories to start and continue conversations with clients. Keith offered up a fantastic line that I think is going to resonate for a while:

UX professionals need to get in the business of story-selling.

Keith Tatum at #SketchCamp Chicago

We also began to walk down some tangents on tools, trends and technologies. Keith hinted that he’s going more and more digital, which prompted me to take out my iPad and stylus and start sketching a bit with OmniGraffle’s awesome app (specifically the freehand mode). I also started playing with a concept map I put together after Overlap this last summer, based on an idea a bunch of us had about a Coffee Shop Design Firm (more on concept maps below).

Sketching Concept Maps with an iPad

In discussing the trends introduced by Nintendo DS and AppleTV’s AirPlay working with iOS5, there is a clear trend towards needing to design for multiple screens, as user experience is carrying over across multiple modalities. Surfaces were also mentioned, in terms of simultaneous and multi-user shared interfaces.

After lunch Amanda Morrow (@amandamorrow) gave a great little talk about the similarities between wireframes and toilet paper. Per Amanda, we all use toilet paper, we know what it’s for and it serves multiple purposes (kleenex, cleans up spills, stuffs bras) — and it’s disposable.

The purpose of sketching is getting to a conversation as quickly as possible. It’s a translation tool that forces one to think in different ways than speech or texts alone allow. Amanda pointed out that a little bit of sketching is handy at clearing up a small mess, but big messes (like toilet paper needs) sometimes require the whole roll.

Some Messes Require the Whole Roll

This led to some discussion in our smaller group about approaches to sketching. Many people (myself included) use sketches to annotate “concept maps,” which are usually drawings with words, stick people and boxes with arrows that describe how different concepts relate to each other.  Our group generally agreed that while we tend to share concept maps with clients, they generally get no value out of it. It’s usually too difficult for people out of context to follow them, and while it’s useful from a design and development standpoint, it’s materiel that is largely not-asked-for by clients. Meanwhile, we tend to sketch and storyboard actual scenes and pictures that depict actual user experience, and such materiel is often never shown to clients. This is a practice we should commit to changing, as such sketches would provide tremendous value in conveying design ideas as well as a social object to spur feedback and further conversations.

Stop showing clients flow diagrams; start showing sketches to clients.

Next up for the larger group was Josh Damon (@joshdamon), who really got us zoned in on storyboarding. Now, Kevin Thorn (@learnnuggets) has an EXCELLENT session on storyboarding coming up at DevLearn 2011 and I encourage everyone to hit it.

Josh had us tackle storyboarding an app for an “art walk.” I focused mine more on Siri-guided architectural tour of  Chicago driven entirely by the user and then charted by the virtual assistant built into iOS5.

Architectural Tour Storyboard

Next, Josh talked about the importance of conveying interactions in storyboards. It’s pretty easy to show “scenes” in storyboards, but to show the actual interaction is something that gets glossed over. I envisioned my app to be pretty minimalist and simple, in terms of user interface, but I did envision that you might not want to completely rely on voice command alone as an interface, so I attempted to demonstrate swiping to navigate choices, and I think I did a pretty good job considering sketching and drawing is fairly new to my 38 years.

Sketching Interactions

There was another small group session on “words.” I thought I was in the metaphor session with Alexis Finch (@agentfin) but it turned out I was in a different group with Lauren Colton (@LaurenTGC) and already gelling with the folks there. One of the key ideas from this little talk was the idea to disconnect with our language and reconnect with people, with a lot of encouragement to use plain language.

  • Find common words, removing oneself from the jargon.
  • Lose the abbreviations. Even if you’re following the Chicago Manual, if you have to use a manual, it’s wrong.
  • If you need a Thesaurus to find a word, it’s the wrong word.
  • Focus on active voice over passive voice.
  • Be specific.

We then practiced a bit of story-selling with an ear for using plain language. Based on the feedback and the amount of discussion generated, my idea for a Siri-powered Grocery app seemed to strike a few chords:

Siri-Powered Grocery App Storyboard

The last session of the day was led by Pradeep Nayar (@designonmymind). It was refreshing to hear someone who is relatively new to UX from a technical background talking about the use of sketching for collaboration. Pradeep reinforced a lot of earlier points but this piece of insight is perhaps the most valuable takeaway you can hope for, making the case for why YOU should be sketching (no matter how much you think you can’t draw).

Sketch to get shit out of your head!

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