Thoughts on User Experience by Boon Chew


Introduction to Sketchnoting Workshop with General Assembly, 21 October

I’ll be running my introductory workshop on sketchnoting again on Monday evening, 21 October at General Assembly’s London campus in Farringdon. Ticket prices start at £20 for super early birds and go up to £30. The class is limited to 20 people.

The workshop is aimed at helping newcomers understand the strengths and benefits of sketchnoting and pick up practical methods to get going. It’s interactive, intense, and participants will get their hands dirty with opportunities to reflect on improving their notes and developing their own style and approach.

Materials will be provided – you’ll get to take home a tombow ABT dual brush pen and a MUJI gel-tip pen, as well as all the sketching paper you need to to get you started.

Here’s are some comments shared by previous attendees:

“really useful insight into structuring note-taking…”

“enabled me to improve my approach to sketch notes with better precision… an excellent job at distilling all aspects and even covering tools”

“highly recommended”

You can get tickets via the General Assembly site: Introduction to Sketchnoting for Improved UX Design

A sketchnote produced by a former workshop attendee

Sketchnotes as part of a maturing creative practice

A few years ago, I produced my first sketchnote at a visual note-taking workshop led by the lovely Eva-Lotta Lamm. Since then, I’ve done more than a hundred sketchnotes over two dozen or so events across 5 different countries with no intention of stopping.

I do it primarily for the challenge, the intimacy from being immersed in ideas, and I’ll admit, the compliments I get from onlookers, peers and experts. But the value I get out of it is so much more, because the most rewarding thing about sketchnoting is not about its product, but its process.

The best learning happens in real time

Active participation enhances our learning, but in broadcast situations like talks, panels, speeches and shows, it’s all too common to sit back and watch, listen, reflect, and question. Sketchnoting turns that on its head and allows you be part of that experience.

The flexibility of visual note taking over conventional note taking means you take more advantage of your senses, cognition, understanding and visual communication skills while you are in the moment absorbing everything. This involves things like:

  • prolonged concentration and being in a flow state
  • synthesising and visualising complex ideas in real-time
  • making connections that are non-linear and can flex around the narrative as its being presented
  • uncovering and visualising patterns and structures
  • leveraging aesthetics in visual communication

So while it’s nice to admire interesting sketchnotes as an output, but even better to experience sketchnoting for yourself.

Sketchnoting is a learnt skill

Visual notetaking is a skill that has to be learnt. You don’t need to be an art student to be able to do sketchnotes, but you have to be willing to stretch yourself a bit and visualise things that you “see” in your head onto paper.

This takes a bit of practice, obviously, but you can get up to speed by using some tips and tricks like Dave Gray’s approach to drawing things and people, choosing a framework or template to structure your notes, or using different types of pens to create depth and hierarchy in your notes.

Just like learning another language, and it shouldn’t take you too long to build up a basic vocabulary. Drawing portraits, abstract concepts and complex objects will of course take more time but at the end of the day, every little thing you draw is an investment you make in participating in the experience, which pays back in dividends.

Sketchnoting is a journey

I think sketchnotes is a lot like sketchbooking, where it forms part of your existing creative process and journey that develops over time. Just as artists use sketchbooks to develop their ideas, capture observations, and refine their thinking, sketchnoting allows a UX practitioner to be more focused, critical and reflective about what’s being learnt from the content.

It’s pointless, therefore, to see the whole picture by looking at someone else’s sketchnotes — just as you wouldn’t piece together the Mona Lisa by looking at Leornado’s sketchbooks. The output then becomes a byproduct of the note-taker’s experiences, thoughts and learnings. Some are more communicable, and some are more personal.

That shouldn’t stop you from making your sketchnotes memorable and interesting as that helps with socialising your ideas. At the end of the day, what matters most is what you take from it over time as you mature as a practitioner.

I’m really passionate about sketchnoting as a means to improve learning and visual communication. I run sketchnoting workshops with General Assembly from time to time – the next workshop is on Oct 21I’ve also produced a follow-up post on on getting started with sketchnotes for folks who have not tried their hand with sketchnotes and want a quick way to get started. Have a look!

Typography resources

As an addendum to my talk, “Typography is IA”, I’ve compiled a list of resources which I’ve found useful in my learnings and research. I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as much as I did.

Starting points

Useful reads and references

If you really want to go deep and geek out

Note that most of these tend to focus on typography for print. YMMV.

Or try the reading lists from the experts themselves…

Reading lists

Feel free to suggest more, or ask if you have any specific questions. Thanks!


Typography is IA – IA Summit 2013

An apprentice’s heart

I think the theme for 2012, at least for me, was about professional growth. As a result of my first full year as a permie at Sapient, I’ve dug more roots into projects and roles than before. Still, I continued my commitment to the community by organising UXCampLondon 2012, becoming an IxDA local leader, attending, supporting and speaking at numerous events, and building new and existing relationships.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to be patient with myself. It’s easy to be pulled in many directions when I’m solving a problem, but some pragmatism does no harm to balance things. Plus, it’s impossible to be expert at everything. I’ve learnt instead to accept the context of the problem, but improve the way I work with people towards a solution. Old habits die hard – being a programmer for so long, I’ve gotten used to a more direct way of problem solving. This needs to change, as problem solving in design is a lot more organic and social.

So I’ve been looking at ways to build shared understanding. To begin with, I’ve started looking at deconstructing the various ways I approach problem solving, to see if any of them can be done socially i.e. not alone. I’ve experimented with sketchboards, scaffolding design documentation, paper prototyping, sketching out conceptual models – basically making things very visual, tangible and interactive.

I think that effective shared understanding is a result of three things coming together regularly:

  • shared artifacts – ‘objects’ that can be shared/owned/worked on socially
  • shared activities – solving a problem together
  • shared leadership – people who take initiative, execute to a vision, draw and connect others

This was the point of a talk I did in September. Needless to say, it can be quite stressful trying to solve the problem while trying to solve the way to solve the problem. But I see no other way – many UX briefs contain elements of wicked problems, many of which demand a pedagogical approach rather than a systematic one.

In response to this, I’ve decided to invest some of the experiences I’ve gained in the UX community into the creative domain at work. I’m hoping that all the various ‘problem solving approaches’ trapped inside everyone of us can be diffused across the group, just like what happens when we attend events, go to conferences, meet up informally, etc. I’ve also been drawing inspiration from things like activity theory, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

My main motivation for all this is based on these assumptions

  • it’s impossible to know and learn everything
  • some approaches work better than others
  • everyone has a different way of solving problems
  • knowing how and why people solve problems a certain way provides new problem solving ideas, which one can adapt
  • this doesn’t destroy an approach or style an individual has developed over time

If there was one word I would use to sum all of these things up, it’s the word “apprentice”, because we end up behaving like apprentices as we move from one domain to another and solve more complex problems. Although we’ll approach mastery of our core UX skills over time, we’re also shifting from one problem domain to another especially in projects where problems are increasingly ‘wicked’ (in which there seems to be no shortage of).

I like what Stephen Anderson said recently during his Euro IA keynote; We should ultimately be doing what interests us and what we’re curious about. That, to me, is really about adopting an apprentice’s heart. And the challenge for UX (and for me) in 2013, just like any other year, will be a pedagogical one.

The Sketchnote Handbook

Update: you can get this book on Peachpit at a 35% discount if you use the code “SKETCHNOTE”. Download a free PDF of chapter 4.

The Sketchnote Handbook: The illustrated guide to visual notetaking, by Mike Rohde

Fellow sketchnoter and UX friend Mike Rohde has just released a book on sketchnotes, which contains lots of tips and advice about the craft of visual notetaking, copious examples, including contributions from other sketchnoters, including one from yours truly.

I was super excited when Mike contacted me to contribute something to his book, and I can’t wait to see the book for real. Mike contacted 15 other sketchnoters like Paul Soupiset, Francis Rowland, Eva-Lotta Lamm,  and Jessica Esch to contribute to the book to show the range of work across a broad range of skills and backgrounds.

initial concept in a quick sketch

It was fun translating the work from initial concept (shown above) to final designs (see below). I’ve gained a lot of value since I started visual notetaking a few years ago, which began at a sketching workshop by Eva-Lotta Lamm. It’s a great memory and understanding tool, social artifact, conversation starter, and is a really fun way of getting deep into a topic or idea.

Needless to say, this book from Mike puts a lot of this stuff into an easy-to-read format, and I forsee myself using it for reference and learning over time.

You can now order the book from Peachpit press, as an ebook, printed book or both.

If you’re looking for a sketchnoter to capture thoughts, ideas and work during a live session, do get in touch with me. :)

Thoughts about UX amateurism – a follow-up post

It’s been three months since I published my thoughts and feelings about UX amateurism and my constant struggle to define my position and understanding of user experience. I have now found that it’s better to refer to user experience as a state of mind rather than “a thing you do”. I admit that I still fall in the trap of using the word “UX” to refer to certain design practices, but I have stopped calling myself a user experience designer altogether, which I think is a good thing.

Since my post, I’ve started identifying myself as an interaction designer (and sometimes an information architect) and find that specialising my craft around behaviour (rather than everything under the sun) has helped me produce better work. There are many things involved in the design of interactive systems, and rather than biting off more than I can chew (although that is my name), it’s better to focus on collaborating with other specialists (content, tech, business requirements, strategy, graphic design, etc.) to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The mis-selling of UX

UX amateurism has resulted from an ugly mess of mismatched talent and demands, based on a poor understanding of effective modern design work and an overemphasis on marketing, branding, and “world-changing” experiences. There exists an extremely valuable pool of talent amongst us that contribute directly to UX but often don’t go by the term “UX designer”. Instead, they remain as visual designers, copywriters, content strategists, project managers, planners, front-end developers, producers, product managers, design researchers and so on – each of whom provide their own unique problem solving capabilities to the fore.

These roles are not new, but the emergence of digital ubiquity and disruptive innovation have caused many organisations to scramble for solutions, signing up for what is often packaged as user experience and cobbling together design teams without really understanding the drastic demands on its own operations and systems, not to mention its relationships with customers and end users. Meanwhile, “non-UX” practitioners have responded in their own way to push the boundaries of tools, processes, teamwork and technology.

Eventually, smart organisations and practitioners understand that it is not really about building better experiences per se, but better conversations. The primary struggle of industries today is not about delivering the ‘wow’, but about delivering relevance – because people are increasingly trading on trust rather than desire.

Transformation is everyone’s job, the future of UX

If user experience is a term that we use to trade our craft skills and services with, I feel that we owe it to UX buyers to match the “promise” of the term. And most of the time, these buyers will refer to UX as many things – a user-centred approach, a means to improve customer experiences, a product or service experience that is way better than the one before (the ‘wow’). Despite the single vision we can all see and agree on, the effort to achieve this is often gargantuan (you’re not really assuming UX = just an amazing app or website, right?). Hiring a team of “UX designers” isn’t going to solve anything unless the proper understanding, systems, culture, sponsorship and environment are in place. And if these things aren’t in place, it’s our job as practitioners to help build it up, if we all agree that’s where we need to go.

So yes, UX has taken over our hearts and minds, but we remain practitioners in our own domains. I feel that we’ve reached a point where the real transformative work still lies in front of us, if we really believe UX to be this truly amazing thing we can all achieve and celebrate. It’s time we look further afield and collaborate with others outside our specific domains.

And no, it’s not just about apps and websites.

UX amateurism and why I’m not a UX designer anymore

I’ve decided to close this post because I’ve felt that things have moved on since. There are things in the future worth striving for and this needed to be left behind.

A year at SapientNitro: U to C and back again

I recently passed the one-year mark at Sapient, and I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it but have been procrastinating. Part of it was because I wasn’t sure if I had anything worth sharing to another UX practitioner that they didn’t already know.

The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. Am I really learning anything or doing work that’s valuable? It was hard to put it into quantifiable terms. A hear people talking about the insights they’ve learnt from usability tests, designing a new reading experience for the iPad, writing books and inspiring articles, improving their UX process. I found it hard to say with conviction that I’ve learnt something new that someone other UX person hasn’t experienced so far or find valuable.

I began to ask myself why.

A lot of my work revolves around concepting, defining specifications and communicating UX strategy through wireframes, flows, user journeys and other deliverables I have no name for because sometimes I just cobble things together to make a point. But thinking in terms purely in terms of artifacts doesn’t answer the question of how effective one is in solving problems related to experience design.

So, I started thinking about the design process. Again, it was hard to put a finger on it. Some projects I work in run in a semi-agile format, with standups, sprint-like charts with weekly deliveries and design reviews fixed at specific times. Other projects I’ve worked on have been less structured. Again, I can’t say for sure what works best.

I also began comparing myself with the UX world beyond me. After my UX conference marathon which began in February 2011 with UX Hong Kong and ending in Interaction 2012 this year, my head was filled with all sorts of ideas about “The Future of UX”, “Lean Everything”, “Making Stuff”, and Unicorns. The more work I did, the more distant I felt from these ideas and lessons. Still, I soldiered on – believing that the inspiration had entered my unconscious and was working its way through my hands and tools.

I questioned the applicability of these ideas. How would a unicorn fit in a place like Sapient? How would Jeff Gothelf run a UX team here? Would any of our clients embrace The Future of UX? Would our clients really succeed if we convinced them decided to ship early and iterate through continuous testing and learning?

To an extent, I think my work has some evidence of that, but not entirely. Because a lot of these ideas have been put in specific frames, and those frames don’t exist in many places. It’s also very hard to flex organisations and practices around a new frame than it is to reshape the frame and change what’s inside it. Many of these frames are also owned and acted on by imaginary, ideal agents. In the real world, ownership and responsibility is far more subtle and complex.

Also, clients are very different than UX designers.

In fact, clients are very different from each other. And it makes for exciting as well as difficult projects. In some projects, I think a lot more about our clients’ business than I do about UX.

And then I start to wonder why UX people don’t talk about clients and their businesses.

That led me to realise that project success isn’t always measured by UX-related metrics – so a lot of my work (and thus, learning) is influenced by something other than UX. In fact, it’s measured more by Customer Experience (CX) metrics, which changes depending on which client you’re speaking to.

I had wrongly assumed user experience equals customer experience. It’s not. It’s like different set of cultures and beliefs, although they may share some anatomical similarities. This is probably why most business people don’t attend UX conferences.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there’s a gap between UX and CX, like two brothers who refuse to talk to one another but are forced to live together somehow. And it’s like UX wants CX to be more more like UX, and vice versa.

So, then I asked myself if I’ve learned more about CX over the last year. I probably have, but it’s hard to say exactly what about CX I’ve learnt – partly because there seems to be no hard definition of CX as of yet. I could probably make one up and sound like I’m making sense.

I do know, however, that I’ve contributed to both my client’s understanding of UX and my understanding of the CX of their business. We’ve learnt to translate each other’s languages a little bit to hold a decent conversation.

So in summary, translating UX to CX (and back again) is what I’ve gotten better at doing in the last 14 months, and it’s something I’m thinking more about from now on. This makes sense to me, as I happen to work for an organisation that calls itself the world’s first customer experience company.

Related reading:

Customer experience vs. User Experience - Leisa Reichelt,
What is an experience strategy – Steve Baty, Johnny Holland
Understanding customer experience – Harvard Business Review

Learning from lame moral lessons on Facebook (the Joshua Bell story)

A lot of people are harping around this story of expert violinist Joshua Bell who went barely unnoticed as a busker at a Washington DC metro station and how we’ve lost sight of the beauty of music, how we don’t stop to recognize talent, etc. The real lesson of this story isn’t so much about stopping for a moment or missing out of life’s pleasures or even recognizing talent. It’s really about how we fundamentally are as human beings, how we naturally perceive things one way and not the other.

In short, this story is about the nature of human beings, not about the future of who we can become. If you really want to learn from this, begin to turn the points around as normal behaviour:

  • We ascribe greater value to things when they’re priced higher (i.e. Metro Station vs. Concert Hall, see
  • We are naturally self-centred, and we perceive things based on our social context (see Tom Vanderbilt’s modal bias article on cyclists vs. cars
  • We are also a social species, and there’s been a lot of studies done around crowd or group behaviour, and a crowded space like like a Metro station influence certain behavioural tendencies (
  • How we perceive each other as individuals also have a ‘framing’ effect (busker vs. talented musician), so the whole moral aspect to this this interplay of roles is really quite pointless (

If you want to learn from this story, don’t focus on the morals themselves as they can come from *anywhere*. Focus on understanding our who we are as human beings, imperfections and all – our behaviours tend not to change, but changing environments and contexts (which is easier to do) can help shape and align those behaviours toward good.

Either that or I should stop clicking on lame stuff people post on Facebook.

Interaction 2012 – A review with sketchnotes

Last year around this time, I was ‘attending’ Interaction 2011 from afar, cosily in my loft. But when IxDA announced this year’s conference in Dublin, I jumped the chance. I’m glad I did – conferences like Interaction have deep community roots, and help interaction designers come together to reflect, energize, and chart history for the near future.

Here’s an article I wrote for a corporate blog, which didn’t get published but highlights my reflections from the conference…

Last week I joined about 750 attendees in Dublin, Ireland for IxDA’s Interaction 2012 conference on Interaction Design. While last year’s conference had (loosely) answered the question “what have we achieved and how do we move forward?”, this year’s IxD12 has progressed towards answering “the future of human experience and relationships through interaction”. The main themes that emerged throughout the event were the emotional/social aspects of digital experiences and breaking through UX cliches and norms. It was also the first “global” Interaction conference, based in a non-US venue, which thankfully made it easier on us London-based folks.

One of the major takeaways of the conference was about modernising our tools, methods and approaches to address the explosive growth around mobile, social computing, and affective interaction. Several keynotes and talks emphasized the use of innovative thinking (Luke Williams’ “Disrupt”), progressive methods (Abby Covert’s “IA Heuristics”), and expanding beyond conventional interfaces (Jonas Löwgren’s sketching keynote). This critical reflection of the practice was very well received by attendees, myself included.

Even classic UX hallmarks such as usability testing, goals, and tasks were brought into question. In his talk, “Users don’t have goals”, Andrew Hinton argues that we’ve become too procedural, and that there are better ways to design against for organic, fuzzy, human behaviours. The MAO model, presented by Sebastian Deterding, is one such method – proposed as an alternative to BJ Fogg’s “Persuasive Architecture”. Even usability expert Dana Chisnell argued that testing against tasks is ill-suited to research the increasingly ubiquitous social web. Despite the challenging nature of these talks, it didn’t feel superficial or impractical, and certainly left me inspired about the future of our practice.

The evening events, such as the opening & closing parties and the IxDA Awards (an Interaction first), were packed and fed the whiskey-induced celebrations well through the nights. One of them, The Great IxDA Debate hosted by SapientNitro, pitched three controversial IxD topics against panelists Dave Malouf, Pete Trainor, Abby Covert, Jeff Gothelf, Kieron Leppard, and Giles Colborne. With Dan WIllis (@uxcrank) moderating, the debate turned out to be one of the best IxD12 events.

It’s hard to shake off the community spirit at an Interaction conference, and it certainly delivered that in spades this year. Next year’s theme (again, an Interaction first) has been aptly named “Social Impact”, and will be held in Toronto, Canada. Closing keynote speaker, Dr. Genevieve Bell, summed it up best – we’re moving away from thinking solely about interactions and more towards relationships.

I tried to cover as many talks I could with my sketchnotes, but I’ll briefly sum up the event with the following “themes” I observed:

Everything is anthropomorphic

From Interactions to Relationships

Upgrading our UX methods

It’s just the beginning – resources, articles, and even more sketchnotes