Why I will be sketching my travels instead of writing about them

I sketchnoted some of my travel during a recent trip to Luxembourg and Switzerland with my wife. This was the first time I had done it after being inspired by Eva-Lotta Chen’s amazing travel sketchnotes she had drawn during her trip around the world. After sketching four days of my trip, I’m hooked! Here’s why.


Sketching my experiences makes them more vividly memorable

I remember the moments that I sketched much more vividly than those that I only photographed. Much of my photography involves passive capturing of scenes and objects. Sketchnoting however forced me to think harder about not just what I saw but also what I smelled, touched and felt and articulate those memories on paper. Looking back at my sketchnotes, I realised that the moments I photographed were not necessarily the moments I remembered the most.

Sketchnoting is more fun than just writing

I’ve tried keeping a travel journal in the past but I always found it difficult to motivate myself to write, especially after a tiring day of exploring. Sketching doesn’t feel like work. It feels like doodling, but with a purpose. In fact, it felt therapeutic. Also, it’s a lot more fun to look back at sketchnotes than written journals and you can share them with friends, family and even strangers. If you’re sketching on a plane, train or a coffee shop, people try to take a sneak peek while you’re sketching and it can be a great conversation starter!

Sketchnoting doesn’t take any longer than keeping a traditional travel journal

I found that I could sketch a day’s experiences in around 20-30 minutes. The first one probably took the longest because I had to think longer to decide which bits of the day to sketch. But after a couple of sketches, the pattern started to flow better. The things I’m sketching are still a bit random but I’m experimenting with different ways to tell the story.

If you’re even a tiny bit interested, give it a go. If you’re not sure, just start by drawing a stick figure next to your notes. Anyone can draw a stick figure!


What I learned about UX from Scott McCloud and comics

When I borrowed Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art from my university library back in 2004, I returned it without finishing it. Being an analytical computer science student, I had difficulty relating to the mystical world of drawings. It took me 10 more years before I picked up the book again, thanks to my lovely colleague Davina Gifford, who was kind enough to lend it to me almost indefinitely. Reading the book this time around was like finding lost treasure. Every turn of the page, I learned something that I could apply into my little world of user experience design. Here are a few snippets of my learnings:

A design is not an experience

C’est n’est pas une pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe. A design is also just a representation of a solution and the experience it provides. Norman and Draper’s User Centered System Design (1986) discusses conceptual models in play during a user’s interaction with a product – the designer’s conceptual model as the designer intended, the system image that it communicates to the user and the user’s mental model or their understanding how the system works. An artist or a designer communicates through representations and is never in full control of how those representations are perceived and experienced.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Reducing fidelity helps amplify specific details

As a face starts to look more cartoony, it starts amplifying specific details such as the frown or the expression of the eyes. I always advise my clients to strip down the details when starting to sketch ideas. Any additional detail only acts as distraction, especially in the early stages of design. Scott also mentions that a low-fidelity cartoon face is more universal and more people can related to it and see themselves on the face. I believe that low-fidelity wireframes are also easier to relate to as they don’t come with the polarising distractions such as colours and fonts. I’ve seen time and again design review meetings being spent on arguments on the right shade of green and the correct number of pixels between lines of text. Simplify to amplify.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Good design is an extension of the the user

Good design becomes an extension of the user and moves in unison with the user to help them reach their goals. Bad design, however, sticks out like a sore appendage and hinders the user’s journey towards their goals. When we are designing products, we not just designing for experiences, but also for identities.

© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

UX design can happen at any abstraction level

and the level of abstraction you choose to represent your experience with affects how users perceive those representations.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Take advantage of closure performed by users

I didn’t realise all this time that comic artists had been using the Gestalt law of closure to trigger my imagination and get me emotionally involved in the story. Our brains are programmed to constantly seek patterns and meaning, even when they don’t seem to exist. Hence, we make assumptions to close off or complete the incomplete pattern.  What you don’t show can trigger the users imagination…
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

and a lot of things can happen in the user’s mind in between visual elements. But there’s always a fine line between showing too much and showing too little. In UX design, the only way to find out you’ve got this balance right is to test your designs with users.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Context is important

The bunch of wavy lines by themselves don’t have any meaning. But coupled with other objects, their meaning can differ. Similarly, your designs will communicate different meanings in different contexts.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Some design and iconography will become universal…
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

but they can mean different things in different cultures. We don’t have control over the culture the user has grown up in but what we can do is understand that culture and cater to those differences.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Go beyond the shiny surface

When I saw Scott’s depiction of the process of creating comics, it instantly reminded me of Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience Design.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

© Jesse James Garrett 2002

© Jesse James Garrett 2002

 In UX design, the first thing users and stakeholders appreciate is the shiny surface. Many (especially junior) designers start off by focusing on the surface. But just like a shiny apple can be hollow inside, a shiny design can be just that – shiny and not meet any user needs. When I teach UX design, I always push my students to keep asking why. A popular method of analysis the root cause is asking the 5 Whys. The more experienced you are, the more whys you will ask before sketching the first line.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

You will be judged

New media, however innovative and useful, will always be judged by the standards of the old. I’ve experienced this especially in situations where I’ve had to introduce user-centred design to an organisation that is set in their old ways. I always get asked how user-centred design is any different to how things have been built in the past. Does it cost more? Is there sufficient return on investment? User-centred design is a paradigm shift and it’s difficult for a lot of people and organisations to see the value in considering user needs beyond their current field of view and KPIs. Two things that usually work for me are to demonstrate the connection between their KPIs and user-centred design and to start small. Big change create big resistance.
© Scott McCloud 1993

© Scott McCloud 1993

Scott McCloud’s book is a work of genius that takes you on a wild ride through the wonderful of a comics. And just like I did, you might pick up a few tips that’ll be useful in your own lives and careers.

Stay naive

I am naive and I like to think all of you are too.

Four years ago, I joined Toastmasters. Not because I had a specific goal in mind. I didn’t want to be a professional speaker. I didn’t feel the need to speak in public at all. I joined Toastmasters because I was naive. According to the dictionary, the word ’naive’ means ‘showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement’. That’s exactly what I was.


In hindsight, being naive made me more curious, more open to trying out new things. I ask myself now, if I was experienced, wise and full of good judgement, would I still have joined Toastmasters? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have felt the need to. Why do you do anything in life? To get something we don’t have – whether it’s knowledge, money or happiness. But if we already have everything, then why would we bother looking for anything?

Galileo was naive enough to think that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Martin Luther King was naive enough to think that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Bill Gates was naive enough to imagine a computer in every home. Now we have a computer in every pocket.

Here are my top tips to be naive:

  1. Have an open mind
  2. Don’t be quick to assume
  3. You’ll never never know if you never never go

When was the last time you did something for the first time? If you can’t remember, maybe it’s time for you to be naive again.

4 UX principles I’ve learned from Wing Chun Kung Fu


Transcript from my presentation at IxDA Sydney meetup 23 January 2014:

Have you ever learned a new skill and found out that you’ve also learnt something totally unrelated to that skill? This is what happened to me as I started learning the style of Kung fu called Wing Chun last year. It’s a style invented by a woman in China around 300 years ago. So it was designed for people of smaller stature, like me. One of the most famous proponents of Wing Chun is Bruce Lee who was also around the same height as me but still kicked arse. Our commonality probably stops there though. Anyway, I’ve learned 4 principles so far during my kung fu training that I feel are also key to good UX design.

Everything strong starts with a good foundation and a sound structure. In Wing Chun, you start with a stance called the sheep shearing stance to build and maintain that sound structure. It’s called a sheep shearing stance because it looks like you’ve got a sheep between your legs. In Wing Chun, everything comes from a good structure and biomechanics. The stronger your structure, the more force you can generate more efficiently. If your structure is weak, doesn’t matter how strong you are, much of your force will be wasted.

Why is a good foundation and structure important in UX? Without a sound process and methodology, it is difficult to come up with good designs, unless you fluke it, of course. That’s why knowledge of design processes, frameworks and principles are so important, especially if you’re starting out in UX. Matthew Magain from UXMastery, in his very cool sketch note video titled ‘What the #$%@ is UX Design?‘, mentions that UX has a low barrier of entry. But that doesn’t mean that you can just dive in without knowing at least knowing how to tread the water. You’ll probably have to get rescued or risk drowning. Try arguing for a design decision just based on opinions and you’ll know what I mean. And unfortunately, this happens a lot in a lot of organisations.

Wing Chun kung fu has something unique to its system and it’s called the centreline theory. What’s the shortest distance between any two points? The shortest distance between your fist and the opponent’s face is also a straight line. So most attacks in Wing Chun are performed in a straight line towards your opponent’s centre.

Most users and customers also look for the shortest path between their need and their goal. Directness in UX helps your design convey the message faster and helps your customer get to there goal faster. When you’re writing copy for your website, remember, you’re not writing a suspense novel, unless you actually post your suspense novels on your site. When you’re designing a checkout workflow, remember, you’re not designing a crossword puzzle for the customer to solve. Your customer is not on your website to start up a relationship with you. They just want to get shit done and get the hell outta there. Directness is vital.

Economy of movement
Who’s watched a kung fu movie here? What’s one of the first things you notice in kung fu movies, besides hot chicks who can fight. One of the first things you notice is how exaggerated and theatrical all those movements are. In every martial arts movie, you see these martial artists performing all kinds of acrobatic movements and taking their bodies through all sorts of contortions. It would probably be cool if you can do all that but most of us mortals have trouble getting off the couch, let alone do a Van Damme split, especially if you’re wearing skinny jeans. Wing Chun kung fu practitioners are a bit lazier. We like to preserve our energy as much as possible and hence don’t do any fancy moves such as roundhouse kicks or flying kicks. Why do a ridiculous roundhouse kick when you can just kick them in the balls?

This is where the concept of lean UX comes in. Why waste time, energy and money writing that big fat user testing report when no one’s going to read it anyways? Why bother designing all those detailed screens if they’re not going to get you the clicks and the conversions?

One of the key skills you need to learn in Wing Chun is sensitivity. Sensitivity doesn’t mean looking like this guy. It means being sensitive to your opponent, their movement, their intention and the direction of their force without pre-empting them. Wing Chun practitioners spend hours and hours building up their sensitivity by practicing something called Chi Sau which literally translates to sticky hands. In close range, your hands are always in contact with your opponent’s so that you can read their movements and respond accordingly.

This level of sensitivity requires you to be relaxed. Every Wing Chun teacher will tell you, the more relaxed you are, the more force you can generate, which is completely opposite to what we’ve been made to believe as we grow up. You need to be harder, better, faster, stronger! Not according to this guy (Charles Darwin).

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

You need to be more adaptable, adapting and changing to your environments. Adaptability comes from being able to sense changes in the environment and respond.

In your UX career too, you will face a lots of constantly changing external forces – user needs, business needs, technical constraints, budget cuts, organisational restructures and the list goes on. You don’t have to be the smartest designer around to deal with those forces, you just have to be sensitive and adaptable. Yes, you have your foundation, your knowledge and your experience but if you can’t change with the needs of your industry, your employer or your users, you will make life more difficult for yourself. This reminds me of one of Bruce Lee’s famous quotes:

When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water, my friend.

So there you go ladies and gentleman, those are the 4 principles from Wing Chun kung fu that you can apply to your own UX careers and kick some arse.

Are we responsible for our designs?

Does our responsibility as designers end when our designs get shipped? Or are we responsible for how the products and services we design get used and what long-term consequences they have?

One of the first things they taught us at interaction design school was that we need to make our designs more engaging for our users. It made sense back then. After all, if you want to be successful as an interaction designer, you have to design products that users would want to engage with, more than once. We’re certainly doing a good job as our users are spending more time engaging with the products we are designing.

The consequences of engaging designs are not always positive. A new YouTube video succinctly tells a story of a gadget-less girl in a world of people glued to their phones. It tells a story that a lot of us can relate to.

Closer to home, at the UX Australia conference this year, I walked down to the hotel lobby only to find all my UX colleagues engaging with their phones and not each other. They just happened to be checking something on the phone at the same time, but it’s not an uncommon sight nowadays.

21st century socialising

21st century socialising


A quick Google search for ‘responsible design’ generated more results about ‘responsive design’. OK, so your website can fit into different devices. Boo frickety hoo.

The Great UX Debate at Interaction13 touched on the subject of responsible design but the general conclusion was that we humans (including designers) do not have the capacity to predict the consequences of our actions. That kind of thinking seems like helpless fatalism. As a designer, I feel disconcerted to be told that I don’t have control over whether my designs will make the world better or worse. Watch the entire debate session below if you’re interested.

I was told design is all about solving problems. But what if our designs are solving one problem but creating another? IDEO designer, Nathan Waterhouse, asks whether human-centred design is too centred on the needs of just humans and disregards the needs of anything non-human. My question is whether all this user-centredness is actually good for the user in the long run? Or is it an inevitable part of evolution that mankind was destined to go through? One of my favourite UX Australia talks ever, the Design Anthropologist’s Mindset by Design Researcher, Stephen Cox made us think how and whether the designs we create enhance what it means to be human. Or whether they are turning humans into lazy blobs depicted in the sci-fi movie Wall-E.

Too much human-centred perhaps?

Too much human-centred perhaps?

Yes, users have the ultimate responsibility of making choices for themselves but as designers, if we want to make the world a better place, shouldn’t we be thinking a bit more about how we can help users make those better choices? Maybe our apps can make themselves less engaging and difficult to use when our user should instead be having a meaningful conversation with their partner. Maybe, just maybe.

UX Australia 2013 Day 2: Top 3 Insights

Here’re the top 3 insights from Day 2 which follows the top 3 insights from Day 1.

Groundhogs in the source code: Navigation as cross-channel sense-making by Andrea Resmini

  1. People create their own meanings in places within physical and digital navigational meshes.
  2. Place is a way to understand the world. Intent and meaning is more important than geometry.
  3. The web is a map that leads to somewhere real.
Andrea Resmini, Groundhogs in the source code: Navigation as cross-channel sense-making

Andrea Resmini, Groundhogs in the source code: Navigation as cross-channel sense-making

One team, one dream: Practical ways to work better, together by Kelsey Schwenk

  1. Traditional methods (such as personality tests) of categorising people into cubicles is flawed.
  2. The VIEW model developed by the Center for Creative Learning looks at relative scales of problem solving styles instead.
  3. We lie somewhere in the following scales: Internal vs. External, Explorer vs. Developer, Person-oriented vs. Task-oriented.
Kelsey Schwenk, One team, one dream: Practical ways to work better, together

Kelsey Schwenk, One team, one dream: Practical ways to work better, together

Gesture control: Wave goodbye to your remote control and say hello to the future by Sean Smith

  1. There are 2 types of gesture: pointing and semantic.
  2. A combination of the two is preferred by most.
  3. Use both universally common gestures and customised culture-specific gestures.
Sean Smith, Gesture control: Wave goodbye to your remote control and say hello to the future

Sean Smith, Gesture control: Wave goodbye to your remote control and say hello to the future

From faith-based to evidence-based design: Design by numbers by Miles Rochford

  1. Design decisions based on just intuition are not going to cut it anymore. We need evidence backed by data.
  2. Data is not about proving yourself right or wrong.
  3. Data is not automatically useful.
Miles Rochford, From faith-based to evidence-based design

Miles Rochford, From faith-based to evidence-based design

Designing surveys to get the responses you want! by Hendrik Müller

  1. 10 steps to designing surveys that get unbiased, valid and reliable data: 1. Decide if the survey is the right method 2. Objectives 3. Sampling 4. Questions 5. Avoiding biases 6. Visual design 7. Evaluation 8. Building 9. Fielding 10. Analysis.
  2. People answer more honestly if the survey is anonymous.
  3. People cannot predict the future. Ask about shortcomings, not wish lists. 
Hendrik Müller, Designing surveys to get the responses you want

Hendrik Müller, Designing surveys to get the responses you want

Getting UX done by Ian Fenn

  1. Call it ‘critique’, not ‘design review’.
  2. Have smaller pre-meetings before the big meeting.
Ian Fenn, Getting UX done

Ian Fenn, Getting UX done

Designing meetings to work for design by Kevin Hoffman

  1. To help people hear better, start with divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking.
  2. To help people see better, use graphic facilitation (visual note taking).
  3. To help people do better, present and design ideas collaboratively. For example, for each section on the homepage, collectively answer who needs it and what they will do with it.
Kevin Hoffman, Designing meetings to work for design

Kevin Hoffman, Designing meetings to work for design

Designing services for messy lives by Andy Polaine

  1. Identify crevasses in your product experience and minimise them.
  2. If you don’t design it, someone else will.
  3. People have lives beyond the screen. Try to observe and understand their lives.
Andy Polaine, Designing services for messy lives

Andy Polaine, Designing services for messy lives

Conference recap by Steve Baty

  1. Small details are important.
  2. We are the humanising force. Understand people. Bring them in the design. Work with them.
  3. Lines between digital and physical spaces are getting blurred more and more.


UX Australia 2013 Day 1: Top 3 Insights

Here’s a highly synthesised version of the amazing talks I attended on Day 1 of UX Australia 2013.

Microinteractions: Designing with details by Dan Saffer

  1. Design is not about solving wicked problems.
  2. A microinteraction does one task well.
  3. Product experience is only as good as its smallest experience. Create signature moments!

Dan Saffer

Our billion-dollar baby: From greed to good by Chris Paton

  1. Gambling can be designed for the good of the world.
  2. Slow down to go faster.
  3. Get a good scrum-master!

Our billion-dollar baby: From greed to good by Chris Paton

How to run an effective Cultural Probe on your UX project by Matt Morphett and Rob McLellan

  1. Look at the longitudinal view of the user’s day.
  2. Brief all your participants together and look them in the eye while doing it.
  3. Provide an example entry in the diary to encourage expression of honest feelings.

How to run an effective Cultural Probe on your UX project by Matt Morphett and Rob McLellan

Usability and the art of gentle persuasion at Justice by John Murphy and Gavin Hince

  1. Find your REAL audience.
  2. Provide guidance for the lost. Demystify.
  3. Bring lots of “conceptual glue”!

Usability and the art of gentle persuasion at Justice by John Murphy and Gavin Hince

Winning proportions and frictionless navigation by Jon Deragon

  1. Navigation has a lot of baggage.
  2. Disproportionate navigation creates severe frustrations.
  3. Always ask: what have we adopted from the past and how is it applicable?

Winning proportions and frictionless navigation by Jon Deragon

Universal design for touch by Katja Forbes

  1. Sometimes, reinventing the wheel can change the world!
  2. Respect our elders when designing solutions, otherwise they won’t use your product.
  3. In text-to-speech, directive language sounds bossy. E.g. ‘Delete the event’ vs. ‘Deletes the event’

Universal design for touch by Katja Forbes

Two models of design-led innovation by Steve Baty

  1. Insight-led innovation and hypothesis-led innovation
  2. A 1-week rapid iteration includes: hypothesis > sprint > working prototype > test hypothesis.
  3. Use a time-lapse camera at a cafe to watch people. Get insights from their behaviours.

Two models of design-led innovation by Steve Baty
Agile ethnography in New York’s secret public spaces by Chris Holmes

  1. POPS (Privately Owned Public Space) are TOPS!
  2. Agile ethnography = Traditional ethnography + Agile methods. Don’t think too hard. Just f*cking do it!
  3. Everyone in your team is a researcher. Agile = adjust your expectations accordingly.

Agile ethnography in New York’s secret public spaces by Chris Holmes

Changing course

When we conduct usability testing, we always have a plan – a discussion guide or testing script that has the entire session mapped out to the finest detail (how to greet the participants, what tasks to give them, etc.). However, sometimes, you need to change your plans in the middle of testing, as I found out myself.

I recently finished a usability testing project for a mobile website. It was a pretty awesome-looking site with lots of features from its desktop cousin. After the first 2-3 sessions, I started noticing a clear pattern: everyone was having trouble finding things on the mobile site. There were so many features on the site that users were getting lost trying to find things.


It was evident that the issue was with the information architecture of the site (i.e. how information was structured in the site). I felt like there was no point getting the participants to do the same tasks and uncovering the same issues over and over again. So, I decided to conduct a card-sorting activity during the remaining sessions. During a short break between sessions, I quickly printed out cards with labels from the existing site.


Before I showed the site to the participants and asked them to conduct the tasks, I gave them the pile of cards and asked them to group them into categories they deemed logical. After the grouping exercise, I then asked them to give a name to each of the groups that they came up with. The whole process just took 10 minutes and after asking a few participants to conduct the task I could see a clear pattern about how participants were sorting the cards. Not so surprisingly, the IA of the mobile site was very different to what the participants had come up with. No wonder they were having difficulty finding things, the site IA was totally different to what the participants had expected.


The clients were fascinated by the findings from the ad-hoc card sorting activity. It helped them get into the heads of their users and see the system from a users’ point of view. The clients were pleased to receive the extra deliverable: a new IA based on actual user input, and the good thing from a project management point of view is that the card-sorting activity did not cost us (or the client) any additional time or budget (10 minutes for the activity and a couple of hours to analyse the findings and restructure the IA).


So it got me thinking…what would I have done differently next time? Maybe I could have prepared cards before the first session just in case I needed them or perhaps utilising a digital card-sorting tool like OptimalSort. Online tools are useful as participants would be able to sort the cards on their computer screens and the clients would be able to watch the results live via screen sharing.

Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to change your course if you’re heading in the wrong direction. Always keep asking yourself whether you’re getting rich insights to answer the research questions and also are these the most important questions to be asking? If not, what other methods can you use to find the answers? Planning and being adaptable is more important than a plan (that doesn’t work).


Had you had to change course in the middle of a usability testing project? What would you have done? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.