I recently worked on a prototype of a new system using Sketchflow, and now some key stakeholders are pushing for a sketched look & feel in the final product. To make matters worse, the people viewing the prototype were asked to provide feedback on the sketched look & feel by way of a fairly leading survey question, to which 80% of the responses were positive.

It's for an enterprise application that will mostly be for internal clients, but is also intended to be used by some external clients.

The main reasons I have for it thinking it's a bad idea are:

  • It doesn't look polished or professional
  • The significant effort involved in skinning an actual application in the sketched style
  • The sketched style doesn't make efficient use of screen real-estate

I've been trying to figure out what the appeal could possibly be, and the only thing I can come up with is that people are attracted to the simplicity of it -- especially when compared with the existing system(s) it will be replacing.

Can anyone point me in the direction of evidence of why using a sketch look & feel is a bad idea? Ideally something based on UI research. I'm worried that my voice isn't going to be listened to unless I can point to something concrete.


I should probably add that the difficulty of skinning the application is compounded by the fact that it is intended to be delivered as one or more Silverlight webparts in a Sharepoint site. Getting a consistent sketched look & feel across both technologies could be very difficult.


Just in case anyone's not sure about what a Sketchflow prototype looks like (and therefore what the people in question are asking for) they're essentially asking for a production application to have a pencil-sketch wireframe look & feel.

  • Wow, that's weird. Usually the opposite problem happens; a tool like PowerPoint is used that looks too polished, and then the stakeholders have unrealistic expectations about the final UI ("This doesn't look exactly like the polished prototype you showed us"). – Robert Harvey Dec 20 '10 at 20:47
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    I think you're bringing way too much bias into this to start with. You may want to start off asking yourself "What makes good UI". If the sketched style is limiting the amount of things you can put on the screen, perhaps the answer lies in "less cluttered screens". The skin is a matter of taste and that's not something you can really dictate. The apparent lack of polish may be exactly what attracts people to it in the same way that people go to 'warehouse' stores. – MIA Dec 20 '10 at 21:01
  • @Jim Agreed. That's kind of what I was getting at with my second to last paragraph (about simplicity). – Bennor McCarthy Dec 20 '10 at 21:20
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    I lol'd hard at this one. The irony of using sketchflow to illustrate that it's not a final design, and the stakeholders wanting to use the sketchflow in production. – Steven Evers Dec 20 '10 at 23:32
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    Does anyone else notice the irony in asking this on a site that uses hand drawn text and icons for a majority of its elements? – Drew Dec 21 '10 at 3:43

There's a good book called Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. The book provides a good framework to describe and understand the less technical aspects of design. The short version is that there are three types of reaction to any design:

  • Visceral - The gut reaction, it's sexy, it's polished, it's ugly. You get the idea.
  • Behavioral - How the thing functions, or not as the case may be.
  • Reflective - How does the site make me think, react, or feel. Recalling using the site could invoke bliss, agony, or otherwise.

I have a feeling your arguments are more on the long term reflective aspects while your clients have a more visceral reaction. Simplicity is a very powerful concept, and very difficult to pull off well. Basically you have to balance all the behavioral things the site needs to do while leaving a good impression.

To help prioritize what is most important, you need to think about how users will be interacting with the site. If you are expecting short, passive interactions (like checking news), then visceral might be the most important. However, if this is going to be used heavily for every day work, behavioral becomes paramount. Lastly, if the site is going to be part of the face of the company, it really needs to reflect what the company is about. An informal look can be quite appropriate if the company is projecting that image.

The best bet is to help your client become clear about their vision for the site, and how that site may or may not affect their brand.

One additional thought: You are constrained by the platform you are deploying on (as noted by your first edit). With this constraint, it is technically infeasible to do a great number of things that would otherwise be fine to do on a fresh website. SharePoint, being a WebForms based product does not give much leeway to customize the look and feel with it's rigid CSS, mixed CSS and embedded layout, and view state embedded in the HTML. You can always add the element about cost into your arguments. Between that and the argument about branding (the reflective design), you just may win them over.

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  • Thanks for the tip on the book. I'll be adding that to the reading list. I think the issue of branding is an important one. The whole sketched look is really at odds with the image the company is trying to project, which is definitely one of my biggest concerns. – Bennor McCarthy Dec 20 '10 at 21:37
  • @Bennor McCarthy: Also worth reading "The Design of Everyday Things" by the same author, often quoted as a decent read for any designer or coder for that matter. – Orbling Dec 20 '10 at 22:30
  • I've got both and they are quite good. "The Design of Everyday Things" focuses on the behavioral aspects while "Emotional Design..." focuses on the visceral and reflective aspects. – Berin Loritsch Dec 21 '10 at 11:19

Usually, such sketched prototypes look good as long as no-one has to use it. To convince them, implement a small part as a usable prototype, in two version, one with the sketched skin and one normal. That should be enough to show them that the sketched look is funny for one day or two, but becomes stale soon after.

If this doesn't convince them, well, their problem.

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  • I'd agree - the initial good impression they got from looking at the prototype may fade when they actually have to use it. Make sure your usable prototypes to compare reflect the level of UI complexity that will be needed in the final product. I could imagine my eyes burning if I had to use gmail.com with a sketchflow theme.... good luck, but remember, its the users who have to use the software at the end of the day. – bunn_online Dec 21 '10 at 12:49

Honestly if its their application and that is why they want, I would just do it their way.

If you wish to try and influence them otherwise, do a mockup of a different UI and show it to them along with your arguments against the sketchy UI.

Try and put it in terms they'd understand. For example, instead of saying it would take significant effort to reskin the application, just tell them the design adds an additional X days/weeks to the production time. Or instead of talking about screen realestate, show them an example of how cluttered it would look compared to your alternative design. Afterall, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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The skinning issue is the biggest problem for the same reason skinning is almost always a bad idea.

Consult the tome and print off a few pages. I wouldn't go into saying there is a problem with sketchiness since that's just some sort of fad and it works in Michael Cera movies.

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  • Thanks for the reference to the UX guide. I'd forgotten about that. Doesn't really answer my question, but certainly helps. – Bennor McCarthy Dec 20 '10 at 21:31

I can think of a reason why it's bad from a programmer's perspective: the sketch look is used to make sure users don't confuse prototypes with the real thing. If the real thing is sketched you can't really use that for prototyping any more.

From a user's perspective I can't think of a reason. If they like that aesthetic and it is easy to use, then you'll have a hard time convincing them otherwise without something better.

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Unless the sketched look was tested against another look and feel, you can't say with any certainty that the users were responding to the functionality rather than the aesthetics.

On a larger issue, I wouldn't say that a sketched look is a priori bad. It depends on the domain. I don't necessarily agree with you that it can't look polished or professional, but the real-estate issues could certainly be resolved.

In any case, I think you're on the right track of trying to find out what is appealing to your stakeholders. The answer is in there somewhere.

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My opinion might be slightly biased in this, but I'd suggest a tool like http://IntuitionHQ.com or something of the like where you could run a very quick, simple usability test on the sketched design vs say a wireframe, or more polished looking design.

It doesn't have to be interactive, but if the numbers come back showing that one design is clearly better and more usable than the other (as per your gut instinct), the stakeholders will find it hard to argue.

We've used this method before, and it's very difficult to argue with the results of these tests. If you are interested you can check out some sample results at video.intuitionhq.com/pub/356/1.

Cheers, and good luck with your designs.

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