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The importance of sketching for mobile app design

Why I still have a pencil case full of 2Bs

At Love Agency, we pride ourselves on being innovative mobile app developers. And we wouldn’t be able to design great digital products without our computers. We’ve got workstations on our desks and smartphones in our pockets. We save everything up to the cloud. We’re as digital as a design company can be.

What use, then, do we have for our humble pencils and paper?

Well, it all comes down to one very important step within our company’s design cycle. One where sketching is at its most valuable.

Why design with pencils?

The pencil’s greatest power is that it’s the quickest way for a designer to get things out of their head. It’s the ultimate drafting tool.

There is a different mindset between sketching and designing to the perfect pixel. While the former is quick and solely focused on exploration, the latter is concerned with the minuscule details. How big is the screen size? What padding should each element have?

Such questions shouldn’t be addressed at all in the early stages of design; we sketch at the start because it has three very important benefits:

1. It loosens up the mind. A good way to warm up is to do 5–6 iterations of a solution to a problem. By the time you’re coming up with the last two sketches, you’re forced to come up with more creative solutions. First instincts have the danger of being too conservative.

2. It’s quick and risk-free. We’re visual learners and being able to go back and check previous sketches makes it easy to iterate and learn. Much better to re-work sketches than to re-work hi-fidelity digital designs if you find your early work hasn’t hit the mark.

3. Sketching is fun. It takes away the risk and makes the task more like play, where ideas can flow easily while still working towards a goal.

From discovery to delivery

Here at Love Agency, our first step towards designing a great digital product is to conduct extensive research into our client’s needs. This includes facilitating UX workshops with the client and discussing the finer details of the project’s scope. We ensure that the user and business goals are understood and agreed upon. Only after arming ourselves with this information do we move forward onto the discovery phase.

This is when we’re open to all possibilities. The project team often locks itself in a room to throw around ideas. We consciously step away from the computer and arm ourselves with large pads and stacks of post-its.

During these discussions we write down key phrases, ideas and words, and produce lots of sketches. Doing this together makes validating prospective solutions fast and easy. The more sketches and ideas we produce, the more we explore unchartered territory. Once our ideas are laid out, everyone involved is able to see them and can objectively discuss their merits.

We give ourselves a week to let these initial ideas simmer. The design team and product manager then hold a review session to make sure the brief for both the business and the target users has been met. Critique sessions are essential as this is where we refine our ideas and make sure that our concepts are on track.

Only after we all agree on these pencil roughs do we begin to work on digital wireframes for early prototyping. From here we consult the client for feedback on lo-fi iterations, keeping them in the loop throughout the process up until we present them with the final product.

Love Agency

What’s a pencil worth?

It may seem a long process but it’s built on strong foundations. By rapidly iterating ideas on paper we can address the problem space in a holistic way, which is what our clients ultimately need us to do to meet their users needs.

Had we skipped sketching, and jumped straight into prototyping, we would miss opportunities to be creative with our approach. Working on paper allows us to begin the process of product evolution early. We love building great mobile apps and sketching is the best way to devise solutions that are creatively strong and conceptually sound.
It’s our way of making sure we see the forest as well as the trees. It’s helped us create great digital products, and it will continue to help us long into the future.

That’s why at Love Agency we won’t be getting rid of our pencils any time soon.

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Johan Marais-Piper
Digital Designer
Love Agency