How Software Designers Interact with Sketches at the Whiteboard
Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-24
Back in 2011 we reviewed Cherubini2007, which found that software designers almost always used whiteboard sketches as a transient supplement to short-term memory rather than for formal, archival purposes: the drawing's purpose was to help them think in the moment rather than to act as something like a blueprint or circuit diagram. Two years later we reviewed the award-winning Petre2013, which found that most professionals either don't use the Unified Modeling Language (UML) at all or use parts of it in the informal, ad hoc ways described in Cherubini2007.
Mangano2015 reinforced these findings by studying 4000 events recorded during 14 hours of design activity by 8 pairs of professional software designers. They found that:
- sketches serve as a rich medium for supporting design conversations;
- designers often use general-purpose notations (e.g., generic boxes and arrows whose meaning is made up on the spot);
- they introduce new elements or re-purpose existing ones on the fly;
- they constantly shift focus between sketches, using groups of sketches together that contain complementary information; and
- sketches play an important role in supporting mental simulation, review of progress, and consideration of alternatives, but these activities often leave no trace.
All of which leads to several questions:
- Are the shape palettes diagramming tools like diagrams.net trying to support a way of working that most developers don't actually use? (Even when I have a palette of standard-compliant UML shapes or flowchart elements, almost all of my diagrams just use boxes and arrows.)
- As touch-screen devices become more common—in particular, as laptops with touch screens become ubiquitous and/or people use tablets with keyboards as gateways to cloud computing engines—will developers use freehand sketching tools for ad hoc communication in online meetings? (I've been in meetings during COVID where people held hand-drawn sketches up to their webcam to share their ideas…)
- If the answer to #2 is "yes", (how) can general-purpose sketching tools be enhanced to support the things programmers actually want to do? "OCR the shapes to automatically turn sketches into UML class diagrams" feels wrong-headed (see #1); is there anything else tool-builders could do?
Mangano2015 Nicolas Mangano, Thomas D. LaToza, Marian Petre, and Andre van der Hoek: "How Software Designers Interact with Sketches at the Whiteboard". IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, 41(2), 2015, 10.1109/tse.2014.2362924.
Whiteboard sketches play a crucial role in software development, helping to support groups of designers in reasoning about a software design problem at hand. However, little is known about these sketches and how they support design 'in the moment', particularly in terms of the relationships among sketches, visual syntactic elements within sketches, and reasoning activities. To address this gap, we analyzed 14 hours of design activity by eight pairs of professional software designers, manually coding over 4000 events capturing the introduction of visual syntactic elements into sketches, focus transitions between sketches, and reasoning activities. Our findings indicate that sketches serve as a rich medium for supporting design conversations. Designers often use general-purpose notations. Designers introduce new syntactic elements to record aspects of the design, or re-purpose sketches as the design develops. Designers constantly shift focus between sketches, using groups of sketches together that contain complementary information. Finally, sketches play an important role in supporting several types of reasoning activities (mental simulation, review of progress, consideration of alternatives). But these activities often leave no trace and rarely lead to sketch creation. We discuss the implications of these and other findings for the practice of software design at the whiteboard and for the creation of new electronic software design sketching tools.