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EtchASketchThat’s right, you read it right – Etch A Sketch, not an iPad (more on that later). Did you own an Etch A Sketch when you were young? Do you own one now? It dawned on me the other day that it really was an amazing tool for prototyping. Not for exact representations, but great at conceptual, architectural, and “feels like” representations. Now if you have not heard of an Etch A Sketch, it was invented by French Inventor Andre Cassagnes, introduced in 1960, inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, and is on the Century of Toys List that marks the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th century. The concept is simple, a thin rectangular red box filled with aluminum powder (often referred to as gray sand) with an internal stylus controlled by two knobs. You move the knobs and then lines form on the screen. Simple, easily changed or discarded, promotes communication, and easy to understand with results that speak for themselves. Hmm… sounds like some of the best characteristics I want in my prototype!

Think about it. You created a picture (prototype) on your Etch A Sketch. You got feedback. Sometimes that feedback was “Wow! That was amazing! It really does look like (insert noun).” or “Well, not sure if that is right. What do you think? What about (insert suggestion).” In the first case you tried to preserve it. You put your Etch A Sketch on a shelf and warned everyone in the house not to enter your room and touch your masterpiece. Of course, someone always did or the cat knocked it off the shelf and your masterpiece was no more. In the second case you simply turned the Etch A Sketch upside down, erasing the prototype and started again. Prototyping is a great way to elicit requirements whether you’re using an Etch A Sketch, white boards, paper/pencil, or napkins and does not require technology. Yet why is it then that many organizations do not approve of Business Analysts doing prototypes? The answer is simple; they think it is design, which is the role of the technologist/developer.

It is not design; it is the business “how” and part of business analysis. My personal rule of thumb is that if the business can see it, they have a say in it. They see screens, fields, reports, and data where prototyping can help elicit those needs. It is not design, because at this stage, this non-technological prototyping is conceptual, suggested, logical, or representational and the caveat that will have been given is “this is not what you are going to exactly get – design will determine that”. I think an understanding of what prototyping is and who does it has been lost along the way. Once upon a time people had to be “jack of all trades” and they did the requirements, the design, the development, the testing, and more. Many organizations still have this approach today. Prototyping was (and is) a part of their role, but it was not design – it was always business analysis. They were wearing “the hat” of business analysis even though their role may not have suggested it. However, it is a rapidly growing approach that organizations are moving to separate and specify roles vs. the jack of all trades approach. In moving towards these specific roles they need to take a closer look at what each role should be doing (which is an entirely different topic of organizational maturity). Remember, eventually our non-technological prototype may turn into a full blown technological prototyping effort, but it starts with business analysis and the elicitation of requirements which is the role of business analysis.

Now I did briefly mention getting back to iPad? As much as I love my Etch A Sketch, my iPad is quickly replacing my beloved prototyping tool as my new favorite. I know, many people think it is just a gadget, just a toy – so was Etch A Sketch and it prototyped pretty well. There are applications in iPad that allow you to quickly “white board”, sketch, sticky note, and more and they are impressive. You can take a picture of your effort or save it to any number of file types for inclusion in your requirements documents and email it within seconds. So, although I said technology is not required (and it is not), we can now use this new technology that makes it feel like we are not using technology at all. If you are really hesitant to give up your Etch A Sketch for a tablet concept like iPad, you can now get an Etch A Sketch iPad case that makes your iPad look like your first prototyping tool! So is your organization successful in using prototyping to elicit requirements? Are you keeping it simple with or without iPads? Just remember it is an important part of your requirements elicitation and that someone is wearing the hat of business analysis when it is being performed. Etch A Sketch – thank you for your years of service and inspirational prototyping!

4 thoughts on “Etch A Sketch: The Best Prototyping Tool I Ever Owned

  1. I am now experimenting with using the iPad for business analysis work. I would like to hear from other BAs about their favorite iPad apps and how they use them. So far I am using Dropbox for file storage and Evernote for tracking and tagging notes and ideas. Please add what you use and why.

  2. @Jennifer, we use DropBox extensively for project work as well as for our training classes and general business work. We love it. For really large files, like our virtual class recordings, we use RackSpace. I’d love to be able to use my iPad for delivering presentations and virtual classes, but getting files into and out of the iPad is cumbersome. Maybe I need to be thinking “cloud” more.

  3. Now I know why my Etch-a-Sketch was my favorite childhood toy and why i downloaded the iphone app as one of my first. I guess i was a BA even as a child. ‘
    Jennifer, i downloaded iThoughts HD for iPad quite a while ago and have used it some. It is a great mind-mapping tool.

    • Great suggestions everyone! I use iThoughts too and it is one of my faves. I also use Corkulous which allows you to do Post it notes types of exercises, DocsToGo that handles all of my Mac and PC files interchangeably, and Penultimate for freeform sketch/prototyping.

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