BA Sketchbook Stencil for Visio

This article describes a Visio stencil I have created to help BAs produce “sketches” in Visio. The BA Sketchbook stencil for Visio contains various shapes (symbols/icons) and connectors with a hand-drawn style that can be incorporated into all sorts of diagrams – such as business process diagrams, flowcharts or boxes-and-arrows diagrams. it has been reported that the resulting diagrams are well-received – especially by non-technical business people, who can sometimes feel intimidated by more formal diagrams.

Summary

The BA Sketchbook stencil for Visio helps you to quickly and easily draw diagrams like this:

Standard Flowchart

or like this:

Boxes and Arrows Diagram

or even like this:

Zig-Zag FlowchartAll of the above diagrams were drawn in a few minutes using pre-defined shapes and connectors from the BA Sketchbook stencil for Visio.

Background

The idea for the BA Sketchbook stencil came from an article by fellow BA Kim Quirke – Not Just Another Visio Diagram – in which she explains how Penny Pullan’s “Creative Facilitation” course inspired her to change the way she drew diagrams to be more engaging, especially for non-technical business people. She has developed an informal, sketch-like style, drawing business process flowcharts with illustrations instead of standard boxes and diamonds. She draws people with zig-zag bodies instead of simple stick men, bringing the characters to life really effectively. Her diagrams have been very well received by her business stakeholders because, despite conveying the same information as a more formal diagram, they are somehow much more user friendly.

The feedback on her article was overwhelmingly positive, with most people wanting to know how she created the diagrams. Penny Pullan chipped into the discussion, explaining that you can either draw them on paper and scan them or you can draw them directly into a drawing tool using a tablet (either an iPad or a stylus/tablet input device – Wacom or similar). Kim mentioned that she had already built up quite a library of symbols that she can re-use again and again.

I’m a big fan of pictures (see my article on how to create a graphical functional specification), and it occurred to me that it might be useful to create a Visio stencil so that myself and others could achieve a similar effect quickly and easily. I had a browse around the Internet to see if anything already existed. In particular I looked at Balsamiq – a popular tool for sketching “form free” user interfaces. I love the look and feel of Balsamiq, but according to its authors they made a conscious decision to keep it focussed on UIs and not branch out into other types of diagrams.

So I thought I’d have a go. And this is the result. I have unashamedly copied Kim’s zig-zag people because I do think they look pretty cool. I’ve also included some “standard” business process model shapes and also some boxes-and-arrows shapes in a sketchy style, because I think people will find those useful too.

In Beta

For now I have created a small Beta version of the stencil, in order to test whether there is any appetite for it. If people find it useful I’ll develop it further.

The shapes are all quite simple – I haven’t attempted to implement any of the clever stuff you can do in Visio, like making sure the folded over corner of your document icon says the same size and shape when you resize the icon. If there’s enough interest then I’ll definitely look into some of the complicated stuff.

I have also chosen a font that comes as standard with Windows – Bradley Hand – which is the closest you’ll get to handwriting without going non-standard. It’s not perfect, but it was quick and easy to set up.

Anyway, the idea is for people to use it and provide feedback on things like:

  • Any issues with usability
  • Any proposed improvements to the look and feel (e.g. does the font work?)
  • Any additional shapes to add

Therefore, please use the comments section below to provide feedback.

How to Use the Stencil

  1. If you don’t have it already, get Microsoft Visio and install it!
  2. Download the BA Sketchbook for Visio.
  3. Save it in My Documents/My Shapes
  4. Launch Visio
  5. Open a blank document
  6. Select File->Shapes->My Shapes->BA Sketchbook
  7. The stencil should appear on the left hand side
  8. Drag and drop the shapes to create your diagram!

System Requirements

I created the stencil using Visio 2007 on Windows 7. It uses the standard Windows font Bradley Hand. I’d appreciate feedback on whether people have got it working (or had any issues) on other platforms.

Notes on the Stencil

The shapes in the stencil have been created largely using the Freeform tool. This allows you to draw natural, hand-drawn style lines and then fiddle about with them afterwards by moving, adding or removing control points.

The font is Bradley Hand, which I think is standard on most Windows PCs.

Creating New Shapes

Creating your own shapes (or editing the existing shapes) is quite easy:

  1. Select a shape on the shapes panel on the left hand side.
  2. Copy it (ctrl-C) and paste it (ctrl-V)
  3. Right click -> Rename Master to rename it (or just hit F2)
  4. Right click -> Edit Master -> Edit Master Shape to edit
  5. Make your edits then save

If you are editing one of the “people” symbols, you need to be careful to make sure you preserve the position of the text box below the symbol. It’s a bit fiddly – here’s how I do it (if you find an easier way let me know):

  1. Edit Master Shape as above
  2. Ungroup the shape
  3. Make your edits
  4. Select all and regroup
  5. Select the Text Block tool
  6. Re-position the text block to be below the symbol, and re-size it to be 1.5 times as wide as the icon and 0.5 times as high.
  7. Set the text block to be top aligned and set all the margins to 2pt instead of 4pt
  8. Set the font to Bradley Hand
  9. Save changes

When I get some time I’ll add some screenshots to make those instructions a little easier.

Feedback

As mentioned above, if you use the stencil, please leave a comment to let me know how you got on, especially if you have any suggestions to improve it.

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