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Monday, 13 April 2015 09:09

The Pros and Cons of Using a Smart Pen for Business Analysis

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For those that aren’t in the know, a digital pen (also known as a smart pen) allows you to capture what you are writing in an electronic format.

These pens use a variety of techniques to do this ranging from using a camera, to being connected to a computing device. Some also allow you to record a conversation taking place while you are writing notes.

I have used a digital pen in a lot of elicitation situations and, in this article, I would like to describe some of the lessons learned.

WHICH DIGITAL PEN DO I USE?

I use a camera-based pen. It is slightly larger than a normal pen and contains a small camera and a microphone. By using digital paper, the pen can track what is being written and store it. At the same time, it can synchronise the audio being recorded with what is being written. At a later stage, you can press the pen anywhere on the page (on which you have written your notes) and play back the conversation that was taking place at that particular time.

HOW I USED IT?

In any elicitation situation where I was taking notes, I would use the pen to keep a record of the actual conversation taking place. At the same time, I would take be taking notes.

After the session I would play back the conversation at various points to confirm that my notes were correct, or to expand on what I had written (you know that written notes don’t always capture everything that was discussed).

Using the an associated computer application, I was able to convert my written notes into a dynamic PDF that could be archived or distributed to others in the team. This PDF had the audio embedded, and the reader could click on any word to playback the discussion taking place at that time.

WHEN I WAS NOT THE SCRIBE

Often when you are running an elicitation workshop, you are up in front of everyone leading discussions, asking questions, prompting and encouraging responses. You can’t do this and write everything down. In this case, there is usually someone else who assigned this task (the scribe).

When I was in this situation, I was still able to use the smart pen. Whenever there was a change in the discussion, or a particular point that could be summarised in a word, I would write that on the special dot paper. After the session, I could still playback what was said at that point.

THE PRO’S OF USING A SMART PEN

Using a smart pen has a lot going for it:

  • You can capture the whole discussion and tie it in with your notes.
  • The audio is synchronised to the written notes, so you can play back the conversation that was taking place at specific points.
  • You can share the notes with audio with other members of the team, or with the stakeholders (if desired), as part of your Work Product.
  • You are confident that you can go back over the audio to pick up things that were said, but not written down.

LESSONS LEARNED

Using the pen has been very handy, but it also has its downsides. What follows are some of the lessons learned.

ASK PERMISSION

Before using the pen during any elicitation event where there are other people involved (workshops, interviews, active observation, etc.) ask if it is OK to record the conversation. Usually, people are pretty good about this and don’t mind.

However, it is important to reassure participants that you are using the pen merely as a tool to support the notes you are taking. And as a professional BA, you need to remember that.

DON’T LET THE PEN BE A REPLACEMENT FOR ACTIVE NOTE-TAKING

Use the pen to capture the conversation, but don’t be lazy. You still need to listen actively, and write down the important points from the conversation.

YOU STILL NEED TO CONFIRM

You still need to validate that the stated requirements match the stakeholder’s understanding of the problem and their needs even though you have an audio record of the conversations. What is written, and what was said still might not be what was meant.

MAKE YOUR NOTES MEANINGFUL

As I mention above, in a workshop situation you might just write a word of two and let the pen capture the conversation.

I’ve had situations where, after a series of seven one-hour workshops I’ve gone back over my notes and haven’t been able to work out which part of the workshop the squiggle on the page or that strange sentence I wrote (which meant something to me at the time – three days earlier) referred to.

When you are writing headings to describe certain parts of a conversation or discussion, write something meaningful so that, five days later it will still be clear to you. The discussions in workshops, or interviews, don’t always take place in nicely defined sub-sections.

NEVER JUST RECORD THE SESSION

This is a classic newbie mistake and relates to something I wrote above, Never, ever, just record the elicitation session with the intention of writing up the notes later on. You might have a three day workshop in between the time you recorded the notes and when you get to write. Remember – when you playback the audio, it will take three days to listen to it! (And this includes all those side-conversations, jokes, and irrelevant comments that get made.)

SECURE THE OUTPUT

This is related to Ask Permission above.

Regardless of whether you have been given the OK by the session participants to record what is being said, be aware that a lot of things said during the workshop/interview/active observation session might not be relevant or are off-record. It may not be your intent, but you don’t want a situation where something someone says is used against that person later.

HAVE A WAY OF CHARGING THE PEN

The pen can be used for several hours, but it won’t last forever. With the smart pen I used, I could plug a USB cable into it, and plug that into my PC, allowing the pen to always be charged while I writing notes. Useful, but it was not very handy.

ENSURE YOU HAVE ENOUGH PAPER

The smart pen uses paper with microdots on it. This allows the pen to be able to map what is being written, and the location on the page.

Often this paper is sold in the form of notebooks, etc. Ensure that you have an extra notebook with you. You might never use it, but, then again, you might. (In my situation, I could print out the microdot paper myself, but read the next Lesson

Learned for more on this.)

KEEP TRACK OF THE PAGES

Each page in the notebook has a unique, sequential, ID. This way, the pen can keep all the pages in the correct order. Don’t write your notes on random pages. It makes it difficult when it comes to working with the notes and audio when you are back at your computer.

PRINTED PAGES

As mentioned above, you can print out the microdot paper yourself. If you do this, you will have several loose sheets. These are handy if you want to put the sheets in a ring binder, but be aware that, as with the notebooks, each page is in sequential order. Keep them in the correct order (the page number is printed on each). This saves a lot of pain when exporting to a PDF.

CONCLUSION – WOULD I RECOMMEND USING THE PEN?

The pen is an incredibly handy tool (with the later version offering even more functionality, as well as looking like a real pen).

However, for the purposes of Business Analysis I would not recommend using it.

WHY?

As I alluded to in some of the Lessons Learned, being able to record the conversation taking place is valuable. But it also makes you relax.

It’s easy to think “Oh I won’t write that down – I’ll go back over the audio later.” WRONG! The idea of the elicitation session is to capture the main points actively, in real-time.

That’s part of being a good BA. Active listening, and active note taking. You are in the elicitation session to understand the message that the stakeholders are communicating. And you need to make sure that you have captured it properly.
Going back over a recording of a session, in my opinion, is of little value. The real value should be in your notes. If they need expanding upon or clarifying, that is something that needs to be done directly, with the appropriate stakeholder.

I’m not saying that a smartpen is worthless. But if you think about it, BAs have been taking notes as part of the elicitation process for years. How many have recorded the session?

However…

My conclusion above is how I feel about it. For you, fellow BA, it might be a different situation.

In fact, someone pointed out to me that their handwriting is terrible, and they often can’t read their notes. Having the pen would mean that they could, indeed, dive into what was being said at the time the notes were made.

I can’t argue with this reasoning…

YOUR OPINION

Have you ever used a smart pen? In what situations have you used it? What are thoughts on it? Do you think that I am wrong in not recommending it for BA work? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Don't forget to leave your comments below.

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Mark Owen

Learning is good....Applying is even better. On a journey...

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