Frank Leenaars, the creator of Gearsketch, did his Master of Science work also within the drawing domain. Actually the software he developed for his thesis is a predecessor of SimSketch. He studied whether making a drawing would be a suitable starting point for creating a model of a system. Students were not modeling, but they were creating a drawing on a drawing tablet based on either a text describing a system or a simulation of the system. Students made two drawings, one representing the heating of a house and one representing a toy car with a motor tied to the leg of a table
The study had two purposes: to see whether students were capable of creating drawings that could help them identify relevant variables in the system and to see if and how the drawing depends on the mode of information offering. We also used the drawings to test whether we could in principle analyse them automatically, a feature that is now partly implemented in SimSketch.
We found that (1) students can draw and use those drawings to represent relevant variables (2) that simulations can be a serious hinder in the creative process: students using simulations limit themselves to the variables they see represented. Students in the other group are more creative and (3) the properties of the drawings are such that we can analyse them – or at least easily divide them into separate drawn objects – which is what we now can do in SimSketch.
This work really helped us to develop SimSketch. Frank luckily stayed with us and is now working on his PhD. The full paper can be found here.