Tablet computing and digital art have become an increasing trend. As devices like the iPad provide multi-touch functionality and near real-time response, virtual artistry has become more realized.
Specifically, two applications are leading in this area:
Paper by 53
Paper is a simple and straight-forward drawing application by 53. Paper’s approach is to provide a constrained drawing environment. The constraint is intended. 53 believes that removing unnecessary options and providing “5 essential tools and 9 colors” allows the user to focus on being more creative and less on “settings and other distractions”.
Sketchbook Pro by Autodesk
Autodesk is more commonly known for their advanced Computer Aided Drawing (CAD) applications like AutoCAD and 3D Studio Max. Autodesk has lead the industry for years in computer drawing and has, virtually, become an industry standard. With Sketchbook Pro, they have provided a professional-grade artistry tool. With a variety of tools, effects, color palettes, layers and other features, Sketchbook Pro is a sophisticated application for the professional artist.
Theory about Constraint in Design
My theory is that while Sketchbook Pro is a robust application – capable of detailed artistry – the features, settings and options get in the way of creative thinking. I believe that novice users would find Paper’s approach (using constraint in design) more satisfying, even though their options may be limited.
The Study (Objective and Method)
My subject for this study was my Father-in-Law, John. John is a 61 year-old male who has had limited exposure to computing. He’s owned a computer for less than ten years and has only been using the Internet for five. To my knowledge, he has never used a tablet/stylus combination to draw.
I prepared a series of tasks for John to complete in both applications:
- Draw a house.
- Color the roof red.
- Draw a tree.
- Color the tree green.
I introduced both applications to John and explained the basic functionality. Additionally, I showed him how to use a Bamboo Stylus for the iPad:
I stressed to John that the desire was to observe him using both applications and that the study was not a test on his ability to accurately draw the images. I let him practice feeling the stylus and iPad and gave him minimal instruction in both applications. I asked him to “talk out loud” and explain what he was trying to achieve within each application. I explained that if he was having trouble he could ask questions and I would provide assistance.
First Study: Paper
Upon opening Paper, John began to draw but nothing was happening (He had the eraser selected).
“Do I have to select the deal?” (Indicating the pen)
After selecting the pen, I was astonished how quickly John began to draw. I expected some fumbling as he became familiar with the concept of drawing digitally. However, it appeared that drawing came naturally.
Using the stylus and iPad did not require him to establish a new mental model of how the tools operated in the digital environment.
That’s not to say that drawing on a multi-touch surface was completely without error.
“Uh-oh, how come that did that?” (Indicating lines, toward the bottom of the screen, he did not intend to draw)
Most users, when drawing, apply their palm to the surface to steady their hand. Unfortunately, the palm registers on the iPad as input. Therefore, John was continually drawing lines in areas on the surface that he did not intend. This was true for both applications.
“I want to get rid of that.” (John selects the eraser and quickly removes the lines).
When it came to the task of “color the roof red”, I was surprised that John immediately selected the paint brush, without hesitation. I assumed that he would continue using the pencil and simply change the palette to red. Instead, he intuitively selected the paint brush. When asked later why he chose the brush, he replied: “Because I knew it would cover more area. It would be easier to color [the roof].”
Second Study: Sketchbook Pro
I loaded Sketchbook Pro and placed the iPad in front of John. In Sketchbook Pro, the user is required to press a small circle on the page to reveal the tools and colors. I assumed that this would create some difficulty for John, but was amazed that, without hesitation, he pressed the circle and quickly selected a pencil.
However, when he began to draw he immediately encountered challenges.
“Wait. Why is this line so wide? I want a pencil; not this” (John had selected a charcoal pencil; however, it appeared that, to him, the icon represented a standard pencil).
John then pressed the circle, to reveal the tools, then selected the eraser and began trying to erase the line.
“How come it’s only erasing part of it?” (John did not realize that his opacity setting on the eraser was not set to 100%. The outcome was that he was only able to partially erase [or fade] the line.)
I showed John how he could make use of the Brush Properties circle. By dragging up or down, within the circle, you are able to adjust the eraser’s opacity. By dragging left or right, within the circle, you are able to adjust the eraser’s diameter.
“I would’ve never had known that if you hadn’t shown me!”
John proceeded to continue with the tasks. He spent significantly more time with Sketchbook Pro and seemed to get agitated when the tools would come up at inappropriate times or disappear when he intended to use them. He continually noted that he’d made unintentional lines and appeared to heavily focus on the need to get rid of them. However, he simply gave up and proceeded to the next task.
Although he appeared to struggle more with Sketchbook Pro, he was able to complete all four tasks.
Other Observed Comparisons
I found it fascinating that John appeared to be more “creative” while using Paper. Due to its restrained UI, John spent more time focusing on the details of his drawing in Paper (notice the extra detail lines in the tree and the ground).
Additionally, he was more explorative with Paper. He would erase lines and try different shapes. With Sketchbook Pro, he had more of a “that will do” mentality and appeared more concerned with losing his progress than trying to redo any elements.
Overall, it was extremely clear by his expressions and comments that while using Paper he was communicating creatively and while using Sketchbook he was communicating functionally.
Example comments while using Paper: “I think I’ll choose this color.”, “I’m going to use the pencil for this.”
Example comments while using Sketchbook Pro: “How do I erase this?”, “Is this the right tool? I think this is a brush.”, “How do I make the tools stay open?”
It must be stated that this study is, in no way, a commentary about the effectiveness or merits of either application. The intent was not to prove that one app was better than the other. Although John had more difficulty with Sketchbook Pro, it is obvious that Autodesk did not design the application with the novice in mind.
When asked what app John would rather use, I found his response interesting:
“Well, at first, I would use Paper, because it’s easier. But, as I got better, I’d want to use the other one because it looks like I could do a lot more with it. I know, eventually, I would want to mix colors, or I don’t know, use other brushes or something like that.”
I pressed him about which application was more “enjoyable to use”. He continually prefaced the statement that Paper was more enjoyable “only because it was easier for a beginner”. He continually re-iterated that he would still prefer to use Sketchbook Pro if he could “learn more about it”.
I’ve concluded that while John was able to achieve his tasks more quickly and with less frustration using Paper, he aspired to use Sketchbook Pro. I believe that he made an assessment that, because Sketchbook Pro had more options and tools, it was the superior product. Thus, he would want to educate himself on Paper to garner the ability to use the more advanced Sketchbook Pro.
It could be argued that John was far more creative using Paper and, although he did not realize it, he would be more effective using Paper over Sketchbook Pro.
It also could be argued that users don’t always choose the application that is best. John clearly aspired to use Sketchbook Pro. To him, it was more challenging and, quite possibly, gave him the impression that he would somehow be better if only he knew how to use it.
We see other parallels of this kind of decision making with other products. It’s not uncommon to see a user struggle with the complexities of Photoshop when a simple photo editor would complete the task.
If I were to conduct the study again
I would like to explore the notions of “value” between the applications. I would be curious to see what the user’s perceived value of each application was. I would ask questions like:
- “What application, do you think, is more valuable?”
- “What application, do you think, is more expensive?”
- “If you were a professional, what application would you prefer?”
It would be interesting to see if users commonly expressed that Sketchbook Pro was the more valuable application, simply because of its advanced feature-set.
Additionally, I would like to find a subject who identifies themself as an artist. Specifically, I would want someone who has no experience creating digital art on the iPad (or any other computing device). I believe that an artist would provide useful insight into the merits of each application. Also, it would be interesting to see if the artist would value Paper’s design constraint over Sketchbook Pro’s expansive feature-set.