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Are Touchscreen Tablets Effective Design Tools?

Regardless of the final platform — desktop, tablet, mobile — most designers start their explorations on paper. Depending on the designer’s preference, the paper may be bound or unbound, lined or unlined, smooth or ridged. And while the materials may differ, the goal is the same: to quickly explore a variety of concepts.

The designer’s sketching tools haven’t changed much over the years, but the role of sketches has evolved. Instead of rushing to convert them to a more polished form, designers now often share early sketches with clients. Their roughness suggests that the designs aren’t “done,” which encourages feedback and facilitates collaboration.

While interest in sketches has increased, sharing them with team members is still challenging. Most sketchbooks are too small to invite everyone to huddle around and look at. Besides, teams are often distributed around the world, so a digital format is essential. Scanning produces high-quality images but is often a hassle because scanners are typically a shared office resource. Photographing with a smartphone or digital camera works fine if the lighting conditions are just right.

What would really benefit designers is the digital equivalent of a sketchpad and pencil. Sure, Wacom tablets have been around for a long time, but they tie designers down to the laptop or desktop computer. Personally, one of my favorite things about sketching is being able to walk away from my desk. No email. No Twitter. No distractions.

When the iPad came out, it seemed like it would address designers’ sketching woes, but the early styluses and applications were disappointing. One year later, there are far more tools to choose from, but they still have a long way to go.

In this article, I’ll share my personal evaluation of touchscreen tablets as design tools, specifically for early UI sketches and storyboards. To help guide the evaluation, I created a few pen and paper sketches for comparison. Then, I tried to recreate these sketches using a sketching application and a variety of styluses. As you’ll see, the current devices, apps and styluses all have a number of weaknesses. If you’re like me, you may want to stick with your old notebook and pencil a while longer.

iPad with stylus beside a 9 × 12 sketchbook with pen.

The Devices Reviewed Link

Touchscreen tablets hold much promise as design tools, but several limitations should be pointed out.

First, the screen real estate doesn’t come close to a typical 9 × 12 sketchpad. The diagonal length of the iPad is 9.7 inches (246.4 millimeters), the XOOM is 10.1 inches (256.5 mm), the Touchpad is 9.7 inches (246.4 mm), the Playbook is 7 inches (177.8 mm), and the LG G-Slate is 8.9 inches (226.1 mm).

Secondly, these capacitive screens can’t sense pressure, which makes it impossible to incorporate common sketching techniques such as shading into a design.

Lastly, none of the latest tablets can produce ballpoint precision, no matter what the application or stylus. This is a technical limitation: the low-resolution sensor panels can’t detect a stylus’ input if it falls between adjacent capacitive elements; hence the large tips on most styluses.

Touchscreen technologies are rapidly evolving to minimize these last two limitations.

The Applications Link

The XOOM, Touchpad and Playbook haven’t released sketching apps yet, so this evaluation was limited to Apple’s App Store, which contains dozens and dozens of drawing apps.

Because most preliminary UI sketches are drawn freehand, I eliminated template-heavy apps such as OmniGraffle and Freeform. Next, I ruled out apps like SketchBook Pro, since their broad feature set is more appropriate for full-color drawings and paintings.

My final list included Adobe Ideas and Penultimate. If your sketches have limited text, you may want to use Adobe Ideas because the app has stroke smoothing as well as a full-screen view. On the other hand, if you plan to include a lot of annotations and UI text, then I recommend Penultimate for its ease of use and ability to handle sketching and writing equally well. The one big downside with Penultimate is the lack of a full-screen view. To see Penultimate in action, I’ve prepared a video for you towards the end of this article.

Penultimate Notebook view.

The Styluses Reviewed Link

Choosing the right application is important, but what really differentiated my touchscreen sketching experiences were the styluses themselves.

Eight popular styluses: BoxWave, Griffin, iClooly, Pogo, Dagi, AluPen, Hard Candy, Stylus Socks.

In deciding which one to buy, here are some questions to consider and ask yourself:

1. What Types of Tasks Will You Be Performing? Link

Most styluses on the market — Griffin, BoxWave, AluPen, Hard Candy — have a rubber tip. Other materials you’ll come across are capacitive fabric (on the Stylus Socks), foam (Pogo), plastic (Dagi) and metal (iClooly). In my experience, the rubber-tipped ones work well for sketching and text, whereas the rest tend to work well for either one or the other. For example, the Stylus Socks is great for sketching, and Dagi seems better for cursive writing. Unfortunately, the Pogo foam tip didn’t work well for either task.

2. How Does It Feel in Your Hand? Link

The styluses vary in weight, finish and length. For example, the aluminum Pogo is quite light at 0.6 ounces, whereas the chrome Hard Candy is the heaviest at 4.2 ounces. The other styluses weigh slightly more than the Pogo, similar to a good-quality ballpoint pen. Similarly, the grip varies from stylus to stylus; the Griffin is smooth, the AluPen is textured like a chunky pencil, and the Stylus Socks is tapered like a paintbrush. The weight and grip that feel most comfortable are generally a matter of preference.

3. How Do You Want to Carry the Stylus? Link

This is a minor detail but it can be a deal-breaker for some people.  If you want to attach the stylus to your tablet, then it’s worth noting that the Griffin, BoxWave, Dagi and Pogo all have a clip. The Stylus Socks, Hard Candy and AluPen styluses don’t have any contraption to attach them to a tablet, although the AluPen does have a nice case. A few of the styluses also have a pen at one end; it’s optional on the BoxCase but built into the Hard Candy.

Having tried out these eight styluses, I recommend the Griffin and BoxWave for their superior sketching and writing and because they “just feel right” in my hand. Although they were better than the others, they still weren’t ideal for UI text. I often found myself incorporating dashes instead of descriptive text because the results were not optimal. If your sketches have limited text, then the Stylus Socks and AluPen are strong alternatives. To see how these four styluses work with PenUltimate on the iPad, watch the video below:

Looking Ahead Link

Even though there are many weaknesses across the board (with the devices, applications and styluses), touchscreen tablets still hold promise as a design tool. The following changes would improve their effectiveness:

  • Increased precision
    Whether it comes from the device, the stylus, the software or some combination of the three, far greater precision is needed by the designer. And achieving this precision shouldn’t require unnaturally slow sketching or tedious zooming.
  • A stylus for every occasion
    In theory, having one magic stylus would be convenient, but why not have different styluses for different creative tasks? Various lengths, grips and tips could be offered, as done for paper sketching.
  • Alternative tablet sizes
    Current tablet dimensions would suffice for one or two small UI sketches. But larger tablets would be invaluable for more involved sketches like storyboards. Current costs make this prohibitive for most people, but eventually the prices will come down.

Some of these ideas might not be far off. Products are evolving from their first generation, plus there are opportunities for better hardware integration between tablets and styluses. For example, Apple filed a stylus patent back in 2008 that included accelerometers that can transmit more precise positional information to the iPad. Developments like these will surely inspire additional tablet innovation in the months and years to come.

References Link

Products Coming Soon Link

(vf) (ik)

Footnotes Link

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Suzanne Ginsburg is a user experience consultant based in San Francisco, California, and the author of "Designing the iPhone User Experience". She works with many different kinds of organizations, from established technology companies to small iPhone start-ups. Suzanne also maintains a UX blog, Touchy Talk, where she provides advice on touchscreen app design.

  1. 1

    Nothing can take the place of the simpleness of a pen and a paper. Period.

    • 2
    • 3

      Aritz Alvarez

      March 21, 2011 2:33 am

      I agree too… Nothing like paper and pen. It’s a interesting article anyway… It can help in work, you know, share quickly the sketches with the rest of the team.

      But when i must create, in the beginning of a new project… Paper, pen & caffeine

    • 4

      I support this fact 100 per cent. Know matter what technology they will bring, the pen and note pad will always be there.

    • 5

      While I totally agree – nothing can replace the simplicity of being able to draw or write (not type) something down and be able to email it to anyone or upload right away. Technology is great.

      • 6

        Arjun Gehlot

        March 23, 2011 5:27 am

        Technology IS great but, its a little gratifying knowing your sketchbook would never run out batteries. ;)

    • 7

      I love my piles of mixed scratch paper with notes, dimensions, mock ups, and other notes.

      keep your useless digital devices!

      the pen is mightier!

    • 8

      Asus ep121 is enough to replace the pen and paper. Full windows 7, Wacom Stylus, built in stylus holder. Only down side 3 hours battery life, rumors with sp1 it gets around 6, but thinking this is more of a full fledge laptop running “big boy/girl” software that is pretty good.

  2. 9

    Thanks for the article — been thinking about this stuff myself recently. I’ve backed the ‘coming soon’ MORE/REAL Stylus Cap on Kickstarter – very much looking forward to trying it out.

  3. 11


    March 18, 2011 3:07 am

    Give me a block-note and a pen and I will be happy.

  4. 12

    Yofie Setiawan

    March 18, 2011 3:45 am

    The sharp of the pencil, cannot replace by stylus and iPad, i’ve tried it…

  5. 13

    Kevin Albrecht

    March 18, 2011 4:34 am

    I think the question is about what you wanna do? Precise, high-fidelity illustrations or just a quick annotated sketch? For the first tablets seem to be very problematic, but for quick sketches they would be an interesting alternative. With the righy stylus and a bit practice you will be able to make sketches and notes in an acceptable quality.

    So I would say it really depends on what you wanna do. During idea generation it isn’t so important to make detailed sketches, often it is enough to make quick scribbles described with two or three words.

    For my Bachelor Thesis I designed a “idea generation app” for the iPad (could be adapted to other plattforms as well) called ‘imaginate’. The website is in german, but the video on the start page gives a short introduction what the app is about:

  6. 14

    pen and paper never run out of batteries ;-)

    I find it more relaxxing to sketch in the old way…. with the ipad/whatever I feel like I want to compete with the computer…

    • 15

      You’re right. It seems like there is always something you have to restart or fix when you do it on the iPad. With pencil/pen and paper, you know what the outcome and the result will be. Especially if you are trying to accomplish something with precision.

  7. 16

    I wondering how would something like livescribe smartpen do the job because its nice to be without screens when sketching but still there is the need to share your ideas with the whole team…

  8. 17

    I’m surprised more people don’t talk about the benefits of sketching on paper, but having digital version available for annotating and sharing over the internet. LiveScribe’s product is brilliant.

    Edit – @Johannes, just saw your comment. LiveScribe is the bomb. There’s even a way to create your own paper — I imagine some one will eventually create common wire-framing templates. LiveScribe works really well.

  9. 18

    i thought the plural of stylus is stylus.
    a pen and pad could never be beat. you never have to worry about the battery or parts breaking (except for the pad’s binding). when you spill your koolaid, your plain paper pad will be usable once again – maybe a little more red than before. how well will the ipad, galaxy tab, xoom and all the others perform.

    aside from us designers and our love of koolaid and propensity to flail our arms while we work; you need to think of what your purpose for a digital sketchpad. if it’s just to help reduce paper waste, then this article has good comments. if you need a tablet that handles the rest of the design work and allows for a sketchpad on the side, then you should look into a wacom penabled convertible notebook. unfortunately that brings in the issue of weight and mobility. it just strains your brain when you have to weigh all the options and no manufacturer has yet developed that goldilocks tablet.

    i still use an hp tc4200 and accomplish everything i need – granted the extended battery makes it way to heavy for one handed use.

    oh well.

  10. 19

    Has anyone seen the Noteslate
    This appears to still be in concept form but if done right could do this so much better (and cheaper) than the ipad.

    • 20

      My buddy keeps trying to tell me this is the best thing ever, which sure it appears to be. However as with all tablet tech I will see it when I believe it. Maybe I am being to pessimistic but this looks like complete vaporware.

  11. 21

    Why this test is on iPad only? The XOOM, Touchpad and Playbook are not available yet, but there is Samsung Galaxy Tab available, You can buy an extra stylus and Autodesk SketchBook Mobile. Please rember Apple way is NOT the only way.

  12. 22

    Cheryl D Wise

    March 18, 2011 6:16 am

    FWIW, I’ve been using tablet pcs since 2003 as my primary computer. I’ve run Windows XP – Win 7 64bit on them using computers from Toshiba, HP, Lenovo and my personal favorite Motion Computing who make a pure slate with enough power (i7 processor) to easily run Photoshop. They have all been a 12-12.1″ form factor and none of have weighted over 4lbs (with regular battery.)

    The tool I currently use for sketching is Artrage Pro which is a natural drawing tool that allows me to use layers and export with layers attached to Photoshop. Since the tables I use have Wacom digitizers in them (only the J3500 I currently use have touch the others were stylus only) I have all the pens and brushes available to me that you have working with a Wacom graphics tablet. Any stylus you can use with your Wacom tablet works with the tablet PCs I’ve used as well.

    One reason I chose the tablet pc form factor is that I could never get the hang of sketching on a separate tablet. So it was paper or a paper equivilent that I’ve always had to use.

    Note: I’ve tried using an iPad for sketching but so far I haven’t found an app/stylus that can approach even the worst full tablet pc I’ve ever used for drawing.

    • 23

      You’re absolutely right, i am still using my HP TC4200 which i bought @2005. Yes, it is much heavier than ipad, but the precision of drawing in Alias Sketchbook, the versatility of OneNote and the multilingual handwriting input method are really a joy to use, even today, compare to Ipad.

      An extra word, i saw modbook(a re-engineered macbook as tablet pc, which is quite fun)on the market, but wondering why Apple never released a “true”, full-featured tablet pC officially…

  13. 24

    Matti Kemppainen

    March 18, 2011 6:32 am

    I think the HTC Flyer looks interesting. Here It’s not the tablet but the pen sensing the pressure. The pen is Wacom technology. I wonder if they could do something like this for the iPad 2 as well.

    HTCs Flyer page:

  14. 26

    Using Penultimate and the Griffin stylus in the office. It’s nice and I like the fact I’m not blowing through paper like I used to. Being able to email mockups or sketches is fantastic as well.


    The fat tip stylus for the ipad kinda sux regardless of whether you can set to stroke width in any app.

    Pencil and paper will always be superior.

  15. 27

    Joshua Johnson

    March 18, 2011 7:00 am

    One awesome trick that I recently wrote about is using your iPad as if it were a Wacom tablet to draw directly into Photoshop and Illustrator:

    Also, if you want a ghetto iPad stylus, wrap aluminum foil around a pen, then stick a little scotch tape on the tip to prevent scratching. Crazy, but it works!

  16. 28

    Try SketchBook Pro for iPad.

    • 29

      If you had tried SBP on win tablet or a wacom cintiq, you’ll understand why it is priced much cheaper in App store(express version is even free). The software is awesome, but ipad is not designed for sketching with precision…

      • 30

        The computer, in general, is not designed for “sketching” with precision. The only way to do that is with pencil and paper. Pixels will never replace that. But I think SBP is great for the price. The Cinitq is ok, but cannot replicate the feel of drawing on paper. It’s also even more expensive than an iPad and can’t do nearly as much. It’s a specialized device and can’t even operate on its own. It needs a computer hooked up to it.
        Besides, it’s sketching. It’s supposed to be loose and fun.

  17. 31

    Why not mention the Wacom Cintiq? The only reason I have not even considered one of these things is because there is no pressure sensitivity. Even then, I can’t use programs like Photoshop and Illustrator.

    • 32

      Suzanne Ginsburg

      March 18, 2011 3:20 pm

      I’ve heard great things about the Cintiq. I didn’t delve into it since it’s very different from the other tablets reviewed. From what I understand, it’s not a true wireless device since you’re still tethered to your computer. Moreover, the price point is higher than the tablets in this review, from $900 to $2000 US for a device dedicated to drawing. If you’re a designer looking to do informal black-and-white sketches at a coffee house, it’s probably not the right fit. That said, if you’re a serious digital artist, the Cintiq seems to be the tool of choice.

    • 33

      random dude

      April 6, 2011 2:09 pm

      12″ Cintiq is expensive, it gets hot when you draw, the cursor is shifted around 1mm off the tip of the stylus, and overall – its not an advisable purchase.

      21″ Cintiq is not portable.

      There are bigger reviews on the net, google them yourself, if interested.

  18. 34

    I’ve been experimenting with handwriting recognition apps. I’d love to stop using a keyboard for writing text but migrate away from paper.
    So far I’ve got on WritePad Pro on my iPod Touch and using the Mac OS Ink with my Wacom Intuos 3. So far not very satisfactory results at all. WritePad Pro transcribes pretty well but it’s capabilities for exporting the text are limited and cumbersome. I’ve found Ink’s transcription to be terrible. Maybe there’s a sweet spot in the settings that I haven’t found? Anyone find good results for handwriting recognition?

  19. 35

    Pen and paper forever. :) Simple, easy and highly effective.

  20. 36

    What about the Cintiq – it KICKS THE iPAD’s skinny ass… – 2048 pressure levels… nuff said.


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