The pen tool is an important part of a designer’s toolkit that enables them to make complex Shapes, Icons and illustrations, but it has remained mostly unchanged since 1987, when it was introduced alongside Adobe Illustrator. We found by surveying 30 HCI students who have used Sketch or Figma for course work that less than 10% of them use the pen tool regularly and 50% of them have never used it before.
As part of the course work for Advanced Usability Testing, my team and I conducted this exploratory usability study on two of the more popular design tools for UI/UX - Sketch & Figma to identify what makes the very versatile pen tool so hard for new users to pick up.
Observe how beginner and novice users use the pen tool in Sketch and Figma to identify problems and provide recommendations for improvement.
We wanted to see how participants interact with the pen tool to draw 5 simple shapes to see if they ran into any roadblocks. We observed our participants visually and encourage them to think-out-loud about any interaction that they expected to work differently or those that confused them. We analysed the data qualitatively and provided 10 design recommendations to potentially make the pen tool more approachable to beginners.
We first created a recruitment survey asking a participant the following details
Based on the responses from the survey we recruited 8 participants. We selected 2 with some amount of experience using the tools we’re testing to test our pilot study and selected 6 additional users from varying backgrounds to participate in our full study. They were assigned to one of two groups - Sketch or Figma.
We initially found that designing scenarios to test an open ended tool is surprisingly hard since our participants had very little experience with using the pen tool to draw shapes. Our original tasks required our participants to look at a sheet with 6 symbols drawn on it and to replicate them one after the other. The next task was to draw a logo or shape from memory.
This sent us back to the drawing board and we defined artificial constraints and clearer instructions we could give our participants so they could progress through the tasks naturally.
The sessions were done in a usability lab with one facilitator. Two observers were in an observation room watching the participants screen through live screen sharing. Inside the usability room, a video camera recorded the participants’ gestures (mouse/keyboard/trackpad usage and their facial expressions).
The facilitator encouraged the participant to think-out-loud while performing each task. Each person in the team cycled through the facilitator, moderator and observer roles after each interview.
We started by giving the participant a test space with the pen tool activated along with an abstract shape they could play around with. The participant was encouraged to click on everything of interest and do a narrative walk through of the menus and tools.
The participant was asked to replicate a Rhombus and given a reference as well as a faint outline. The goal was to introduce them to the idea of drawing straight lines and then connecting them into a shape.
This task was designed to introduce them to the idea of drawing curves.
For this task, we wanted to see whether the participant would continue to use the pen tool to create the square first followed by the bend tool or whether they’d select the square from the shapes menu.
Here, we wanted the participant to explore the idea of using different control point configurations. The vector points were also shown as a possible solution but participants were encouraged to try out their own ways.
Lastly, participants were given a list of 5 logos to pick from and asked to draw one without a reference. They were given a piece of paper to sketch the logo in case they needed it.
Each team member selected a set of participants they didn’t interview and transcribed those interviews, noting down the participant’s interactions and comments. We each independently coded our transcriptions and then analysed them to find a set of 40 unique codes that were organised into 10 categories and 3 overarching themes.
We found that while a large number of problems were related to the participants never having used the pen tool before, they were all able to complete the tasks with some hand-holding and by pointing them in the direction of the tools. The general mental model an educated computer user uses to navigate a new piece of software is completely different from the application model followed by the design tools we tested. The broader issues lie in the interface design and the way these tools are structured, making it very hard for new users to find the functions they’re looking for even if they know what to do in the tool. Additionally, this causes them to feel a lack of control.
Users have predefined mental models that are hard to ignore while learning a new tool. For the pen tool, we found that:
#1 - Users click and drag to draw lines
The mental model of physically drawing something on a paper involves dragging the pen from a point and forming a line. The pen tool creates bezier handles on dragging which look like drawn lines but serve a different function. This confuses new users and is different from the conceptual model of design tools that require the user to click twice to draw a line, once to start and once to end the line.
Allow users to click and drag to create a line. Many Computer-Aided Design tools for mechanical engineering have sketch tools that create either curved lines or straight lines by anticipating the users mouse movements.
#2 - Users double click to change status
Users expect that double-clicking a point or an object will change its status, for a point, they expect it to change from a corner point to a curved point and for a path segment, they expect it to select the entire path.
Sketch does currently convert points on double click, which most of our users preferred, but Figma will push a user out of the drawing workspace if they double click anything that can be manipulated.
Users seemed to prefer Sketch’s approach over Figma’s which often confused them.
#3 - Users can’t select unfilled paths easily
Users expect that clicking an enclosed object will select it, regardless of whether it has a fill color or not. The tools only regard closed paths with a fill as an object. If the path doesn’t have a fill, users have to select the path.
Automatically add a transparent fill to a closed object that makes it easier to select. Alternatively, signify closed paths with a cross hatching or transparent color when the user moves their mouse over the object. (Figma currently offers a feature to fill a closed path, but it’s under an unclear icon that none of our users found.)
#4 - Open paths can be filled with color
Users can fill open paths with color, and since the tools don’t give any indication that an open path is filled with color, users assume the tool is broken or they did something wrong. There is a lack of feedback that identifies an open path vs. a closed path.
Don’t let users fill open paths with color by graying out the option or implicitly inform the user that they cannot fill an open path with a color through an unobtrusive notification.
#5 - Users expect right click menu options
Users expect right click menus to delete or modify control points, and neither of the tools we tested use the right click menu to offer any pen tool options, instead they use layer options that don’t relate to the pen tool work-space.
Add right click menu options that let users discover functions and highlight keyboard shortcuts to help them learn.
A large number of codes were based on user’s struggling with the control points. The issues we identified were:
Since points are often close together, users often select the wrong point when they’re trying to move them. Points are also not differentiated sufficiently - Deselected points are denoted by circles bordered with blue and selected points are denoted by solid circles.
Using size and color to differentiate between selected and deselected points can help users identify what they’ve selected, ensuring the points behave in a predictable way.
Users will add new points to a path to make it more curved rather than use the bezier handles. This is because the idea of handles is not introduced to new users at all.
Use motion to signify that bezier handles can be moved.
Users can’t intuitively understand how bezier handles change the shape of curves. Both the tested tools offer similar features but do them slightly differently. Users were able to find the options more easily in sketch but were more confused about the labels. For instance, the way ”Mirrored” works confused them initially.
Adding motion to the icons on hover in Sketch or in the case of Figma, on selection, would make it easier to for users to understand how the states function.
In Figma, users struggle to fill paths with color. Figma requires users to add a fill layer using an add icon before they can change the color of the fill. This confused users since the border color swatch was the only visible color icon.
Sketch shows a greyed fill color for any unfilled paths. Users were more likely to fill their paths on the first try in Sketch since it only required them to click the fill color and change it. Figma can automatically add a transparent fill to filled paths to make it easier to find. (Also see Issue #3)
In Sketch, users struggle to find the pen tool. Sketch hides all shapes and vector tools under an Add icon hindering it’s discoverability.
Figma puts all shape and vector options in the top menu where they can be clearly discovered. Sketch can use the empty space in the top bar to add extra icons that inform the user of their function.