Project summary

A usability study and design recommendations to improve the learnability of the pen tool in Figma and Sketch for new users.

View Medium Article
Project details


Advanced Usability Testing


Figma, Sketch, Cisco Webex


  • • Co-creating Usability Tasks
  • • Conducting Usability testing
  • • Design recommendations wireframing

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.

Usability Study Design


We first created a recruitment survey asking a participant the following details

  1. Educational background
  2. Time in years using design tools
  3. Their design tool of choice tool
  4. A self assessment of their proficiency on their choice tool
  5. Their experience with the design tools we were testing specifically

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.

Participant Data

Designing Tasks

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.

Shapes that the participants were asked to draw from memory during the pilot test

Pilot Study Insights
  1. The participants struggled with the tasks and needed a lot of prompts from the moderator to proceed beyond the first task.
  2. The tasks were all equally difficult for our participants since they had no experience with the pen tool.
  3. There were no meaningful insights since our participants ended up using predefined shapes like the square, circle, triangle, and star, and manipulated them to create the required shapes.

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.

New Approach
  1. An organic introduction to the pen tool’s feature set.
  2. Fills and strokes as a task requirement.
  3. Clear visual guides.
Photo from our usability study.
The Observer and Moderator are viewing the participants screen remotely.

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.

Snapshot of a Interview Recording

Final Tasks

Participant exploring the test space
Introduction to the Test Space

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.

Task 1 - Make a Rhombus

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.

Task 2 - Make A Bell Using a Triangle

This task was designed to introduce them to the idea of drawing curves.  

Task 3 - Make a Circle using a Square

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.

Task 4 - Make the Nike Logo

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.

Task 5 - Draw a Logo from Memory Logo

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.

Analysis & Results
Terms used in the vector workspace

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.

  1. Control Points/Anchor Points - Problems with selecting or manipulating the points that define a curve.
  2. Adding/Deleting Points - Problems with adding or deleting extra points from an existing curve.
  3. Fill/Coloring - Problems with coloring enclosed profiles.
  4. Dragging Points or Lines- Problems faced by users while dragging selected features.
  5. Feelings - Points where the user mentioned how they were feeling about the tasks outright.
  6. Bezier Handles - Problems with manipulating bezier handles independently of each other.
  7. Selection/Move tool - Problems with selecting or moving one or more points at a time.
  8. Lack of Control - Problems faced by users while trying to understand the interface.
  9. Information/Tool Hierarchy - Problems with how menus are structured.
  10. Habits/Ways of doing things - Problems due to prior experience with other design tools.

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.

Issues & Recommendations

Mental Model Mismatch

Users have predefined mental models that are hard to ignore while learning a new tool. For the pen tool, we found that:

Users think clicking & dragging would create a line simliar to dragging a pen on paper

#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.

Design Recommendation

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.

CAD tools allow users to click and drag to create straight lines and follow the mouse after a click to draw to a curved line.

#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.

Design Recommendation

Users seemed to prefer Sketch’s approach over Figma’s which often confused them.                                                                                                                                            

Users prefer to double click a point to change it from a corner to a curve

Clicking an enclosed path with no color doesn’t select it. Users must click the path itself to add a fill color.

#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.

Design Recommendation

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.)

A signifier that a closed path can be selected will make it easier for users to identify which paths are closed as well as that they can be filled.

#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.

Design Recommendation

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.

Design Recommendation

Add right click menu options that let users discover functions and highlight keyboard shortcuts to help them learn.

Left: Current right-click options. Right: Relevant options in the right click menu that aid users in discovering keyboard shortcuts.
Interacting with Control Points

A large number of codes were based on user’s struggling with the control points.  The issues we identified were:

Users struggle with selecting the points they want to.
#6 - Users struggle with selecting points

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.

Design Recommendation

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.

A different color can signify a selected point more clearly
Users add more points to a path to change the curve.
#7 - Users add extra points to make curves

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.

Design Recommendation

Use motion to signify that bezier handles can be moved.                                                                                                                                                                                                

Motion indicates that bezier handles can be moved
#8 - Users don’t understand bezier handle states

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.

Design Recommendation

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.            

Problems With The Application UI
When trying to add a fill, users click the stroke color first since it’s the only one visible.
#9 - Users struggle with selecting points

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.

Design Recommendation

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)

Sketch shows an unactivated fill state which users found more intuitive to activate compared to Figma where they had to add a fill using the add icon.

The add icon hides all vector and shape options making it harder for users to find them.
#10 - Users struggle to find the pen tool

In Sketch, users struggle to find the pen tool. Sketch hides all shapes and vector tools under an Add icon hindering it’s discoverability.                                                     

Design Recommendation

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.

Figma puts all of its shape, vector and text icons in clear view increasing discoverability

<- Back to homepage

EXPLORE Other Projects