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Writing on Paper

There’s been a bit of a buzz about the new app, Paper, released by Fifty Three in the past few days.

If you haven’t heard about it, Paper is a simple drawing app that aims to replicate the feel and experience of using a nice sketchbook. 

It strips away most of the Chrome that is part and parcel with the current spate of drawing applications on the iPad.  It’s a powerful idea:  remove the UI, and you’re free to experience the tools on their own terms, just as you would a pencil in real life.  You’re freed from the cognitive load of choosing the size of your brush, and are able to concentrate more on the act of creation.

One of the big reasons this works so well is the attention to detail in Paper’s interaction design — particularly in the core interaction of the application, the act of drawing.  Simply put, the feeling of drawing within this app is best in class.  Not only is the touch mapping second to none, but there are subtle elements going on behind the scenes to ensure that users can add fine details to their sketches.

The attention to detail extends to the drawing implements you can employ within the app.  The free version defaults to the fountain pen, which while maintaining the feel of an actual fountain pen, adds a few small tweaks to how it works within the world of the application. In many ways, these tweaks are counter intuitive to the way that the fountain pen works in real life, which seems ironic for an application purporting to be a digital execution of a simple physical idea. In actuality, these tweaks add to the user experience.  For example, the longer you hold down a fountain pen in real life, the more ink will spill out on the page; in the world of the Paper app, they eschew this convention in favour of letting users add fine detail. “Ink flow” in the virtual world is tied to velocity, which accentuates both usability and aesthetics. This approach puts an instantly recognizable style on the strokes within your drawing, while simultaneously enabling you to add smaller, fine strokes.  It’s a seductive interaction, one that draws you into the application and makes you want to keep using it, maybe even making an in-app purchase along the way.

For these reasons and more, Paper is an excellent drawing app. But the thing I’ve appreciated most about Paper is that it uncovered – and solved – problems in previous drawing applications that I didn’t know I even had.

I am a big Sketchbook Pro user, and enjoy using it.  It’s a great application, and the proof of that is in how much I’ve actually used it. There’s an immense amount of tools available to you, each of which can be individually customized. But what is one of its great strengths from a functionality standpoint ends up becoming a hurdle you have to overcome to be creative.  The cognitive load required by the UI, and particularly in choosing the appropriate tool to create with, is much higher than in Paper, and this takes away from the core interaction of sketching.

Paper sidesteps this problem by limiting your tools, simplifying your choices and the array of menus you have to navigate through to get them. This is a subtle difference in approach that has a large impact on the act of creation, making Paper much more enjoyable to use.

That’s not to say that Paper couldn’t be improved.  There are a few tensions within the interaction design, such as when you attempt to add fine detail around the edge of the canvas.  Paper uses ‘bezel-to-screen’ swipes to handle interactions such as tool swapping and page turning, and this is at odds with the act of sketching fine detail around the boundaries of the paper.  

I’d also add slight additions to the UI, such as the ability to zoom into a 200% view to add fine details or notes to your sketches.  I understand why this isn’t in the 1.0 release: after all, you can’t easily zoom into a notebook. That said, a smart extension of the app’s existing architecture should be able to support this functionality very easily, through the use of an already established pinch to zoom in and out interaction.  Hopefully Paper sidesteps the problems inherent in zoom functionality within other sketching applications, such as Sketchbook, where two fingers not only zoom in and out, but also control the movement of the canvas, which can make orientation tricky.

I’m reminded of Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who discovered fractals and cemented the mathematical idea that from simple architectures can come complex forms.  In its own way, Paper has done a great job of creating a simple architecture from which you can create an incredible variety of forms, and that is a huge part of its success.