SketchFlow screams Tablet PC, but is anyone listening?

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At Mix09 Microsoft introduced SketchFlow as part of the next release of Expression Blend. It’s a quite impressive concept: Keep the design process as “sketchy” as possible in order to encourage people to evolve better designs rather than getting caught up in minor details. A programmer might sketch out a sequence of screens, for instance, and then connect them up in SketchFlow until the flow seems right. Then, and only then, is the design committed and a better looking UI created–in some cases with a simple change in a style. Here’s a screenshot of SketchFlow in use:

It’s a pretty good idea and one I’d like to try.

Currently, I work through my designs either in OneNote, Journal, or on paper and I’d like to try using Blend 3’s approach when it becomes available. (There is an Expression Blend 3 Preview available now, but it doesn’t include SketchFlow.)

But here’s the thing: Whereas SketchFlow would appear to be ideal for a Tablet PC owner like myself, I think the approach falls flat. In fact, I think the Expression Blend team needs to spend more time with heavy Tablet users to see what they are missing in their own product designs.

Rather than rant, I’m going to try to be constructive as possible and spell out what I’d like to see with Blend. Some of this is a repeat of my longer post yesterday. If you’re really interested, you can read it first and then come back. I’ll wait.

Here’s my main issue, a sketch flow tool needs to have a good story about where the sketches come from in the first place. Focusing on screen sequences and transitions is OK, but that’s in the middle of the design process and I don’t think is where there’s the main design challenge.

For large organizations or those that have very well-defined processes, I guess I can see SketchFlow’s value in itself, but it really leaves out the sketching part. Yes, I know you can draw from within Blend, but it’s not high-quality sketch friendly. And is there any question that a designer will elect to use high-quality sketching tools rather than a Paint-like set of tools? I don’t think so.

From an engineering standpoint, the problem is that this top down focus on process would make so much more sense if there was bottom up value that could be leveraged. In other words, there should be very good sketching support within Blend or as part of the story. First. There isn’t. Instead you’re supposed to use some other tool. According to the Mix09 session video, I guess you’re supposed to use paper and then scan it in.

Uhm, this is the year 2009 folks. We have mobile computers. We have Tablet PCs. We have connectivity. We can be digital.

Now there’s nothing saying that Blend has to support full sketching. That’s fine if it doesn’t. However, what’s really needed is a sketching tool. It’s clear to me that what’s missing is Sketchbook, now owned by AutoDesk. There are other illustrator-oriented tools, but this one trumps all others. To me, any demo of Blend should include drawing in Sketchbook and then copy/pasting the result into Blend. That’s what I’d shoot for anyway. If you’re part of the Blend team, reread that last sentence: It’s got to work with copy/paste. You need to be able to minimally use the snipping tool to grab a portion of something in Sketchbook and paste it into Blend. That doesn’t work now. It should. Right now there’s a model of storing an image to a file and using that. That’s not fast enough for quick and dirty work.

At this point I’ll repeat what I think a bunch of us have said in the past: Microsoft should have purchased Sketchbook. That was a fundamental blunder in the larger view of things when it comes to advocating for the Tablet PC platform. With Blend 3’s SketchFlow isn’t it obvious now how Sketchbook could have fit into the product suite? Sketchbook would have been used to create sketches, SketchFlow would have used them, and everyone would have been happy. Instead, I imagine there was this whole argument over Sketchbook implementing “ink” differently than Microsoft so it wasn’t a match. Think again. Blend and Design and WPF and Silverlight–all products growing in adoption–have a different take on “Microsoft ink” too. So that was a false argument and one that’s led to a whole in the Tablet story and I think the success of the Tablet ecosystem as a whole. It’s cost millions and millions in lost adoption of the Tablet form factor. Anyway, that’s enough time on my soap box. I’ll save that rant for another time. Back to SketchFlow.

Why would I demo SketchFlow with SketchBook? On a Tablet PC? Because it keeps the content digital. That’s number one. And secondly, it showcases the value of the Tablet PC in the broader story. That’s a Microsoft platform after all.

Now, as much as I love Sketchbook, I don’t use it. It costs too much money. Yeah, I’m cheap. Instead, I think through my ideas most often in OneNote or Journal. The sketching tools are much weaker here than Sketchbook, but they’re reasonable. I can easily edit, select multiple colors, move things around, and share my drawings with others via files or screenshots.

Given that Microsoft doesn’t own Sketchbook, from a Microsoft standpoint a reasonable alternative would be to demo SketchFlow using OneNote. I’d suggest leveraging it with its infinite pages and infinite document approach. No file worry. No saving issues. Just draw. That’s a good match for sketching. The issue is, getting OneNote drawings into Blend. That’s not currently supported either as ink or as ink converted into vectors within Blend. It’s clunky, but you’d have to use the snipping tool to capture a sketch, save it to a file, import the image file into Blend and then select and use it from Blend. Minimally, the team should support copy/paste from OneNote. That would make a much more compelling story than the image file approach.

Now with images pasted into Blend, there’s no editing, which is unfortunate, so really staying with vectors is the better approach if possible. With vectors, though, there’s an issue of rendering. Blend pencil “ink” is different than OneNote or Windows ink. I’ll leave it to the geniuses here to argue how to address this, but I’d say maybe a quick fix would be to add real ink to Blend and potentially Blend ink to OneNote. Word has run into these kinds of issues, so maybe someone has some fixes there.

You might wonder, what’s so bad about Blend’s pencil tool for drawing? Well, give it a go. It’s not the same fidelity as Tablet ink. But let’s say designers could get over them. Where Blend’s pencil tool fails, is in handwriting little notes. Try to write something quickly with a Tablet PC stylus. It doesn’t work well. Try dotting the letter i. You can’t. You’ll have to draw a little circle. You see, Blend is not handdrawing oriented. I’d say, if Blend detects a pen being used, it should switch input models and render high-quality ink. If a mouse is used, you get mousey looking ink.

Now if ink and image pasting is supported in Blend, then I see lots of other possibilities here with whiteboard apps, Journal, and so on. To me that doesn’t sound that difficult to implement.

And it should would give you the potential for a stunning demo. Hey, I could even see someone sketching on Surface or a large HP TouchSmart or whiteboard, using Mesh to store content to the cloud, and in near-real-time have the content show up available on another machine running Blend. OK, that’s probably too complicated. Give the demoer OneNote instead. Just make sure they’re drawing real-time in front of the crowd using a Tablet PC :-).

It’s not just Blend that I’m concerned about the Tablet experience with. There’s a SketchFlow viewer that supports annotation and given the Mix09 demo I’m wondering about its inking quality. It ought to be stellar on a Tablet PC. I’m not so sure if it is.

To sum all of this up, my concern with Blend is that it’s not a good enough Tablet citizen. From the outside it looks like it should be an amazing platform for Tablets. However, on closer inspection it’s best with a mouse and marginal with a Tablet PC. It should be screaming with a Tablet PC.

Update: At the end of this Mix09, titled “The Future Of Expression Blend,” Douglas Olson (General Manager of Expression) and Christian Schormann (Director, Program Management of Expression) answer the question, “What about the Tablet PC?” The response? Blend is not optimized for the Tablet PC and support for it is something they will consider in the future. They go on to say that you can still use the Tablet with Blend, but I’d add that from my experience Blend works much better with the mouse than the Tablet.

Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t attend Mix09 than for no other reason than to track down Blend team members and make the case for Tablet support. I think they’re missing out. And the thing is I think they can take an incremental approach to getting to where they already should be.