Touch Devices: are they worth it? A personal experience

Hannu Stewart on

Pen annotation on Drawboard PDF

My relationship with devices and pen and paper has changed over the years, but never as much as recently.

I purchased the 2nd generation iPad shortly after it came out in 2011. An amazing device with so much promise. I was excited to get it as I had tested it a couple times in a store and with friends who already had one. I was sure it would take my productivity to new heights. I was also sure it would replace my paper notebook and I carried it with me everywhere. I absolutely loved it.

Maybe 3 or 4 months later however, I noticed I had gone back to my paper notebook for taking notes and keeping track of to-dos. My iPad was demoted to lay on the coffee table and was merely used to browse news sites, subscribe to one or two papers and magazines and play the occasional game of Angry Birds. Still great for entertainment, but it had lost its place as a productivity tool for me. A year or two passed and I sold the device.

Why did this happen? For a device that clearly did so much more than my simple paper notebook and was much more practical to carry around than my laptop, it should have been offering endless benefits and reasons to use it. To be honest, I think it just came down the fact that it couldn’t replace the feel of pen and paper — arguably one of the best user interfaces ever created.

Upgrading the pen and paper experience.

For the next 7 or so years, my trusty paper notebook combined with my laptop and smartphone made the core of my productivity tools. No tablet, and no touch screen larger than the one on my phone. Many were the times too when I smirked at a person trying hard to convince me to use an electronic pen or the latest tablet device. Many were also the devices I tested.

Fast forward to January 2018, when starting in a new position I was handed a Microsoft Surface Pro. A device I had seen a few times online and tested once in a Microsoft Store in New York. My first experience when starting up the device and picking up the pen blew me away. The feel was just like using pen and paper. Only now, ‘pen and paper’ was connected to all my other work tools directly on one device. It didn’t take me long to catch on to this new way of working.

New level of productivity

Using the Surface Pro for a few months now I find myself taking notes, marking up documents, editing presentations and making sketches with the pen. Many of the same items that would fill up the pages of my paper notebook are now all tucked away on a couple tools and services I use on the Surface.

I’m seamlessly switching between using my device as a laptop (with an external monitor and mouse), as a tablet device using touch input, and using it as a studio drawing board or notebook in meetings (using the Surface Pen as my input with handwriting).

Where I previously found myself switching between handwritten notes on paper and transferring those to the various tools we use for keeping track of work, I’m now doing much less double work. All my tools are working seamlessly on one device. Purely looking at this alone, I’m saving myself up to an hour or so of work each day.A huge impact on my output alone, and I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to using the full capabilities of the Surface.

There are industries where the drawing and inking capabilities will offer much more in terms of productivity compared to my role.

A change of perception

Joining a company (Drawboard) that works closely with the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industries has changed my perception on the benefits the latest touch devices can bring to companies. Seeing the workflows that our clients handle daily has made me realise the amount of time and resources new devices can save .

It really took until now for me to finally ‘get’ the point of devices like the Surface line.

For professionals in the Design, Engineering and Construction industries, having the capability to efficiently, precisely and seamlessly interact with complex drawings and plans anywhere in the office or field is a huge benefit. Combining this with other powerful collaboration tools that allow you to work with remote colleagues adds to the impact. Simply not having to print and scan in designs each time revisions and mark-ups are made saves a great amount of time and resources. Not to mention speeding up revision and review processes.

Now sure, much of this was already possible using a desktop and a tablet with touch input. However the precision and user experience new devices with pen input match far better with what the industry is used to: old fashioned markers, pens and paper. It therefore makes ‘going digital’ a much easier experience.

Engineering markup in Bullclip

A quick note on the combination of hardware and software

For most businesses, the decision to roll out touch devices would include the decision on whether to go with Windows, iOS or Android operating systems.

There are benefits to all of them and you can find countless comparisons online all suggesting one or the other is better than the rest. Each device will have a wide range of productivity apps available, however in my opinion the biggest question to ask is around what the main business tools are that you need to access on a day-to-day basis.

Windows 10 devices connect seamlessly with the Microsoft family of software and services and allow for a laptop like multitasking user experience, whereas iOS and Android offer a more app-based experience optimized for touch navigation. Which of these works better in your situation is a question I cannot answer but I can give my vote for the Microsoft experience for anyone using the device as their main work platform.

Back to my trusty paper notebook

The way I work has changed quite dramatically over the past couple of months. All my work is now much more focussed and connected to one device. I used to use a laptop, phone and a paper notebook all for slightly different purposes but still ended up spending time taking all that work product back to my laptop and online storage so that I had it all in one place.

Now my laptop and phone have been completely overtaken and replaced by the Surface Pro and I find myself doing the clear majority of my work on one device that seamlessly morphs between a laptop, a notebook, a tablet device and a studio drawing board as needed.

So where does this leave my paper notebook? Funny enough, it is still here and still going strong. Now the only difference is that it simply keeps all the most important details in it which I want to store for life, away in my attic. For that purpose, I’m not yet ready to go fully online.