Molecular drawing tutorial for Android MolPrime

As of soon, the MolPrime app for Android will come with a built-in beginner tutorial, which basically forces you to draw caffeine from scratch. You can watch a playthrough on YouTube, and if you have an Android device, you should be able to check it out for yourself soon.

As with the Mobile Molecular DataSheet app and many others that are available for iOS, the Android version uses a molecular diagram sketcher based on a gesture/primitive interface that was designed from the ground up to make optimal use of the properties of touchscreen smartphones and tablets (see literature). Because touchscreen mobile devices are quite different to PCs, and have a lot of limitations, porting the conventional drawing interface directly is not very functional. Unfortunately, when a moderately complex interface that has been in use for decades is changed to something that uses slightly different concepts, there is a learning curve, and a high degree of resistance from users. The fact that it happens to be necessary is of small consolation to most.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve experimented with a variety of ideas for making the drawing of molecules with the new interface easier to get into. The original interface had various tips baked into it from the beginning (e.g. hold your finger on a button and it explains itself), and there has always been plenty of documentation and video demos, but we all know what happens with manuals. I seldom read them myself, and the idea of needing one for a mobile app is almost an admission of failure.

More recently the sketcher gained a set of training banks, which are a mid-point between familiar toolbars and the more efficient core interface. They can be switched off by expert users. At about the same time, an inline help mechanism was added: by default a series of popup tips show up, illustrating various tasks, with a translucent finger moving over the screen showing how it all works.

All heading in the right direction, perhaps, but still it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. So for the Android version, I decided to try out something new: a beginner tutorial. Sort of like when you install a new game, oftentimes you are encouraged to play through a simplified introduction where the software guides you through some basic tasks, and waits for you to complete each of them, before unleashing you into the maelstrom. So this tutorial starts out with a blank screen, and requires you to draw caffeine from scratch, using gestures, command banks and context menus. The tutorial shows instructions at the top, and highlights the buttons, or molecule objects, that need to be pressed to get to the next step. Like any good tutorial it tries to prevent you from straying too far off the trail.

Caffeine is a simple molecule, but drawing it illustrates a respectable subset of all the drawing functionality, such that once you’re done, you should have a good idea of where to look when you’re drawing your own structures. The captive audience style of the tutorial, where each step is interactive and goal-oriented, should bring alive some of the efforts to get new users up to speed with minimum fuss.

It should be out the Google Play store soon. Once it’s available, try it out, and by all means share your thoughts.

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