Don't let your tools distract you.

One of the most requested features we receive for Precursor is stencils. Stencils are pretty common in wireframing, and most prototyping apps offer more stencils than you know what to do with. But we’re not going to do that, and here’s why.

Stencils don't deliver on the promise of more productivity.

If you've never used one, stencils are pre-made components that developers put together as shortcuts for sketching basic UI elements. Sick of drawing the same dropdown? Use a stencil.

The concept of helping users work fast and avoid repeating themselves is great; but the traditional implementation is flawed. While stencils do make some tasks faster, they usually do so at the cost of a user's attention.

Last week we released a new feature called Clipboard History (or “clips” for short). This feature is unique for a prototyping tool, so we wanted to test it out with users before promoting it.

After speaking with the users who have been testing it, we’re excited that people are finding it to be a helpful addition to their workflow. So we thought it'd be best to introduce clips today with a little backstory, and then I’ll show you how it works.

Normal stencils trade one problem for another.

When we first discussed the option of stencils, I was hesitant to approach it the way most prototyping tools do. They always start with the best intentions—developers want to give users a way to work faster and avoid repeating themselves—but they end up creating an entirely new problem.

Knowing where to draw the line is difficult. It's important to remember that prototyping tools are useful because they're simple. Other alternatives like Photoshop and Illustrator require too much cognitive load for such a simplistic workflow. Prototyping is essentially brainstorming, and minimizing distractions while brainstorming is critical. Each additional task in front of a user has the potential to destroy an idea before it solidifies.

If I'm looking for a single stencil and I'm presented with hundreds of interesting choices, I'll lose focus every time. I stop considering what exact tool I need to solve the problem before me, and I start imagining the possibilities of using one of these other cool things I just discovered.

Having been distracted by this process many times in the past, I became committed to finding a new approach. This is where clips come in.

We’re adding history to your clipboard.

Soon we’ll combine the history of your copied shapes shapes with a new copy and paste interaction to help users sketch fast, while remaining focused on the ideas in front of them.

Right now we have things setup to operate mostly from a list in the menu, but the next step is to create something that enables users to work faster and avoid unnecessary distractions at the same time.

We're going to give users the ability to quickly bind shapes to number keys and reproduce them at anytime using a shortcut.

Shortcuts aren’t intuitive.

We're riding the coattails of a well-known shortcut: copy and paste. When shapes are copied and pasted, we're not just going to drop them into the center of the viewport anymore. Instead we're going to start being a bit smarter about how we let users place pasted shapes.

When pasting shapes, they'll appear over the canvas, following the cursor position. By doing this, users will be able to position pasted items before committing them to the canvas with a simple click.

This interim period, between pasting and dropping, creates an opportunity for alternate endings to the whole interaction. In addition to the normal paste behavior, you'll also be able to scroll through your saved clips and paste one of them instead.

Everyone is already familiar with how copy and paste works. So by piggybacking on well-known behavior, we’re going to be able to deliver an advanced user technique in a way that's intuitive. The most important benefit to all of this is that users will have an easy way to save time that's better spent on ideating and iterating with teammates.

Simplicity is the goal.

By far, the most common piece of feedback we get at Precursor is, "Thanks for making something so simple." I love comments like this, because they reassure me that we're on the right track.

As competition between prototyping tools continues to evolve, I think we're going to see more tools offer more solutions, using more UI. The irony in all of this extra effort is that it takes users further from the original goal of prototyping, which is to lower cognitive load.

At Precursor, every feature we consider is subjected to scrutiny against this original goal. I believe this new approach to stenciling is a great example of our dedication to simplicity. It will help users be more productive and solve problems that really matter.

Let's try it real quick.

Clips are simple, but they’re also a new approach to wireframing. Once you try it I think you'll agree it's useful, and once you see our future plans, I think you'll get excited.

1) Copy shapes.

Use the select tool (V) to select shapes, then use Cmd/Ctrl+C to copy them. This also adds them to your Clipboard History in the menu.

2) Paste shapes.

Now open your Clipboard History (X) and click the thumbnail of the shape you just copied to paste it into your doc.

3) Favorite shapes.

Click the star icon for the shapes you want to remember. Your favorite shapes will pin to the top of this list.

Improving paste is next.

Today we have the list of copied clips and the ability to paste them from the menu. Next, are the abilities to bind favorites to number keys and align pasted shapes before commiting them to the canvas. When we finish, we'll provide a more in-depth tutorial for the entire process.