Keep it simple, stupid! That could well be the mantra for CAD developers today as they strive to make their software easier to use at the same time they add new functionality.
"Everyone knows the advantages of 3D software today, like the ability to make changes to the model and have them propagate to the 2D drawing," says Aaron Kelly, director of product management at SolidWorks (Concord, MA).
"Now the task is to make it easier to use."
He's not alone in that quest.
PTC, with 300,000 commercial users and almost five times that many educational seats, spent several hundred million dollars and several years morphing Pro/ENGINEER into Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire. Autodesk developed Inventor even though it already had a powerful 3D CAD program called Mechanical Desktop. And Dassault Systemes completely changed the look and feel of CATIA from Version 4 to Version 5, risking the alienation of customers who were used to the former product. In each case, the software developers re-tooled their products at least in part to make them easier to us.
Each of those products also includes new functionality beyond ease-of-use features. After all, says Jim Gross, an aerospace/rocket engineer for the U.S. Navy, the most important thing is that the software has the power to get the job done. Even so, ease of use is still key.
Engineers who are happy with the user-interface changes making their CAD programs more intuitive can thank Bill Gates.
"During the lifespan of Pro/ENGINEER, Windows® became the standard operating system, so people now expect a certain amount of ease of use," says Michael Campbell, a vice president at PTC. In addition, the user profile changed, he says, so even though there are now more people using CAD, many are not engineers. "They don't use CAD as often, so it has to be easier," Campbell asserts.
SolidWorks' Kelly agrees, and adds another factor behind the efforts to make software easier: "Many users are coming from other systems and they want the transition to be easy."
Meanwhile Andrew Anagnost, senior director of product and solution marketing at Autodesk, says most products are already functional, "so the key is making the user more productive via a better user interface." In fact, Anagnost adds, "Autodesk has made choices in terms of what kind of functionality we roll out, based on its impact on ease of use." He admits that Autodesk has not rolled out its full surface environment primarily because of user interface issues.
Most CAD developers have teams dedicated to improving ease of use in their products. "We don't have a performance team, or a 'flashy-feature' team, but we do have an ease-of-use team," notes SolidWorks' Kelly.
At EDS, they've gone a step further. Dan Staples, director of the Solid Edge business unit, says they even have a cognitive psychologist who reviews user-interface design ideas and determines how humans react to them. He says they also have their developers listen in on support calls from time to time, to better understand the struggles of the everyday user.
So what makes a CAD program easy to use, anyway? It turns out that developers and users have both similar and different thoughts about that. Developers talk about consistency—making sure the program not only looks and feels like other Windows applications, but also provides consistency within the developer's own tools, so that users can apply their knowledge of how one tool works in order to learn another.
Easier job: Krebs Engineers designs sophisticated mining equipment in CATIA. Event though the software is much more functional than the company's previous software it's ease of use for the engineers has improved.
Developers mention other factors as well. For example, they try to infer what the operator wants to do, and as a result, save steps. "That's what it is all about," says SolidWorks' Kelly. "Pretty icons are nice, but in the end we want to make the user more productive."
Staples at EDS points to how taking advantage of improved processing speed has afforded Solid Edge new capabilities that make it easier to use by allowing dynamic editing with shaded previews. This instant visual feedback allows the design process to continue uninhibited.
But some of the user interface philosophies of the developers are 180 degrees from one another. For example, several developers, including SolidWorks, mention that a good user interface doesn't hide options, and that users shouldn't have to remember where a command is buried. However, Staples, when discussing Solid Edge, talks about the concept of progressive disclosure, where users are not shown all options at once. "Humans review options available to them and then proceed, but if you bombard them with all the options at once, you make them think a lot more than they need to at that point. It is a lot more interruptive to their workflow," he says.
He adds that it's important to talk to the engineer on his terms. "That means you don't use a sweep command to create tubing and wiring. You create a separate module with specific features."
Not Always Obvious
While users generally agree with these developer points, they also cite real-world examples of ease of use, some of which would not be obvious by taking a quick glance at the software. For example, CATIA 5 user Kevin Soukup, senior mechanical engineer/CAD administrator at Krebs Engineers in Tucson, AZ, points to recent changes made to a CATIA feature called Multiple Body Parts that now makes his work a lot easier, although at first glance many won't consider this an ease of use issue. The changes make the parts more stable and require less work when the components that make up the multiple body parts are reorganized. Dassault Systemes also made it easier for someone who is receiving a file with Multiple Body Parts to understand what is going on. "This saves a lot of time," says Soukup, "because the sender doesn't have to explain everything."
Soukup also says missing features can make the design process more tedious, which impairs ease of use. Because CATIA doesn't have a spell checker, he has to import drawings into AutoCAD in order to check for typos, which takes time.
Understand the Process
Ease of use is also directly connected to how well developers understand the processes that their users employ, without trying to change them. Do developers try to change users' processes? Krebs' Soukup says yes. He cites very complex sheet metal parts his company designs. "They are made up of hundreds of parts, but when we send it to the fabricator it gets welded and comes back as one part, and that's the way we want to track it," he explains. However, SmarTeam (Dassault Systemes' PLM software) wants to count it as 200 parts. "I would have to hire one guy just to check parts in and out of SmarTeam if that was the process we used—it just doesn't make any sense to us." He says that they are working with Dassault Systemes to find a solution to the problem.
T.J. Fisher, president of Arizona Applied Engineering in Prescott Valley, AZ, is a mold designer and SolidWorks user who says he has even had to change his actual design to make complex parting lines work. While he is generally happy with the application, sometimes he has to make a hole one-tenth bigger or smaller in size, for example, in order to have the software figure out the parting line without any problems.
So what happens when a company "moves up the CAD ladder," that is, migrates from one system to another with greater capabilities? Monaco Coach Corp. (Bend, OR) is making the transition from AutoCAD to Inventor, partly due to the ease-of-use issue. Engineer Dolan Classen notes that most users are easily adjusting to the change saying, "It's not hard, it's just different from the fact that there is no command line to how you put an assembly together."
Honeywell Inc.'s special equipment department moved to IronCAD because of ease-of-use issues with its previous CAD software. "It's made life much easier because so many things are now much more visual," says Mechanical Technician Carl Steien.
Soukup at Krebs views CATIA as easier to use than AutoCAD, even though it does more. In fact, even as more features are added, it's getting even easier, he says. He cites new CATIA entities called thin fiber elements, which allow users to create open solids, thus making the creation of certain objects a lot simpler.
So the notion that more robust software will be more complex and harder to learn and use doesn't always hold water. Still, Fischer at Arizona Applied Engineering adds, "SolidWorks is starting to fall into the trap where they are trying to be everything to everybody and are getting to the point where they are potentially getting more complicated." However, he also notes that new features generally work just like existing ones.
More to Do
"If I go to a computer store and buy a $30 Windows package to help me touch up photos or balance my checkbook, I expect it to be easy and I don't even read the manual," says SolidWorks' Kelly. "CAD should be the same way." Others agree.
According to Autodesk's Anagnost, a key challenge for his company is getting users to do conceptual design in 3D and then turn that into a production model. In fact, Classen at Monaco Coach still does 2D conceptual design in AutoCAD, before moving to Inventor, simply because it is what he is most comfortable with.
While PTC's Campbell believes Wildfire was a big step forward, he notes that there are still many areas where its user-interface paradigm has yet to be implemented, such as in their sheet metal module and some of their other applications. As a software reviewer, I have found this to be true. Additionally, I personally found minor inconsistencies and some lingering aspects of the old user interface. Wildfire is not alone, as I have found this to be an issue in almost every CAD application I have used.
Greg Milliken, vice president at Alibre Inc. believes that his Alibre Design application is easy to use, but also notes that it can be more polished. "Half of the developmental effort of the next version will focus around user interface," he says.
What's interesting is that PTC and Alibre are companies on the opposite ends of the price scale; and while they both know the importance of a good user interface, both realize that building core functionality first is more important.
Says the U.S. Navy's Gross, "When your needs get very specific, you just want something that will do the job." Gross says that he often needs to employ sophisticated custom-built analysis programs when doing his designs, and he doesn't mind working with an unintuitive user interface in order to get the needed results.
Strides in ease of use aside, what seems to be missing in CAD today are major user-interface breakthroughs. A few years ago, think3 introduced the ability to enable CAD commands via spoken instructions inside its thinkdesign CAD software. I tested this and not only did it work, but it also saved a lot of time. Yet fewer than 50% of thinkdesign customers use it. Why has no other vendor committed the resources to build something similar? Some say it's a gimmick, but it boosts productivity.
Perhaps the profits in providing training are too great, so we may never see CAD software that is as easy to use as that $30 general-purpose Windows application. However, this is a line the CAD industry must consider crossing, if it really wants to appeal to the mass market.
Contributing writer Joe Greco can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.