Change and the Interface

hirschtickIn the SWWorld general session on Tuesday, Jon Hirschtick make the appeal to old school curmudgeons to relent a little when railing against the changes in SolidWorks. He spent the first couple of minutes of his talk building the case for his claim to the past of SolidWorks:

I have more claim to our past than anybody in this room, and I can tell you that the past doesn’t matter. The future matters. And I want you to continue to change SolidWorks and not cling to the past and say well that’s the way we always did things or that’s the way Jon used to do it or whatever, that doesn’t matter. Move SolidWorksforward. Evolve it, change it. Change what we’re doing with the product, change how we do support, change how the user groups work, change what we do on the web. Move this company forward. Please, that’s what I want you to do, and I’m going to try to do the same thing.

(link: around the 19 minute mark) Check out the rest of his talk. I think it is important to hear and understand what he has to say. He is not telling the future of SolidWorks, but just about his thoughts. Still, he is very influential in the industry. In this clip it sounds like he is talking more to SW employees than users, and more about SolidWorks as a company thanSolidWorks as a product.

Talking about change is all good, and all the rage these days, but change for the sake of change, or random change or change to keep up with fads are probably not what Jon intends to promote here. I’m hoping that he really means “progress” rather than just simply “change”. Things need to improve rather than just change. In this blog post, I’m most interested in talking about how change and progress can affect the interface. You can say a lot of things about this, and most of it would relate to much more than just SolidWorks, but also to the bulk of the computer software industry.

I would personally hope that the “change” that comes is change that can transcend fads or trends. In my opinion, this whole “ribbon” interface is not progressive change. It is the result of a monopoly using its weight to unilaterally drive a forced “standard” down our throats. Some people like it, most don’t. It’s not a solution that the majority is happy with. Recent decisions by Microsoft are responsible for the huge surge in Apple market share.

For reference, I’ve already laid out some of what I think in a presentation I did at SWW09, and in a blog post I did shortly after the release of the SW08 software making suggestions for changes that would be equally radical as 2008, possibly moreso, and yet useful.

I want to point something out here, too. Earlier I spoke of real progress and fads. If you’ve been around SolidWorks long enough, you have seen old ideas becoming new again. Things that were in fashion at one point, then became passe have now become fashionable again. This is the kind of thing I wish we could avoid. Good design is timeless. Good interfaceconcepts do not change like clothing styles. We’re engineers, can’t we be more rational than that? For a specific example, remember the “dialog box”? It was an interface element that popped up in the middle of the screen and allowed you to make selections and choose options, and whatnot. It happened in the middle of the screen. Then someone had the bright idea that the middle of the screen was really needed for the geometry. So we started using the PropertyManager, which was off to the side of the screen. This organized the information better, but was confined to a shape that is awkward for some types of data, and it made you move your cursor away from the model. Well, in recent years, and apparently moreso in SW2010, we are getting the “Heads Up” type interface, which, you guessed it, puts stuff right back in the middle of the screen again.

images-4Can’t really smart people figure out the “best” way? Why do we have to keep changing this? I think the answer here is that there is no answer, and that people really do just like random change. Change something, anything. Change it is such a way that you can think of a single benefit. It will sell like crazy. Are we really that shallow? Part of my SWW09 presentation on the interface is that we all like to do things differently, so everything we do is in conflict with something else, and we have to make choices between conflicting things. Everyone has different tastes, and even if you look at things dispassionately, there are advantages and disadvantages to almost every idea you can think of. You will never create anything that will make 100% of the people happy. But why does SW have to flip flop? Internal politics? New guy in charge? SW people are as fickle as the rest of us?

Anyway, this wishy-washiness is something that has always annoyed me. Sales people and lawyers are individuals who can argue any side of an issue without offending their own values. Is that because they have no values or because their values are for sale or some other more transcendent reason I don’t understand?  If you don’t think Lincoln was the best president ever and W was the worst, you are not in style these days. Other days it might be FDR and Harding.

Anyway, I want to extend this discussion to a wider audience than just SolidWorks users, but I’m going to have to use some SW examples. I hope everybody can relate. The SolidWorks2008 interface was controversial to say the least. It did a lot of what the Office 2007interface did. SW already had the CommandManager, which functions like the Ribbon, but I think is more useful because it is organized logically – in the same way as the toolbars. SW also handled right mouse button menus in the same way that MS handled them, splitting the menus and putting a bar of icons on top.

msribbon

swcm

In the past, SolidWorks made a bigger deal of the Microsoft compatibility thing, making it a selling point for the software that the MS interface makes things easier to learn. That is probably less true now with the ribbon. It is true that the SW CommandManager is not a direct implementation of the MS Ribbon, and for that I am very thankful. I think the 2009 version of the SW CM is far more useful, more configurable, and simply faster than the MS Ribbon.

xlrmb         swrmb

All of this seems to be in response to the same issues. Software is getting more complex.SolidWorks in particular has seen an explosion of new menu and toolbar options. The RMB started out as something meant to make things faster, but it has become a place to put all context sensitive functionality. The next time you look at the SW RMB menu, look through it and see how many things are in there that you had no idea were there. Shown above is an Excel 2007 RMB menu and a SW09 RMB menu.

SolidWorks has tried a few things, like the “personalized” menus that hide things you don’t use frequently under the double arrow at the bottom of the list, or the “vertical market work flow customization” – machine design, consumer products, and mold design – which limit the tools available based on what SW thinks people doing that type of work will need. I don’t think either of these has been effective in helping users manage command bloat.

How do you create an efficient interface when you have a tool that can be used for many different kinds of things? Customization is the only answer. Customization and flexibility. I think there were 2 factors that made SW08 so controversial:

  1. The default interface shown on installation used the most radical options available.
  2. The changes imposed were not options – “our way or the highway” mentality (shared by SW and MS)

I’ve said it before, but I still believe it, and I know it is true for me personally, SolidWorks (and Microsoft by extension) could have avoided a lot of ill will if they had made the default installinterface familiar, and if the interface had included options for turning things on or off. One of the reasons I like SW09 so much is that it finally includes the options to control things that users either want to or are used to controlling.

So, while I agree in some respects with Mr. Hirschtick when he calls for change, I would qualify that somewhat, and limit it to useful change, and also recognize that there are people who have to continue to make a living with SolidWorks after they change it. Contunially retraining an existing workforce is not an option, unless there is a real benefit. (Rhetorical benefits are not considered “real” by anyone except sales). Also SolidWorks needs to remember that “you never think your baby is ugly” – meaning that SW people are probably blind to the actual faults in their software. Which is why they need the “devil’s advocate” position I’ve supported in the past.

So, now I want to see what you as software users think about when companies change interfaces, and what changes you would like to make? Mark Burhof promised he would at least comment if I posted on this topic, so I wanna hear from Mark. I know he mainly wants to glean information, but you have to give sometimes too. So what do you think, Mark?

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