Sunday, 21 June 2009

New User interface

I have been using the latest Autodesk releases, 2010, for a few months now and in this post I am interested in the UI (user interface).

When Microsoft released Office 2007, we got a new interface. It had a Ribbon which replaced the tool bars. It had a big button like the Start menu in Windows Vista and was designed to be a "task" based interface, making it easier to find what your looking for. Except no one could find what they were looking for...

Now, Autodesk and indeed Adobe with their Photoshop product have had a Task Based interface for some time now, but still used toolbars. They have what is called "Workspaces". You selected the task you are doing in in the "Workspace" toolbar and all the buttons you need for that task appear. This system works, but was not widely adopted. Ask 100 Autodesk users "who uses workspaces?" and only about 10 would say "yes!" I don't train Photoshop, but although I suspect the figure would be higher, I doubt it would be by much more (I stand to be corrected on that one if anyone knows better). The point is that the UI needs to change. Microsoft know this, and so does Autodesk and Adobe. We have too many functions, too many buttons and therefore too long is spent learning how to use these programmes or waisting time finding functions you need. The fact that creating a function to make things easier, such as Workspaces, and for it not to be adopted because it is just another thing to learn must prove my point.

So we now have a task based UI called a Ribbon. So why does no one (i have met anyway) like it? I can't answer that for anyone but myself, but lets take Excel for example. Finding the button you want has been improved with the context sensitivity. Select an image and all the image buttons appear. But look for something like "Conditional Formatting", well, that's a different matter. In Office 2003, this would be found in the "Format" drop down. This made sense to me! In 2007 this is found in the "Home" tab. My brain says "Formatting" my software says "Common" task. It just doesn't hit the mark, or my brain needs more than 2 years to get it!!

OK, lets skip forward to the 2009 release of Autodesk's AutoCAD programme, and the ribbon appeared here too. When I asked for a show of hands at the last round of Launch seminars "Who installed 2009 software and turned off the Ribbon?" out of the 300 or so people, most did! Why? Well probably because they don't want to "learn yet another thing" and just need to get the job done, so revert back to what they know. Well we have Ribbon V2 in the 2010 product and I recon more people will adopt this time. Why, well because it just makes sense. Not only has it appeared in the vertical markets, Architecture, Civil and Map along with the Companion products such as Revit and Max, it makes using these incredibly complex programmes much faster, it also has been improved by working faster and having more adaptability with the customisable UI.

Lets take AutoCAD Civil 3D 2010, one of my specialities. As an expert in this programme, with the old versions I would need to find the function I want, and more importantly I needed to know what functions are available. Something that just took a little time. In 2010, just select the item in your drawing that you want to do something with, and all the buttons appear on the Ribbon. Brilliant! Select a surface, all the Surface tools are there. Select an Alignment, and guess what? all the buttons you need for Alignments are there. It really is that simple.

So what's different? Why is MS office not as good as AutoCAD? Well, I think that Task Based Work is just more relevant in a programme such as AutoCAD. We have work flows in Architecture, GIS and Civil Engineering. We don't in Office programmes. Or at least I don't in Office! I'm convinced the Ribbon is a step in the right direction, but it's not perfect for all programmes. Once again I revert to my posts on Surface Computing and Siftables. The need to change is important, and a step in the right direction should be applauded... with honest feedback.

Written and submitted from home