A few weeks ago Roopinder Tara published an intriguing article titled “Why is design software still so hard? The ease of use challenge” (you can read the full article here). A smile started to form as I saw the top image was a screenshot from Shapr3D, and I prepared myself to bask in the warm waters of yet another positive review of our revolutionary CAD software. “CAD doesn’t get any easier to use than Shapr3D” read the text below the lead image – only to be questioned just a couple of lines away. “Is it enough?”, Roopinder wrote.
My competitive antibodies kicked in, and I have to admit that even before finishing the article, I was ready to write an email to the author to advise him of the mistakes that he was to make in the article. “Everyone knows that Shapr3D is easy to use” was the narrative already playing in my head. Still, I have tons of respect for Roopinder and at least owed him the courtesy of finishing his article before setting the record straight :)
As I finished the article, I realized he was right. There is always more we can do as an industry to make CAD software easier to use.
“Ease of use is easy to say but hard to do” — Anonymous
The phrase ‘ease of use’ has become so trite these days that we talk more and more about ‘user experience’ or ‘customer experience’ or something of that sort (I found one reference to ‘emotional design’, which conjures up all kinds of thoughts). Terminology aside, let’s agree on some basics:
- Ease of use is a basic concept that describes how easily users can use a product.
- Usability comprises all user experience (UX) elements relating to the ease with which users can learn, discover content, and do more with a design/product.
- A great customer experience is more than just what you find in the product. It should be super polished from the point of discovery all the way to purchase and to the usage of the product. That being said, in this article, we’ll keep exploring the UI of products.
“You can’t please everybody - you’re not a Nutella jar” - Anonymous
Ease of use is a customer-centric activity. Like my mom said when I was trying to learn the violin, “everyone is special in their own way”. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s think of technology (in our case, CAD) users in two schools: those using legacy CAD tools and those who have learned about IT and apps from their smartphones.
First off, legacy CAD tools are amazing. They have accelerated innovation and digitized nearly everything we see and touch. But just like my 1964 Karmen Ghia (man I wished I still had that car!), these tools were built for a different era when computers worked differently.
In general, our relationship with technology has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years. Technology was something you used at work and sometimes would tinker with at home. When I was in my 20s I remember buying and assembling a 386 computer with a modem and was sort of running Unigraphics at 2400 baud. Now it has completely changed. Technology is tailored for personal use and you expect things at work to behave like your iPhone.
If you are designing software for someone who is familiar with legacy packages, you might build a product that is familiar but has incremental improvements such as AI to help the user navigate through the menus. But you run the risk of building a faster horse rather than a car.
If you are designing a product for people who have never used anything similar, you might create the user interaction model to be more like other tools that they engage with on a daily basis. The flipside? You run the risk of alienating legacy users.
In order to achieve world domination, you’ll need to find a way to compel legacy users to take the leap while pleasing the demands of the newly initiated. It’s easy to say, but hard to do. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
“Growth requires complexity, which requires simplicity” - Andy Stanley
Ah, yes. The age-old conundrum – balancing ‘ease of use’ with capability. One of my fond memories of a company where I used to work is that they took pride in their complexity. However, they were ‘sophisticated’, not complex :) As for me, I think a bottle of red wine should be sophisticated. My software – not so much.
Let’s assume that we’ve built the basic framework for a user interface that is said to be the easiest to use CAD tool on the market. How do we now add capabilities and maintain this objective? Al Dean expresses his hope that Shapr3D can keep the ease of use as we grow the functional coverage: “What I hope is that the Shapr3D team is able to retain the elegance of what it has built so far. We all know that as 3D design systems mature, feature creep and bloat tend to arise. That’s true of all software.”
There’s no magic formula, though. At Shapr3D, we strive for excellence by following the below rules:
- We reject mediocrity. “It will be fine like that” is not acceptable.
- We believe easy tasks should be easy to execute. Complex tasks must not be impossible.
- We admire and empathize with our customers. On a near-daily basis, we invite customers to talk directly to Shapr3D to share their experiences and provide us with their feedback and inputs.
- We’re a bit chatty. We believe that social media is not just a place where we post videos to see how many people watch them. We love to interact with our customers, answer their questions, and celebrate their successes.
- We do not release a new version of Shapr3D until we're satisfied. As Orson Welles once said in the infamous television ad from the 70s, "We will sell no wine before its time”.
“People ignore design that ignores people.” - Frank Chimero
I was reading through David Weisberg’s ‘History of CAD’ not so long ago and found this gem from the 1960s:
- Typical users have little computer experience.
- Systems must be implemented such that users can do productive work for several hours per day.
- Fast response time is a key factor in implementing an effective application.
- Graphical communication systems must be natural and convenient to use.
- The number of steps required to accomplish a particular task should be minimized.
Even more than 50 years later, these guidelines still make sense. So, what would we add to the list for the 2020s? Here are a few from my personal list:
- Downloading and obtaining software should be as easy as downloading and obtaining apps from the AppStore.
- CAD should be easy enough so that you can build basic objects by just using the software.
- Intermediate skills and shortcuts should be accessible via video tutorials.
- You should never need to attend a 5-day training class to learn how to create a functional design.
Roopinder was right. We may have created the easiest to use CAD system on the planet, but we should always be looking for ways to improve the experience. Striving for an amazing customer experience means that ‘enough’ will never be enough.
That being said, what’s your take on the ease of use conundrum? Do you find your CAD software easy enough? What would make it easier?
This post was originally published on LinkedIn by Ron Close.