The consumer market has experienced a virtual flood of cheap, easy-to-use “apps” that enable users to do everything from remotely program their TVs, check their bank balance, map out a route, order concert tickets, see what’s playing at the local Cineplex, play a game, or thousands of other things. This onslaught of easily accessible and cheap apps on smart phones and other mobile devices has spurred a similar demand for this same type of graphics-rich, easy-to-use functionality in the work world as well.
Traditional CAD programs are nearly everything but easy to use. They have been text-based, hard-to-navigate and learn, and based largely on somewhat archaic tree-based menu structures. There are, however, some signs that CAD interfaces might be heading for a makeover of sorts, promising an improved user experience for engineers and designers.
Usability issues gain momentum
While most new releases of CAD programs have focused on expanded suites of functionality and new powerful features—many of which are user-requested, web and mobile apps on smart phones and tablets have piqued the interest of engineers and designers who crave richer interfaces, more graphics, and animation. As a result, many vendors are now considering usability as a primary issue when designing new programs.
Thanks to revved-up processing muscle of today’s workstations, some with multi-core processors, ample cheap memory, high-tech input devices, and high-resolutions and touch screens changing the way users interact with their systems, the time is right for vendors to offer a more robust design tool experience within a graphics-rich, easy-to-use CAD environment.
Progressive disclosure is a longstanding user interface principle that presents only the minimum data required for a certain task in order to reduce clutter. It provides users with the features they need at the time, then requires them to proceed deeper into the program when they need more data or functionality. Presenting functionality in a task-oriented manner is one of the ways CAD and PLM vendors are simplifying the introduction of more complex capabilities to users.
Cleaner, simplified interfaces that employ more graphics and less text help users navigate through programs so they can easily access the functionality they need to get the task at hand accomplished. Instead of product tables, the new release of Windchill PLM software, for example, offers visual representations of products and parts to provide clarity and simplicity.
Customization facilitates use
Another interface improvement focuses on enabling users to customize the home page of the program, so they are only presented with the information and functionality they need to get their specific job done, removing extraneous data that isn’t useful to them. Using predictive computing technologies, some vendors are working to tailor menu systems and toolbars to reflect users’ individual work patterns.
The modular architecture of PTC’s Creo suite of design apps also borrows from this same concept, enabling users to choose targeted pieces of functionality in the form of different programs and assemble them together to meet their individual needs.
Virtual tools mimic real world
Stealing influences from the gaming world, vendors are now also working to incorporate real-time rendering and new navigation paradigms to more closely resemble real-life interactions to improve the way users interact with design tools. They are doing so by studying real-life behaviors and applying them to interface design.
Leveraging new user interface designs and migrating more design functionality to mobile devices could radically change the way both vendors and users view design tools. The goal in the long run is to provide engineers and designers with tools that enable them to design products in a way that is familiar, comfortable and more intuitive.