The New SOLIDWORKS 2016 User Interface: One Year Later
Taoists may embrace change as an essential and beautiful characteristic of life itself. For the opposite extreme, change is a terrifying circumstance to be avoided entirely and at all costs. Within this range lies the CAD user, who would like things to stay exactly as they are from one release to the next—except those things that bother them.
So, when Dassault Systèmes updated the most popular 3D mechanical design software, SOLIDWORKS, last year and introduced an altogether new user interface, the iconic software was met with everything from joy to ambivalence to shock and horror.
Now that a year has passed, the software giant has been iterating SOLIDWORKS 2016, both in reaction to the needs and grievances of users as well as in preparation for the upcoming release of SOLIDWORKS 2017. ENGINEERS Rule spoke with Jim Wilkinson, vice president of User Experience Architecture at Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS, to learn how his user experience (UX) team has addressed the CAD community and what it takes to please most of the people most of the time.
Over 10 Years in the Making
As Wilkinson pointed out, the changes to the classic CAD program, which were mostly graphical in nature, were the first big modifications made since 2005. In 2005, the ability to expand the software’s palette from 16 to 265 colors allowed for the introduction of subtle but important changes, such as using orange to represent surfaces and silver to represent sheet metal.
With the somewhat recent introduction to the market of 4K monitors and laptops, which have a horizontal resolution of approximately 4,000 pixels, Wilkinson’s team saw the need to update the software so that it was usable on high-resolution screens. He explained that, when the DPI settings are changed for these monitors, the text may get larger or smaller, but the icons will remain the same. This means that, even when resolution is maxed out, the icons in the software will be tiny in comparison, making them practically useless.
“Users expect 4K to be better,” Wilkinson said. But if applications don’t adjust, the user experience will get worse. “Even Microsoft didn’t adapt to 4K until Windows 10.”
The most recent update, however, takes care of the higher resolution of 4K screens, noted Wilkinson. Users who have spent the extra money on a 4K screen will not have to pay more for magnifying glasses to see the software’s icons.
While the update enabled the SOLIDWORKS team to prep for a future in which the majority of users will have high-resolution screens, it also provided the opportunity to update the overall aesthetic of the program.
Go Monochrome or Go Home
Wilkinson explained that an emerging trend in software design is the reliance on fewer colors to achieve an arguably sleek aesthetic. To modernize the icons in SOLIDWORKS 2016, some colors were removed throughout the software.
The decisions made in updating the color palette, among other upgrades, were based on a great deal of research, Wilkinson said, resulting in “probably one of the most researched projects” his User Experience Design Group had ever undertaken. To calculate these decisions, Wilkinson’s team, now numbering four graphic artists and 17 members overall, first performed user surveys, then held one-on-one online interviews with users, showcasing the software’s changes and getting feedback.
The revamped interface was demonstrated to users at the annual user meeting, SOLIDWORKS World 2016, but with a bit of applied psychology.
“We didn’t tell them that we changed the user interface,” Wilkinson said. “We just had the new user interface turned on and let users test the other projects that we were testing. Amazingly, we got very little negative feedback, if any, actually.”
Wilkinson added, “You don’t want to give them much guidance or input. You just want to observe them using and let them figure it out on their own—specifically on the UI. Most users just went about using the software without any complaints or problems. We had to ask them at the end if they’d noticed anything. Not until then would they say, ‘Yeah, the icons changed color and shape a little bit. I’m fine with it.’”
In other words, the software seemed pretty much ready for launch. Humans, Taoists and non-Taoists alike, are creatures of habit, however, and when the software was greeted by more and more users, some would be vocal in expressing their displeasure.
Classic Style for the Colorless
Many of the issues associated with the new software had to do with the aforementioned modernized colors. For instance, one user, ironically enough named Matthew Gray, posed the question, “How do I get my colors back?” and 26 other forum members joined the chorus.
In the thread, Gray did what angry consumers often do and threatened to stop purchasing the product, “I hate the lack of color in the Interface of SOLIDWORKS 2016. I need it turned back on, or I’m going back to 2015 and I’m going to ask my boss to cancel all the subscription services and just sit with an easy to see and find SW2015.”
Despite the fact that a number of users got used to the color changes, Wilkinson and his team went on to address the reduced color count with Service Pack 3 (SP3). SP3 introduced a “classic theme” that would more or less restore the aesthetic of SOLIDWORKS 2016 to how it looked in 2015. Resorting to a sort of Windows 8.1 solution was not really meant as a means of giving Gray some color, but to tackle a larger and more important issue.
“The reason we really decided to do the classic theme was that we started to get complaints over eye strain and headaches,” Wilkinson said. “We never got those in any of our testing. We didn’t even get that specific feedback during beta. It wasn’t until the product was out for a while that we started getting those specific complaints. It’s really hard to tell why that happens. There isn’t really a scientific way to figure out why, but we can’t have users with eye strain and headaches using our software.”
Classic Style for the Color-Blind
Though it wasn’t the primary reason for updating the colors, the 2016 edition actually implemented some design solutions that aided color-blind users. Wilkinson explained that the primary colors for the software, yellow and green, cannot be distinguished by color-blind users. When introducing the classic theme, the User Experience Design Group kept its color-blind users in mind.
The color palette of the classic theme may very closely resemble that used in 2015, but color-blind users will notice a difference. “[W]e did tweak the colors slightly. Most people won’t recognize that, but because of the hues we’re using, they are actually better for color-blind users even if you choose to use the color versions. I don’t think a non-color-blind user would be able to tell the difference really,” Wilkinson said.
In CAD, UI Is Essential
So far, the number of users switching to the classic theme isn’t as high as Wilkinson’s team anticipated. Users have had some time to get used to the new icons and color schemes with the 2016 version.
This is certainly something that Wilkinson knows by now, having run his Usability Group for some time now and managing to make such a massively complex and powerful tool as user-friendly as possible. Most users may not even notice that, with SP4, the team added a few more colors to achieve subconscious effects on the user.
“We actually added more colors to the regular theme as well, so the software became less monochromatic. We tried to group purpose and color. Like ‘Open’ or ‘Import’ uses a green arrow where export or close uses a red arrow. That should let you easily differentiate the icons,” Wilkinson explained.
While users may only notice these new colors on a subconscious level, these are the little details that Wilkinson and the User Experience Design Group are keenly aware of because, with each small design change, an engineer may become that much more efficient.
“CAD is actually very complex. There are just so many different disciplines within it and so much functionality that you need to deliver in a product to make sure it covers all of the different aspects of what engineers need to do. That’s why usability and UI is extremely important, so that you can navigate through the software as quickly as possible and get to designing,” he said.
This was the philosophy that led the User Experience Design Group to introduce what Wilkinson believes to be the most widely popular features in the 2016 edition. With “breadcrumbs” in the new software, users are able to examine tasks and geometries in a hierarchical manner that reduces the barely perceptible latency experienced when an engineer moves from the graphical interface to the feature tree manager.
Wilkinson said that users typically split time between the graphic interface and the tree. With breadcrumbs, the feature tree manager is basically linked to the graphical interface so that, as a user makes a feature, a hierarchy is displayed showing the sketches required to craft that feature, enabling the user to navigate back and forth between those steps similarly to how one navigates the folders and subfolders in Windows Explorer. The same is true for geometries, which are organized in a hierarchical manner from face, feature, body and then part.
According to Wilkinson, one user claimed a 20-percent increase in performance due to the introduction of breadcrumbs. He added that there will be even more improvements made with breadcrumbs in the upcoming release of SOLIDWORKS 2017.
Ultimately, it is this sort of productivity that Wilkinson hopes to bring to the space overall. He concluded, “Software is a tool to get your engineering work done. The more the tool gets in your way and slows you down, the less engineering work you get accomplished. We’ve always been about making CAD as easy as possible to use, all the way from our founders until now.”