New software? Discoverability and a decent manual should help

07 April 2010

When using software for the first time, discoverability is important, but at the very least it needs to be backed up with clear documentation. Without this the developers could be fighting a losing battle, writes Al Dean

The last few months have seen me spending a great deal of time working with brand new software tools and services - something in which I take great personal delight.

While it’s always interesting to work with the latest and greatest software from the well-established vendors, I often find brand new tools more interesting. It’s with these that you find the potential for true innovation, rather than evolution.

VRED Essentials: a source of frustration but also some stunning visuals

These tools are often at a formative stage of development and we sometimes even get to play with them before they are formally released. This was the case recently with a new visualisation tool called VRED Essentials. Having overcome a few licensing issues and worked through a number of software updates I finally got down to learning how to use the product.

I’ve been test-drving software long enough to be confident to dive in and work out how things work without recourse to the online help. But in this instance, I got stuck. The problem was that no matter which buttons I pushed, which sliders I slid, I couldn’t get the thing to render out properly and ended up with poor results. The supplied documentation wasn’t much help, as it simply didn’t tell me what I needed to know. i.e. how, in the name of all that’s holy, could I get the rendering tool to… well, render?

I worked through the documentation word by word, from start to finish. Nothing. Quite a frustrating result for three days of work.

Then I found it. It boiled down to one slider and one selection from a drop down list and once I realised this, away I went. Rendering like a maniac, I managed to create some amazing imagery in the space of an hour and really went to work on the tool. With that key discovery the software was transformed and actually became easy to use.

This made me think about how ‘discoverability’ is more important than ever before, or for those not familiar with the term ‘how easy it is for a user to locate a command in order to complete a certain task.’

Many of today’s software applications are available as 30-day free downloads and, as a result, we’re becoming more and more used to starting them up blind, seeing what they can do and working out how they might fit into our workflows. The odd thing is that only once we have decided to purchase a product do we consider investing in training.

Introducing new interfaces and workflows is the only way for progression, otherwise we’d still be using command prompts and cascading menus, but sometimes software developers forget that potential customers have very different levels of skill and experience.

What might seem obvious to one user is completely alien to another and if a product is not immediately discoverable it certainly needs to be backed up with clear and concise documentation that does not make assumptions about prior knowledge or expertise.

Being able to pick up any software tool and immediately start running with it is the Holy Grail of software development. But with the inherent complexity of product development software this is rarely achieved. In the case of VRED Essentials I’m glad I persevered as it turned out to be a good, usable tool, but I wonder how many others, less stubborn than me, would have switched off before getting anywhere near a purchase order.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) is Editor of DEVELOP3D. He once vowed never to let software defeat him, unless it’s Microsoft Office for OS X which only lasted three months on his Mac.

Comments on this article:

Hello, I was just wondering if this is Al Dean who I met in Playa Del Carmen Mexico a couple weeks ago. If this is I would be glad to get in touch, if you don't reconize my name your friend always called me Laverne & Shirley. So please get back to me.

Posted by Adam Raeder on Friday 09 2010 at 01:40 AM

Good points Al. I recommend anyone considering a new software system attends a training course for that system. If they cannot get to grips with the basics after a couple of days training they never will. Once you get experienced of course you can move from system to system relatively painlessly, but investing in some training or hand holding to understand basic principles of navigation, file structure and basic tools is well worth it. Rendering and polygonal modelling systems are good examples. I have Maxwell but to be frank rarely use it now. The interface is acclaimed as "easy to use" but I find it a mess of sliders, settings and minimal feedback. Compare to Hypershot/Keyshot....simpler yes, but simplistic? No. Personally I blame YouTube. Software vendors seem to think that placing a ton of low res tutorial videos somehow helps us to understand things better. Well they might if you could actually see what icons were being used!

Posted by Kevin Quigley on Thursday 22 2010 at 01:47 PM

The real review can be seen in the June edition of Develop3D.

Posted by PI-VR GmbH on Thursday 10 2010 at 02:33 PM

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