What’s stopping users from exploring new functionality in their product development environment?

12 September 2008

What is it that is stopping users from exploring new functionality in their workhorse product development environment? Al Dean wonders if the disappearance of the printed manual could be to blame

I have a contact at one of the major CAD vendors and we occasionally swap emails about specific areas of functionality or products that integrate within their 3D design system. One question I often get asked is, “Why do you think this feature or that product hasn’t gained more traction with our users?” ?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late. After all, if we’re to take advantage of the fantastic array of technology that’s available to extend our use of 3D data within all areas of product development, then it’s essential that a user can find and more importantly understand the technology.

The obvious solution is update training, but how many of you actually have the time to spend two days in a class room learning about new features and functionality when you’ve got tools that you can use and have a stack of work piling up?

Reviews in magazines such as DEVELOP3D fill some of the gaps, but I see our role as a combination of telling users about what’s coming up in their workhorse tool as much as much as it is about educating new users about the broader benefits.

Al Dean has spent all month searching for some old Alias manuals to illustrate this article. Instead you get a nondescript pile of books. He tried

Then there’s the web and some vendors have a very active blogging community where you can find out about the latest updates to software with a quick Google. But even then, with multiple sources of information, the facts are that the vast majority of users do things the way they’ve always done then, have informal but ingrained workflows that they go through to create specific parts and specific geometry.

When I first installed AliasStudio in the early 1990s, in addition to the software install came a dirty great big box of manuals. Yes, the amount of paper used would make an environmentalist weep, but those manuals detailed everything you could ever want to know about AliasStudio – a system that appears to be incredibly complex at first, but once you’re up and running and familiar with its working practices, it’s ideally tuned for the workflow of the industrial designer.

We implemented it within a small workgroup. Everyone started from scratch and while we had training, what really helped us to learn the ins and outs of the system were both peer group assistance (Dave, how the **** do you do a bi-rail sweep again?) and those manuals. They became our bible. Sections were book marked, the copies became battered, bruised and on more than one occasion, a rapid fix with duct tape was called for to stop them disintegrating.

Alias also did a fantastic job with additional learning material. There was a range of instructional books and DVDs that were (and still are) unsurpassed in terms of engaging and allowing users to retain information. The end result was that we all mastered the system in a very short space of time and delivered products off the back of it.

When the company went tits up the one thing that we all fought over (and I mean, with fists), was the box of Alias manuals

Books even disappeared at weekends and also during what Dubya refers to as ‘comfort breaks’. Yes, people learned about an advanced industrial design system while they were seemingly otherwise engaged. And it worked.

When the company went tits up two years later due to a rather light-fingered director, the one thing that we all fought over (and I mean, with fists), was the box of Alias manuals.

That was over ten years ago, but now you get a CD or DVD set in a small case and some leaflets about buying more stuff. If you’re really lucky, you get a booklet of third party applications, but even that’s on the wane. SolidWorks recently stopped printing the add-ons guide, and as we move more and more towards web-based delivery of software products and SAAS business models, then you’ll get nothing physical for your money.

When SolidWorks 2008 was released it came with a cut down version of the rules-based design program, DriveWorks (called DriveWorksXpress) but I found it hard to locate the tutorials and documentation, and it seems I wasn’t alone. Many users couldn’t find the help files even if they knew they were there and that meant many missed out on being exposed to the benefits of design automation.

Contrast this with the smart home-grown book the team at DriveWorks produces. The “Little Book of Rules” details everything you need to think about when considering Rules-Based Design and is available for free from www.driveworks.co.uk. 4,000 copies of that book have now been shipped and I’ve seen it on people’s desks the world over. It’s an excellent resource and I’ve no doubt that this has helped drive (no pun intended) adoption of DriveWorksXpress.

The Little Book of Rules is a case in point - people like books, attach a value to them and learn from them. You can take all the online help files, all the grainy YouTube videos you want, but you typically need to know what you’re looking for and it’s a lot less structured way of doing things.

There are, of course, issues with regards to sustainability, but by making intelligent choices on paper stock and print processes you can do these things without killing the planet. The question is ‘are vendors removing one of the most usable ways of finding out about what they can do with their software, largely for the sake of cutting production and shipping costs?’ I believe they are.

Vendors need to take a long hard look at how they support their users and provide usable and engaging training and information on an on-going basis. I’m not saying a printed manual is the do all and end all of CAD learning, but it’s a great starting point for discovering new functionality and a springboard to deeper understanding. And what’s more, you can do it at home, on the train or, if the mood takes you, even on the loo.

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