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Ralph Grabowski's Report on the Business of Computer-Aided Design


Issue #837  >  November 18, 2014



User Interfaces (And What We Can Learn from their Limitations)

by Ralph Grabowski

[This article is an excerpt from my talk at the Bricsys International Conference 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.]


In my later engineering classes, we had exposure to a vector display. It was a modified oscilloscope that could retain a graphical image, and was the forerunner to today's CAD workstations. But we only observed it; we never got to use it.


In my final year of 1981, I finally got excited about computers: the university embarked on an experimental user interface that allowed full screen text editing. Instead of working with just one line at a time, I could direct the cursor to other parts of the document to edit text directly, and even add formatting codes.


CAD at this time also doing full screen editing of graphics, in fact this was the time that AutoCAD was being written. But whether AutoCAD or Unigraphics, the user interface was still text. These user interfaces were available:

One major advance in efficiency was to coordinate the command line with the side menu, so that options appeared on the side menu as we type command names. This allowed us the option of using the efficient command line or picking options from the side menu. Another advance was to use enormous digitizing tablets as the work surface, like a desk, with the monitor(s) hovering over top.


While the technological limitation of command lines meant we had to memorize command names, the benefit was that we ended up learning all command names. As Bill Fane notes, as UI fashions come and go, the only consistently reliable interface for DWG-based programs is the command line.


Bit Blt'ing

The next stage in user interface development was the menu bar and dialog boxes. But they had to wait for technology. The advance that permitted menus to dropdown and for dialog boxes to appear in the middle of the screen was called "bit blitting," short for bit-boundary block transfer – the ability for the software program to use the graphics board to store the graphical area under the menu or dialog box to memory, and then instantly restore it when the menu was removed or the dialog box was moved.


The technology first appeared in a Commodore home computer; in AutoCAD, it was Release 9 that first introduced menus and dialog boxes. The CAD program had a system variable that checked if the graphics board could handle bitblting, and so permit the use of these new UI elements.


In the early days of the Mac, users had to drag down menus with the cursor, and so they were called "pull down menus." In DOS, however, users just needed to click on the menu bar item, and the menu dropped down on its own. This may seem like an advance in user interface design, but was actually a limitation of DOS: it could not simulate the drag-down effect. And so these became known as pop-down menus, and this is the reason the menu sections in AutoCAD's .mnu file are labeled *POP.


Of all user interfaces, I would argue that menus probably provide the best user experience:

Toolbars and Ribbon

With Windows came floating toolbars, with these advantages:

The drawback to toolbars is that they lacked text labeling for identifying confusingly-designed icons. The solution was the tooltip, but it slowed down users as they had to wait for the tooltip to appear.


Microsoft says it developed the ribbon after gaining insight into how users used its software. However, it looks like it was designed by a committee: everyone on the committee got what they wanted. Large icons, small icons, with text, without text, expanding panels, hidden tabs. Worst of all, Microsoft did not allow users to customize it.


The ribbon is a great example of why crowd-sourced design doesn't work. The ribbon is a mess, because it forces the eye to jump around. Autodesk paid for a whitepaper that claimed that the ribbon made AutoCAD users 40% more efficient. When AutoCAD for Mac was re-released, it lacked the ribbon. Does this mean Mac users are automatically 40% less efficient?


The technological limitation of ribbons is that they are visually confusing and limited to Windows. The benefit, however, is that the only good thing I can say about the ribbon is that, user interface design can't possibly get any worse. Indeed, I call the ribbon the baroque period of user interface history.




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The Invisibilization of the Interface

The polar opposite of the ribbon is the user interface ushered in by the iPhone. It is nearly invisible.


To use an iPhone, we have to know where to touch the screen to access functions, and we have to know the number of fingers to use. The iPhone does not tell us. As someone said to me, "I know that the iPhone has a three-finger function, but I have no idea what it is." Nevertheless, in the seven years since the iPhone was introduced, most of us have learned a few of its invisible functions, such as how to scroll the page with a single finger, and to pinch with two fingers to zoom.


CAD is, however, not Instagram. CAD consists of hundreds of commands – and thousands of functions when we include all the system variables and dialog box options. Twitter and SnapChat take a minute to learn. Just because complex software is able to run on a tablet, does not mean suddenly that it is easy to learn. It will take actual training to learn to use a CAD system on an Android or iOS tablet, just like on a desktop system.


Some phone apps provide a tour of their user interface when you first start them up. That's a bad time, because exactly at the time that excited new users are discovering this brand new app, they are deluged with information: swipe this, tap that.. and memorize it all up front, without the benefit of some experience. It's like having to read the car's operations manual before ever turning on the ignition. And then the tour is no longer available later.


I suggest two levels of help as a solution: tap Help once, and get an overview of the UI. Tap Help a second time to get deeper help on the commands. [Please send your IP royalty cheques to Thank you.] The minimalization of the user interface is a problem created by Steve Jobs, but he's no longer around to fix it. So let's look at a possible solution.


At-Cursor UIs

I want to jump back to BitBlit'ing, which allows cursor menus. These are menus that appear near the cursor when the right-mouse button is clicked. They list the commands we are most likely to use in the current situation.


Well, that was the idea. But cursor menus need to remain small, and they dare list only a few commands to avoid taking up too much drawing area, and so often lack the one we might be needing.


Another flaw in the design of cursor menus is that we don't know where to click in order to get what we want. Sometimes we may even have to hold down a Shift or Ctrl key to get a certain cursor menu.  The worst case of cursor-menu-itis is AutoCAD's sheetset palette: I have counted over 20 cursor menus and dialog boxes, some of which change just by clicking a few pixels over from another location.


In spite of this, it is a very powerful, very efficient concept to have the list of commands at the cursor – where you are. There must be a way to make it useful to the end user, and some CAD vendors have developed several systems, such as Inventor's radial menu that appears at the cursor and provides access to eight or more commands. ARES has a gesture menu: right-click drag the cursor to access 16 command, all customizable. Bricsys gone the extreme with its Quad cursor that initially shows the last used-command, and then displays more as the cursor is moved over that initial one' a part of it can be customized to add the commands we use.



What seems like limitations to user interfaces can become benefits, either because they improve us, or they lead to improvements in the user interfaces themselves. But sometime there are none – no benefits to the limitations. For example, there is no benefit to cursor menus missing the one command we need, while listing lots of others that we will never use.


And so I primarily interact with CAD programs through the command bar; if I do knot know the name of a command, then I use the menu bar. On toolbars, I use only interactive elements, such as droplists. I don't use the ribbon at all, as I find it too confusing.


Changes occur to the designs of user interfaces partly due to new technological capability, but also partly due to fashion.



And One More Thing...

Cloud Invent's Cheetah plugin for AutoCAD 2015 adds 3D parametrics using their new solver, which is unifying parametric and direct modeling. It is currently in beta, with additional plugins planned for earlier releases of AutoCAD, Inventor, Solid Edge, Solidworks, and Creo.


Next, they plan to release Cheetah Solver as an API for others to implement it in their software, provide the solver as a cloud service, and then develop their own CAD program based on Cheetah.


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Letters to the Editor

As you likely know, Web sites and applications support vector graphics, but most (if not all) CAD vendors have refused to support saving drawings as SVG. Sure, there may be third-parties, but too little of which most of us have information about: [does the third-party software have] reliability, fidelity and so on. Do you know of any CAD vendor whose product saves to SVG? Using SVG is timely, and remains grossly over-looked.
      - Clinton Gallagher


The editor replies: BricsCAD reads DWG and saves to SVG, and has a number of options for controlling the output. A 30-day demo can be accessed from
I think the preference among CAD vendors is to output to PDF, for whatever reason.


Re: Entrepreneurial Software From India

That is a great piece and you have really articulated what we are trying to do, being small but want to make an impact. Thank you for those nice words. We will be releasing the next version in a couple of weeks which will have more stuff added to it. Will keep you posted.


Saw you blogs about Barcelona.We enjoyed the city as well, riding a bicycle. It was fun and cost me only six euros for a 24-hour rental. Literally, you can cover the entire historic part in a cycle.

      - Nainar Ramaswamy
        DesignSense Software Technologies

Re: DWG Stays Free of Autodesk

I asked a trademark expert if Autodesk can appeal this ruling; he writes:

Like any other district court final judgment, this one can be appealed to the appropriate appeals court (here, the 4th Circuit). The federal rules of appellate procedure give Autodesk 60 days from the date of the district court judgment to file an appeal if it chooses to do so.


I asked Autodesk for their comment on the case:

We’re currently exploring our options for appeal.



I have always found Autodesk's arguments regarding DWG to be sort of funny, since they were not even the first CAD drawing format that used .dwg as the file extension.
- Scott Taylor


The editor replies: That, and they keep making the same arguments over and over and keep having them shot down.


One slight correction, DWGeditor was renamed 2Deditor prior to it's replacement by DraftSight. DraftSight is a completely different program.
    - Michael Dekoning


The editor replies: "I didn't know about the 2Deditor name; thank you for the clarification! I did know that DraftSight is a different program (from Graebert, instead of IntelliCAD)."


Wow, so you think it's done? Now that you brought it up again, I am reminded that I have been following this since the beginning, mostly through your articles.

    - T. O.



Nice writeup about Autodesk's protection racket activities! Takes a lotta arrogance to attack Big Government and expect to win. Autodesk's entire line of 'arguments' are based on circumstantial evidence. Basing a lawsuit on circumstantial evidence is the surest way to lose your case. The worst part is they pass along to their customers the expenses incurred in these lawsuits. Do you know how much Autodesk has spent over the years on these frivolous?
- Cadman 777


The editor replies: Millions, I suppose. Here is a list of them going back a decade:


Excellent summary Ralph! Great reading. All the best for a fun Holiday Season!
      - Joe Croser



Notable Quotable

"Wait a minute, what if customers don't care? What if they just want to buy something good at a fair price, and don't have time for our story?"
      - Management Speak, @managerspeak on Twitter




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Entire contents copyright 2014 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide. Letters sent to the editor are subject to publication. Article reprint fee: $840. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. "upFront.eZine," "The Business of CAD," and "WorldCAD Access" are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Letters to the editor may be edited for clarity and brevity. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.


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