What is your title?
Vice President, User Experience Architecture for Dassault Systemes, SOLIDWORKS R&D
What, exactly, does that mean?
Ultimately, it means that I, and my team, have responsibility for all user facing aspects of the software that we deliver from SOLIDWORKS R&D. Our goal is to ensure we provide the best user experience to our users. Some characteristics that we feel contribute to a good user experience are that the software should be easy to learn, easy to use, consistent, and fun to use. In my role, I manage three major areas: user experience design, technical documentation, and localization. User experience design, led by Tom Spine whom you know within my team, includes researching user needs, designing the user interface and interaction with the software, creating all of the graphics for the software, and performing usability testing to make sure we are delivering the best experience. Technical documentation not only includes the team that writes the end user documentation but also develops the methods by which it is delivered; in our case, in addition to standard local installed delivery methods, we provide our own custom internet based web help system. Our localization team ensures high quality localization of our user interface and documentation into the 13 other languages that we support in addition to English, so customers around the world all experience a great user experience. The user experience team works hand in hand with our product definition, development, and quality assurance teams to deliver the best software possible for our users.
Where did you come from?
I’m a local New England boy. I grew up in Topsfield, MA, for which the only claim to fame is that it is the home of the oldest “agricultural” fair in America. Having lived in MA yourself, you’ve probably been to the fair. For college, I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and got a BS and MS in manufacturing engineering (MFE). I actually started as an ME, EE double major because I knew since high school that I wanted to work in either robotics or CAD for a living. In my second year, they started the MFE program where I could take classes in ME, EE, CS, and management, which was perfect for my goals, so I switched to that major. My real education was working in the WPI CAD Lab; 2 years as a “proctor” as an undergraduate and 2 years in graduate school as the teaching assistant for the lab. I was able to teach ComputerVision CADDS 4X and Aries Technology software and that was when I really got hooked on being in the CAD industry. I think I’m one of the few people that actually planned to be in this industry. After graduate school, I worked for Aries Technology (later acquired by MSC Software), first in technical support for 6 months, and then in the training department for 2 years, writing training manuals and teaching classes on solid modeling and FEA pre and post processing. Then SOLIDWORKS came around and I thought, why does the world need another CAD system; who can possibly compete with PTC? A couple of people from Aries had moved to SOLIDWORKS, so I sent a resume to a friend to test the waters in December 1995. The next day, Scott Harris brought me in for an interview. I was blown away by the software demo and people at the company and thought, OK, the world DOES need another CAD system! The next day I had an offer and the rest is history.
How long have you been with Dassault?
I started in January 1996, so just over 18 years. As I mentioned, I had interviewed in Dec 1995, but I was in the process of buying my first new house and was afraid the mortgage wouldn’t come through if I switched to an unknown startup company in the middle of the process. So I somehow convinced Scott to delay my start date by a month, which was not an easy feat since I know of at least one other person who interviewed on Thursday, had the job offer on Friday, and started on Saturday! This was a great, fun time, but extremely challenging. Talk about life changes. I was married in September, bought a house in December, and moved to a startup company in January where I was working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. But we all worked this hard because we wanted to, not because we had to. I’m so thankful that my wife stood by me through those early years with long hours. My first job at SOLIDWORKS was starting the technical support department and hiring an extremely talented group of individuals, many of whom have had a huge influence on SOLIDWORKS; Aaron Kelly, Ian Baxter, and Fielder Hiss to name a few. I later took over the Product Definition department from Scott Harris when he moved on to other initiatives. At the time, product definition was also responsible for the UI design of the software and that was my primary passion. As the software was getting bigger and more diverse, I saw that we had many “cooks in the kitchen” and it was starting to become inconsistent. Usability was an up and coming field in software and as UI was my passion, I spun off the “usability group” within R&D to make sure we stuck to our roots and continued to make the easiest to use software in the CAD world. We later changed the name of the group to user experience and merged technical documentation and localization into the group.
When did design become important to you?
I think it has always been important to me and includes many different forms of design. As examples, in elementary school, my brother and I used to buy used, beater BMX bikes and totally refurbish them, stripping the paint off, repainting them, and redoing all of the mechanicals. I’ve been tinkering with bicycles ever since. My latest major bike project was converting one of my single speed track bikes to a belt drive which requires the rear end to be redesigned to mount the belt (since a belt can’t be split like a chain, you have to split the frame instead to install/remove the belt). Since junior high school, I’ve always had a passion for working on automobiles and boats as well. Starting with helping a buddy rebuild a 1977 Jeep CJ5, to owning a 1971 Pontiac Lemans Sport in high school, to owning and restoring a 1971 Triumph TR6, and of course there was the SOLIDWORKS Factory Five roadster project we did a few years ago where I lead the brakes and suspension team. My current projects are a 1974 Jeep CJ5 V8, which is completely in pieces in my garage, and a 1970 Century Buccaneer inboard boat which needs the floor rebuilt and a bunch of mechanical work. I plan to do a lot of custom work on each of those projects, designing both mechanical and electrical parts for each. On the other end of the design spectrum, in junior high school, I had a TI 99/4A computer and I used to design and implement elaborate graphical welcome screens for games, although I never got to programming the actual games since the welcome screens used up all the memory! I also used to take the profile side shots of sports cars shown on a grid in Road & Track magazine and write little programs to map them into coordinates and vector line work so I could print out large versions of them to put on my wall. In high school, after 3 years of computer programming classes, they had no curriculum for our senior year “honors” computer class since we had run out of programming languages to learn. At first, we were given the task of programming the grading system for the school on one of the two IBM PC’s they had at the school. Then they took the computer away to give it to the counseling department, so we were told to make up our own curriculum. I got the computer and drafting instructors together and told them I wanted to redo my freshman year drafting course on the computer. They had an Apple 2E with some sort of 2D CAD program and an A size plotter and that is when I got hooked on CAD.
What is it about SolidWorks that you enjoy the most?
The community. And when I say the community, I mean every aspect of it. The people at SOLIDWORKS, SOLIDWORKS World, local user conferences, visiting users in person at their facilities, interacting with users online in the user forum, our VARs, and the list goes on and on. We have the most passionate community around SOLIDWORKS and it makes it extremely satisfying to come to work every day. It’s amazing to work with customers and see what they are doing with our software. Not only is the community aspect important as it relates directly to work, but Dassault Systemes and SOLIDWORKS really support their employees in helping the community in other ways. For instance, you probably know that I’ve been leading our Team Dassault Systemes charity cycling initiative for 13 years now. This is something that members of the team do in our spare time outside of work, and it brings together all sorts of members of the Dassault Systemes community around the world to raise money for various charities. We even have a team that rides the Minnesota MS150 every year that is composed completely of SOLIDWORKS end users, their families and friends. They loved SOLIDWORKS software so much, they started that initiative on their own back in 2007, riding in SOLIDWORKS shirts that they hand made themselves with t-shirts and magic markers. That is just one example of our passionate community!
What’s your proudest career moment?
There are so many great moments that I can’t say there is one proudest moment. I would say that I take the most pride in building talented teams, mentoring employees and watching them grow throughout their career. It is also extremely satisfying to hear how much users love our software and it makes me proud when I design something that really helps users to be more productive in their work, such as UI elements like the context toolbars or the shortcut bar (the “s key”). We know our software isn’t perfect and we continue to strive to make it better and better each year and I’m proud to say that our user experience team is leading the charge to make sure that continues to happen.
Can you share some of the crazy ideas that have been tossed about over the years?
Most of the crazy ideas have actually made it into the product, just in a less crazy form. I think that we put the craziest ideas together back before we developed SolidWorks 2008. We really wanted to change our user interface to be much more efficient and differentiate it from our competitors since we were all marching along to Windows standards. Back then, we had some user interface ideas and prototypes that tried to maximize the graphics area and minimize the UI. So all of the UI elements were around the edges of the screen and would fly out when you clicked or hovered over them. I still have that prototype and use it as one example of our UI prototyping methods at user group meetings and in other presentations. In the end, that prototype inspired the heads-up view toolbar, the task pane that auto-hides when unpinned on the right hand side, and the ability to hide away the manager area on the left hand side.
How about some of the ones that didn’t work out quite as planned?
There are always some projects that you wished worked out better. Some of the UI concepts that we implemented in drawings had some rough starts, like the dimension palette and some of the other dimensioning controls. Most of the time, we get those types of things optimized through usability and beta testing, but those dimension tools stand out as ones that we didn’t quite get into optimal shape until one or two service packs into the new release. The magnifying glass is another one that doesn’t yet meet its full potential. That was one of my ideas for solving the problem of selecting very small items without having to zoom the entire viewport. So, the whole UI and interaction was optimized for being a momentary selection tool and therefore it’s not optimized for other workflows for which you may need a magnifying glass, like inspecting various area of a model. It’s also not discoverable. I know there are some users that love it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage of users who even know it exists.
Where do you see SolidWorks heading in the next five years?
We are quite a mature product so much of the functionality that users need is already there, except maybe in certain vertical functional areas. So I see us continuing to round out the functionality and extend the breadth of the product as we have been in recent years. One thing that SOLIDWORKS has always been good at is not being afraid to go back and revisit existing functionality to improve it, even if in some cases, it means totally revamping the functionality. One example is the equations functionality that we totally revamped. It took us a couple of releases, but for a long time it was an area that wasn’t fully developed, and we are still continuing to make improvements to it. For the rest of the functionality that is already there, I see us continuing to really optimize the interaction and user interface and adding more “delighters.” This is where the passion really lies for me and the rest of my group. Of course, we are also working on our 3DEXPERIENCE Platform based products as well, and our main SOLIDWORKS product also benefits from that work. Those new products act as a sandbox where we can play with new ideas, prove them out, and then if they work out really well, we can also put those ideas into the core SOLIDWORKS product. Just one example is the mate context toolbar that we added in SOLIDWORKS 2014. That was initially implemented in SOLIDWORKS Mechanical Conceptual and everyone liked it so much, we did the same thing in the main SOLIDWORKS product.
How important is user input?
User input is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. While the current trend in group and title names is “user experience,” the field that we really study and practice is called “user centered design.” That means the user is at the center of all that we do. We work hand in hand with our product definition team to perform user research that helps us determine what projects to implement and the specifics of what the users need from that functionality. The enhancement system is an important aspect of that, but so are customer visits, phone calls, surveys, reading the forums and blogs, etc. We then make sure we are getting user input during our design and implementation phases which include spec reviews and usability testing of prototypes or early code. Finally, we make sure that we perform usability, Alpha, and Beta testing as early as possible so we can take the user feedback and adjust our designs and implementations before final release. Without user input “we are just breathing our own exhaust” as is commonly stated.
If your team was thoroughly convinced that a change was needed, and there was major pushback from the user community, would you listen?
Of course. We will only be as successful as our users are successful with the software, so it makes no sense to not pay attention to such feedback. And there have been many times that we get pushback from our users and we adjust the software based on that feedback/pushback. Again, the goal is to get that feedback as early in the process as possible so we can hopefully get the optimal design in place by the release of the software. I think that SolidWorks 2008 was the release where we got the most amount of pushback and we expected that. We were making MAJOR changes to the user interface. Users are generally opposed to change and there is no faulting that. Change requires re-learning and is a speed bump for end users. It was a gamble, but we truly believed that our designs would make the user more efficient. I think that has proven to be true. Have you tried to go back and use a pre-2008 version lately? If you have you’ll probably agree that it is much more difficult to use as compared to post-2008 versions.