As announced by Shaan Hurley, Autodesk has made some changes to the AutoCAD 2011 online Help system. Please check it out and see what you think. After a short time with it, here are my experiences using IE6 (yes, I know). As this is a dynamic system and dependent on browser characteristics, Internet connectivity and any changes Autodesk may make between me writing this and you reading it, your mileage will vary.
There are some cosmetic changes, including a fixup of the Autodesk logo in IE6 that was done a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, my pink Comic Sans logo has not been adopted. As I can’t do a direct side-by-side comparison with the pre-change setup under identical conditions, I can’t make a definitive statement about performance. I can say that it does appear to have improved somewhat. It now takes about 3.5 seconds from hitting F1 to seeing a complete landing screen. Once cached, I’m seeing it in come up in just under 2 seconds.
The main change from a usability point of view is that the Search facility now defaults to searching All Books rather than whatever document you happen to have highlighted over on the left sidebar. That’s welcome. Also, the searches generally appear to give better results. For example, a simple search for LINE in the original 2011 online system gave a list of 199 results, of which the actual LINE command was 26th! Now, a search for LINE puts the LINE command third in the list; much better. The results come up faster than before (2.5 seconds in this example), but I have seen widely varying search times reported so I would be interested to hear about your experiences.
The way the search results are presented is now significantly different. Instead of a single line for each result, 4 lines are now used. There is a descriptive hyperlink line, a line containing sample of text from the page the link points to, a spelled-out link line and a blank line. The second line appears to be randomly chosen. In our LINE example, the text starts with “If the most recently drawn object is an arc…”, which is a fairly long way down the LINE command page itself. The third line’s only function appears to be to waste space. I can right-click on the main link if I want that information. I can’t even copy and paste that third line; attempting to click and drag in the search results pane selects the whole lot.
Because of the newly verbose display format, it obviously doesn’t make sense to display 199 results, as there would be too much scrolling. What is now displayed is 8 results, with links to another 7 pages (I’m not sure what happened to the 199 – 64 = 135 other results). If your desired result is in the first 8, that’s fine. If it’s not, then you have a harder job now to find what you’re after. You can’t use your browser’s find feature to look for a specific word among the full set of results. You will have to click on each page in turn and wait for it to appear before scanning the results. Fortunately, each page comes up fairly quickly (about 1 second), but I would much prefer to have the option of seeing more results displayed on each page. I suspect things have been arranged this way to improve performance (fair enough) and make it work better on mobile devices. While that’s all nice and cool and trendy and geeky and everything, I don’t intend to ever use AutoCAD on an iPhone. I would much prefer it if Autodesk prioritised its user interface design based on what the vast majority of its users are going to be using when they need the documentation.
Choosing a different page within the search results and then using the Back button takes me back to the main landing page rather than my previous results page. Using the Forward button to try to get back where I was, just puts me back on page 1 again. This is obviously not good.
That’s enough of the changes in isolation, how does today’s system compare with what went before? I did a quick test to see what was involved in finding out about a given command. I chose the WBLOCK command. Other commands and other users may give better or worse results.
AutoCAD 2010 CHM Help
Method: F1, type W, double-click on WBLOCK
Time taken: 2.6 seconds
AutoCAD 2011 offline Help (as shipped)
Method: F1, click in search box, type W, Enter, click on W commands, click on WBLOCK, click on Write Block Dialog Box
Time taken: 12.1 seconds
AutoCAD 2010 online Help (as at 12 May 2010)
Method: F1, click in search box, type W, click outside search box, click on search arrow, click on W commands, click on WBLOCK, click on Write Block Dialog Box
Time taken: 16.0 seconds
Given those results, it would be pretty hard to argue that the new system is more efficient for users. Again, this is just a sample command and method, and if you can find a different one where the new stuff works better than the old, I’m all ears. The method I ended up using for testing the 2011 online search actually required a fair bit of trial and error. Here are some things I tried first:
- F1, click in search box, type W, autocomplete gives me ‘wireless’ (left over from some other search I used on an unrelated site), Enter, nothing happens
- F1, click in search box, type W, click outside search box so I just have W, Enter, nothing happens
- F1, click on search arrow, click in search box, type W, it gets added to the end of the word Search, giving me ‘SearchW’!
A few minutes after my tests, I tried again to see if there was a better way. What I found was that the W Commands link I needed was completely absent from the search results!
W System variables, check. W Methods, check. W commands? Nope. Not on this page. Not on any of the other 7. Where did it go? Will it return one day? Who knows?
One of the risks of online-based software is that it can be a moving target. Stuff that you used in the past may not be there the next time you need it. It’s easy to see users getting confused and frustrated by this kind of stuff. After all, it’s supposed to be Help, not Hinder.
In summary, some of the changes are welcome, but the system is still a long way short of being anywhere near as efficient or friendly as the one it replaced. The performance is better than it was, but still slow. The interface contains some clangers that tell me that user feedback has been absent, inadequate and/or ignored.
I suggest this system be withdrawn, and soon. AutoCAD 2011 Update 1 should contain a complete and properly integrated CHM-based Help system, and Autodesk should go back to the drawing board with the whole browser-based Help idea.
If, after due consideration and extensive user consultation, Autodesk still thinks that online Help is a good idea, it should spend the time required to make it work properly, introduce it only when Beta testers are satisfied that it is at least as good as what it is replacing, and then introduce it alongside the CHM system. The two systems should be run in parallel for as many releases as it takes to convince the vast bulk of users that online is best, at which point the losing system can be discarded.
Right now, it’s abundantly clear which system should be ditched, and it’s not the CHM one.