The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD explained

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD explained

Following my comments on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD, Autodesk’s Dieter Schlapfer has sought to explain the reasoning behind it. Here’s what he has to say:

As mentioned previously, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD is designed for occasional AutoCAD users and those coming back from their initial training. These are people who just need a base level of knowledge in 2D AutoCAD to get things done, and who don’t necessarily want to become experts. To make future versions more effective, I really want to get some input on the 42 AutoCAD commands, and any descriptions or illustrations that are not clear. Especially valuable to me is feedback coming from occasional users.

Here’s some history. Believe it or not, the 42 commands came first! I kept flaunting this number, which was based on an internal AutoCAD overview class that I taught a while back, in response to people who complained about how hard it is to learn AutoCAD. Based on that interesting number, two of my colleagues made the connection to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the title of which was based on Ken Welch’s book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe (I have the 1986 edition).

Creating a hitchhiker’s guide to AutoCAD was a terrific idea and the next thing I knew, I was writing it. Most of the 42 commands were no-brainer choices, but there were several that I knew would be controversial among experienced AutoCAD users. Based on internal feedback and CIP popularity, I made a number of revisions to my original list but I’m open to being persuaded to make additional changes.

My biggest challenge was handling scaling and layouts. As you know, there are four primary ways to annotate drawings. It was tough, but I ended up choosing the one that was easiest to learn, the trans-spatial method, while giving a nod to the others.

Again, I’m looking for feedback from relatively new and occasional users. Where exactly is the guide weak or confusing, including any illustrations? I already have some things that I definitely want to change moving forward, but if any of you find someone willing to try it out, or if you have strong opinions about something in the guide, please let me know either here or email me directly at (for the bots).


        1. Dieter Schlaepfer

          In the introduction, I started with a general description and statement of purpose followed by links to each chapter. The illustration came as an afterthought simply to show how the commands were grouped. Do you think a clickable image is better than the linked list with descriptions?


          1. R. Paul Waddington

            Choice Dieter, think choice. Teaching is about connecting with others (those be taught) with their thought processes. Not directing, connecting as a guide.
            Giving people, and taking advantage of the all, the options when using “graphical stuff” should be an automatic part of the design and delivery.
            I use another form of mind mapping software for laying out course and lesson structures for AutoCAD/Inventor courses. It logically followed I could give the same maps to the students, because I could/can link sections of the map to related documents.
            Think choice, that’s what is also missing with AutoCAD’s HELP.

    1. Dieter Schlaepfer


      There are a lot of people who use AutoCAD or LT only occasionally or just need a short review of the essentials. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD is designed to serve their needs, so I don’t think the few weeks I took to create it were wasted.

      As you might know, I designed the previous three-tab Help system, which was first released about 14 years ago in AutoCAD LT 98. I’m proud of what my co-workers and I accomplished, but since then there’s been a significant, industry-wide move toward internet-based interaction, both in software and in Help systems. I see that trend accelerating, not reversing.

      Major technology transitions are extremely challenging for everyone, including software vendors and for the businesses that use software alike. Time-honored processes are disrupted as industry and commerce adapt to the changes, which will ultimately result in profoundly more efficient methods. Any companies who don’t keep up with the changes are left in the past and suffer for it.

      Regarding the online Help system, we were able to release an improved version with several important enhancements that many people requested. But as I’ve said on many occasions, we’re not done yet and online Help will continue to evolve. Your feedback is very important to us for establishing requirements and priorities.

      What I’d ask you to do is continue to participating in the process, helping guide us with specific requests and requirements.

      In this thread, I’m looking for specific feedback on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD. How well is it working for new and occasional users, what are its weak areas, what illustrations should be improved, and so on.


      1. The “your feedback is important to us” thing is wearing a bit thin given Autodesk’s continued ignorance of what customers are saying about the need for offline Help. Sorry, it’s no longer a remotely credible mantra. As you’re aware, I and many others with such concerns have actively participated in the process since well before the 2013 online Help disaster, and have been rewarded by being royally screwed over. If your Pointy Haired Bosses are expecting this situation to continue, I think they’re dreaming.

      2. R. Paul Waddington

        “Major technology transitions are extremely challenging for everyone, ……., which will ultimately result in profoundly more efficient methods. Any companies who don’t keep up with the changes are left in the past and suffer for it.”

        Firstly Dieter, you cannot produce a single piece of data to conclusively demonstrate and prove AutoCAD’s very first menu system is less productive than that which we now have to contend with. The same would equally apply to the changes to the Help systems.

        “Profoundly more efficient methods” ? This may be applicable to the application of CAD over the drawing board but the same comparisons cannot be applied to when looking at interface and Help systems. Believing it can is probably why you have the issues you have with your Help system and why, in my experience, at best, we saw a luke warm reaction to HitchHikers.

        The other point to make here is your entire paragraph is lecturing those from whom you are soliciting assistance whilst at the same time making statements which you cannot support with fact. After all it is people like Steve, others and I who try out “new ideas” for our customers, at considerable expense. To tell us and our customers we will be sorry if we don’t do what you want is not a good look.

        Just consider this, it has long been recognized by customers the cost of upgrade disruption is best avoided by delaying by several releases the application of new software. These customers are NOT suffering by delaying change; they are making sensible, cost effective, business decisions Autodesk’s staff seem incapable of coming to grips with!

        1. Dieter Schlaepfer


          You wrote: “Firstly Dieter, you cannot produce a single piece of data to conclusively demonstrate and prove AutoCAD’s very first menu system is less productive than that which we now have to contend with. The same would equally apply to the changes to the Help systems.”

          Ok, I realize this is a controversial subject, but David Cohn actually performed several independent studies that touch precisely on your assertion, including this one:

          where on page 8 he states, “AutoCAD 2012 was more efficient in the creation of the task #2 drawing than AutoCAD 2008, largely thanks to the improved accessibility afforded by the ribbon interface, the ability to preview hatches, and the ability to easily create transparent objects.”

          FWIW, I personally prefer using the command line, but I can see where a person’s choice of UI has a lot has a lot to do with the nature of their work. In the same way, I think your analogy with Help in this case applies to what kind of questions a person has. In this regard, Help systems have a big potential for improving the delivery of the right information (where fewer choices are often better than more choices).

          You also wrote: “Just consider this, it has long been recognized by customers the cost of upgrade disruption is best avoided by delaying by several releases the application of new software. These customers are NOT suffering by delaying change; they are making sensible, cost effective, business decisions Autodesk’s staff seem incapable of coming to grips with!”

          In my experience, companies do often delay employing software in their processes until they finish a project, can be reasonably sure of how best to do it, and know what benefits they will gain. For those reasons, I’ve noticed that companies often “sandbox” new technologies before broad deployment. There’s no argument here that this is the best method.


      3. This coloring book page took weeks? Little wonder then that ACAD contains so many unfinished, untested, and unwanted components. We got that wonderful new interface with the 2009 product line. You know, the one we can’t turn off (thanks again, Owen). And the click trippling ribbon that can easily be shunned. And online components for workstations that aren’t allowed online access.

        If you (Autodesk) needs to play and experiment with these grand inventions then do it responsibly by adding these wonderful items to the acceptable current standards and access them through a pop menu just like the bonus tools. Successiful items may graduate to the final product or die on the vine. These are important user issues that should not be decided at beer bust Friday.

        Weeks? Multiple? Last time I assumed you were joking when you asked why I (still?) wanted PDF manuals. Now I just feel bad.

      4. Sorry, I forgot the requested specific feedback. Yes, the remedial HGTA should be a single properly linked page within the expected industry standard CHM file. It should also be included in a functional online help system for those who may need access or knowledge without an ACAD installation. This, of course, would be in addition to a proper set of indexes.

        1. Dieter Schlaepfer


          Yes, several weeks. At about 10,300 words, I’d suggest that you might compare the experience to your writing a 1,000 page essay every day for two weeks and illustrating it yourself (in addition to all your other work of course). Add a few days for planning, incorporating reviews, correcting errors, formatting it in XML, and there you have it. Actually, I really enjoyed the project.

          Coloring book? Hey, what a great idea! Maybe I should write “The AutoCAD Coloring Book” for children next. Just kidding. I think.

          Your posts also reminded me of all the grief I received back in 1999 on the forums regarding AutoCAD LT Help using the new CHM files and IE. I guess it turned out OK after all. 🙂

          Anyway, I’m sticking to my sincere request for feedback. The Hitchhiker’s Guide for AutoCAD has a specific audience in mind, and while I don’t disagree with Paul about the advantages of a good personal tutor, a guide like this can be useful when a tutor is not available.

          And with your feedback on its content and organization, you can help me make it better.


            1. Dieter Schlaepfer

              No problem, William. If you do have the chance, let me know what you’d like me to consider changing in the other topics.

              For one thing, know I’m going to split the Layers and Properties topic into two topics. While layers are an object property, in retrospect I’d have to say that the material there is a lot for someone to absorb.


              1. Just remembered, from days long past, that a help file and/or documentation button/link existed for at least a few releases which was an instant update for the file(s) under use. That was convenient, fast, and handy. It should still be included in every bit of offline documentation. The items most used by professionals worldwide…

  1. Dieter Schlaepfer

    Ok, let me be more specific. *I* keep track of your Help feedback and communicate your issues and priorities as effectively as I possibly can. In addition, I track Help content issues, such as I did with the ZOOMFACTOR issue, including the note that I added, and passing along an associated enhancement request to our product design team. In other cases, I’ve rewritten the content in sets of topics, again based on feedback and my own sense of what needs fixing.

    The outcome of any process that requires setting priorities is complex. For example, given the choice between delivering a priority 1 request versus delivering priority 2, 3, and 4 requests is not necessarily easy to decide. And then there’s the question of how well the plan is executed, which is crucial in my opinion.

    As you previously noted, online Help did take a *big* step forward (again, we’re not done yet). The issue that you’re highlighting now is the priority of making progress in online Help features versus the priority of upgrading offline Help. So, the specific type of information that would help me the most includes how often do you estimate your users will need to switch between online and offline Help, assuming a resolution of the firewall issue, and under what circumstances.

    I’d also appreciate your feedback regarding The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD with respect its effectiveness for new and occasional users. I do understand that as far as you’re concerned, this component takes a lower priority than offline Help, but IMHO it’s still important to occasional and novice users.

    Thanks and best regards,

    1. I should point out to dubious observers that I can verify that everything Dieter says in his first paragraph is entirely true.

      To answer your question, my users will never need to switch between online and offline Help under any circumstances whatsoever. Offline Help will be installed and configured for their use, and that will be it. Online Help will never be turned on, and is therefore completely irrelevant. Also, a resolution of the firewall issue would not be a smart thing to assume, given Autodesk’s history in this area.

      Sorry, I don’t see any point in providing feedback on something my users will never even see. Make it available offline and it will then become more relevant.

      1. Dieter Schlaepfer

        Your points are noted, Steve.

        If you have any users that fall into the “occasional” category or perhaps the “I took a course six months ago in AutoCAD and now I’d like a quick review” category, could you ask them to Google (on whatever company or home systems that have access the internet) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD? I really do want to get their honest feedback, especially on areas that need improvement.


        1. Dieter, sorry about the delayed response, but I have been away for a while.

          I try not to bother my users with testing even my own stuff unless it has a demonstrable benefit to them. This is somebody else’s stuff, Help as a whole is a secondary issue, this particular aspect of Help is a tertiary issue which is unlikely to offer my users any benefit, and even if it did the end result wouldn’t be made available to them because of Autodesk’s policy of deliberately disabling offline access.

          Even if I and others hadn’t been so recently screwed over after providing Help feedback, how would you rate your chances of me bothering my users with this? I don’t doubt your personal desire to improve the product as much as you can within the confines that the PHBs have imposed on you. But sorry, from my point of view this issue is not merely off the radar. The radar has been turned off, and the plug has been yanked out of the wall. By Autodesk.

          Try AutoCAD Futures, maybe? I hear there was a vibrant and active feedback-providing community there once.

    2. Is there some real world reason that online and offline help files are not identical? I’m assuming a database searcher under license or one that can’t be a simple DLL? Still wouldn’t mean that those 14K files should differ. Far more questions than CHM files.

      1. Dieter Schlaepfer

        Hi William,

        The content in the online and offline Help is identical when AutoCAD is released. However, with online Help, we were recently able to deliver an interim update. While I agree that it would be great if we could also update offline Help more frequently, real-world resource constraints make us prioritize our efforts.

        Getting back to the hitchhiker’s guide, I’m getting ready to make some revisions, and I’m very receptive to any feedback and suggestions. I’m also thinking of adding another title.

        So William, if you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see filled in here:

        The Hitchhiker’s Guide to ______________


        1. > While I agree that it would be great if we could also update offline Help more frequently, real-world resource constraints make us prioritize our efforts.
          > Getting back to the hitchhiker’s guide, I’m getting ready to make some revisions
          > I’m also thinking of adding another title.

          Real-world. Priorities. Ignoring the obvious need to fix offline Help and doing more online stuff that nobody seems to want. Hello?

          Dieter, you should leave the spin to the PR people we can guiltlessly ridicule, rather than damage yourself with it. You’re much more valuable to Autodesk as the face of reason and customer empathy than you are when you fall into corporate line and try to justify Autodesk’s outrageous anti-customer policies.

        2. Dieter Schlaepfer

          William, I don’t have any control over what products get discontinued. Are you saying that you prefer Mechanical Desktop over what you’re using now?

          Steve, by “we” I meant the small, dedicated team to which I belong. I’m not making a statement for the company. About the only spin I’m interested in involves a terrified ping pong ball during lunch.

          Well, it’s high time for me to get back to finishing the Help topics for the anti-virus measures that we’ve started in SP1 involving autoloading executable code. Lessee now. First I need to fire up XMetaL . . .


          1. ;| Are you saying that you prefer Mechanical Desktop over what you’re using now? |;

            Over everything I’ve ever used, ‘cept for SDRC iDeas. MDT delivered fully functional 2D/3D parametrics since Designer in 1992. Full customization just like ACAD. Commands that worked as designed and as expected. (Real help files). MDT didn’t care if the model(s) weren’t 100% constrained – or at all if that’s what you wanted. Multiple parts and/or assemblies in a single file. Speed, ease, limitless design possibilities, the equivalent of dynamic blocks in full 3D, on, and on… Buzz done good.

            Now, it wasn’t for everybody since it required a bit of thought and planning. Parametric modeling isn’t for every product or design. And no, Inventor is not a replacement. Too slow. Too many missing tools. Too many silly restrictions. And yes, I “used” Inventor from June of ’99 till I finally gave up at the 2010 release. Just wasn’t worth the install.

            It’s true that I could continue using MDT 2008 [without the idiotic 2009 forced horrible GUI and ribbon issues) till the end of days. But without updated object enablers that future has been decided for me. Much like the lack of documentation and proper help files, the forced FUI, the useless new “features”, and multiple interface governors are deciding my ACAD future. Change is good. Change is nice. Destructive, restrictive, performance robbing change is unbelievably bad.

            Tell ya what. For a healthy loosening of some constrained resources (aka: fat cash for Bill) I’d be willing to carefully explore every ACAD command and variable in depth. Then I’ll submit a written and illustrated report carefully stating what I expect each item to do, the way I feel it should be addressed, and what’s wrong/broken/unfinished/unproductive with the current 2013/2014/2015? versions. The entire nasty GUI too. 100% productivity. That would, of course, be a me, me, me biased report. Everybody doesn’t work the same way I do and some of my thoughts might not please the masses. That doesn’t appear to bother Autodesk too much..

            1. R. Paul Waddington

              The main problem with MDT is that Autodesk didn’t realise just how good a product it had hit on and; that failing was exacerbated by a dealer structure and personell who coudn’t cope, didn’t know enough about the product and would not try to understand it. Couple those inadequacies with Autodesk marketeers looking over their shoulders at SolidWork hatched Inventor and giving Solidworks a free kick and an opportunity they did not squander.

              MDT and those of us who did apply it very effectively were very badly let down by Autodesk and William is correct Inventor still cannot match the flexibity of MDT.

              All history now but one thing it did show me was how little value Autodesk placed on their customers.

            2. Dieter Schlaepfer

              Thanks Bill. I never had any experience with MDT. I do have a friend who’s using Inventor to simulate, analyze, and prototype an innovative “green” internal combustion engine. He seems happy with it, especially since the mechanical engineering department in the university that he’s partnered with also uses Inventor. A demo that I saw of Inventor seemed to me that it facilitated subassembly hierarchies. But I haven’t used the product myself.

              My first job in the CAD/CAM/CAE software industry was in the mechanical design space back in 1980 when I worked at GE Calma on their DDM (Design, Drafting, and Manufacturing) product. We started out with 3D wireframe technology, followed by surface modeling. A lot of large companies were just starting to experiment with CAD at that time, so it was an interesting time. My deliberate attitude then (as it is now) was if the tool is deficient, I find a creative solution, fix it, change the workflow, change the tool (!), or whatever I need to do to make work.

              In my personal opinion, is that most companies do listen to their customers, so much so that they receive a lot of suggestions that don’t always agree. So, in that environment, actual examples carry a lot more weight than opinions. And then, of course, publicly traded companies cannot make forward-looking statements or promises without incurring legal risk, so they remain silent, which is easily interpreted as indifference.

              I’m sorry to hear that Inventor doesn’t facilitate your work as well as MDT, but I’d encourage you to make your requirements and requests known in the form of individual examples.


          2. By spin, I mean the “it would be great if we only had the resources to do that” thing. I’m being polite calling it spin, because it’s setting off my bullshit radar. The resources are available to provide adequate offline Help. The will is not.

            It’s a policy issue, not a resourcing one. The policy is an anti-customer one, and by aligning yourself with it, you’re making yourself a target.

            1. Dieter Schlaepfer

              But that’s the way it is, Steve.

              To put human face on it, *I* simply don’t have time to do everything that I know needs to be done, and some of those things are more important than others.

              You know that ideas and priorities compete in every company–I’m sure it happens in your company as well. Nevertheless, you and I both fight for what we feel is important and will continue to do so.

              I’ve been happy to make sure that your feedback and that of others here have been presented effectively within Autodesk. I’d encourage you to continue to articulate your views, both positive and negative. Concrete examples work the best.


              1. To put a human face on it, *you* know that it could have easily been arranged for a CHM to be available at launch time or very shortly after, with minimal use of Autodesk resources. *You* could have put your time into arranging for the online system to also be available for offline users, in less time than it took to produce a HHGA which has not been well received. *You* personally know that this would have been a much more sensible use of resources. And yet *you* are now going to go ahead and do more than the same, instead of doing what you know is the right thing for your customers’ needs.

                I can totally believe that you personally are constrained by clueless management, traditional roles and anti-customer policies into not being allowed to do those things. But when you try to justify the unjustifiable, you lose your value as “one of us working within” by becoming just another one of the corporate tools repeating the mantra.

                To put a human face on my side of things, I’m totally burned out with the constructive feedback thing. I’ve done way more than my fair share of working within the system trying to improve things, but I’ve had enough. It doesn’t work. Bashing my head against that particular brick wall has lost its appeal.

              2. R. Paul Waddington

                Dieter read today’s post, written by a Stephen, on Steve’s blog, in relation to a customer service incident at McDonalds.

                I agree whole heartily with Steve response; there are very many of us who have been more than willing to help Autodesk in the past, in particular in the very early days.

                However Autodesk personnel have failed us so many times it is going to be very difficult for you to use your “optimism” to sway people so comprehensively ignored over a very SIMPLE solution.

                1. Dieter Schlaepfer

                  Yeah, I read it. Ridiculous, but probably an overreaction to being scammed. It reminds me of my college days when I’d use the raspberry pancake syrup at a breakfast chain to make myself a free raspberry drink from the ice water they served. The follies of my youth. 😉

                  As I’ve said before, I’m an technical writer for AutoCAD who is happy to contribute my views, effectively communicate your feedback, and make changes within the areas under my control. I’ve already done so. You’ve seen some changes in Help recently and you’ll see some more changes in the future as a result.

                  Paul wrote: “However Autodesk personnel have failed us so many times it is going to be very difficult for you to use your “optimism” to sway people so comprehensively ignored over a very SIMPLE solution.”

                  OK, what do you want me to do?


                2. Dieter, I don’t think there is any more you can do, given the constraints within which you have to work. The Pointy Haired Bosses are the ones who need to get a clue, and unless you can arrange a visit from Bob the Dinosaur to give them a short sharp wedgie, I can’t see any lessons being learned here. All I can do is continue to kick Autodesk in the nuts hard and often and hope one of the kicks hits home one day with The Clueless Ones.

                  From my point of view, all the feedback we’ve provided, all the months of effort you’ve put in, and a big slab of scarce Autodesk resources have been totally wasted. Not by you, but by the PHBs’ policy decision to deliberately disenfranchise offline users. My users can’t use anything you’ve done, so it’s 100% useless; they are still stuck with a system that can be fairly described as a pile of pus. We would have all been better off putting our energies into something more constructive, like producing a CHM.

                  It must be massively frustrating for someone like you to work for a company that places you in the position where you’re not allowed to do the right thing by your customers.

                3. R. Paul Waddington

                  I have just put aside my previously written long reply because as I was about to post Steve’s beat me to it. Suffice to say mine was probably less polite and, with the exception of his last paragraph I agree with Steve’s comments.
                  I will add tho’, it does it appears to me, in your work, much more needs to be done in the way of value analysis before changes are done and before they are released. Had this have been done thoroughly I believe the changes Help went through may well have not happened.

                4. Dieter Schlaepfer

                  Yes, Steve usually beats me with his posts as well. 😉
                  Nevertheless, I’ll continue asking for feedback and communicating your suggestions and concerns. And don’t forget that I have incredible power to change incorrect or vacuous AutoCAD Help text, illustrations, and tooltips. Remember the massive toolnovels? I still find some occasionally (grrr), but most of them are gone now.


  2. R. Paul Waddington

    “I’d also appreciate your feedback regarding The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD with respect its effectiveness for new and occasional users. I do understand that as far as you’re concerned, this component takes a lower priority than offline Help, but IMHO it’s still important to occasional and novice users”

    Autodesk’s Help functions I no longer use in training (for occasional & novice users) Dieter, for all the reasons outlined in earlier related posts.

    The Hitchhikers Guide to AutoCAD did/does not bring sufficient ease to the process of obtaining useful and meaningful assistance to warrant my changing direction. I have looked closely at what you have done and shown it to experienced, new and occasional students/users and it was not seen as being of more value than using their current methods of getting answers to questions and or for finding out new “things”.

  3. Dieter,
    The number 42 & HTGTA was an excellent idea. Shame nobody has bothered to say that.

    Linking the pic would be nice when you get a moment. Extending this to 3DS would be great as would a variety of other Autocad products, especially seeing as we now have to transfer our base Autocad skills to the new Civils products and others.
    Well done! 🙂

  4. Dieter Schlaepfer

    Thank you, Chris. You made my day! 🙂

    I recently finished a substantial upgrade to THGTA for the next release. While I can’t go into the details, I think you will be pleased. If THGTA manages to hit a sweet spot, I’d think other products will follow suit. Thanks for the suggestion–I’ll pass it along.


  5. Don Magill

    Thank you for this, Dieter. It is absolutely brilliant.
    I see that this has been added to Autodesk’s knowledge network and tweeted by Lynn Allen.
    I agree with Chris’ suggestion of extending this concept, both the illustration and the text, to more products. I put forth Revit as the next subject.

    1. Dieter Schlaepfer

      Thank you, Don. Much appreciated!

      I haven’t had time to visit here lately, but I would assure you that I’ve been updating the content for the HHG. I’m not an expert in Revit, but I can talk to the Revit people to see whether they might be interested in creating something like this.


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