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Stephen Chambers

Software that Crushes your Soul

05 December 2008

Stephen confesses his frustration at Visio, which he is having to use all day, every day, in order to design software. Unlike the average 'angry blogger', he offers a constructive solution to some of his gripes: and it is here as a free  download, for fellow-sufferers who read this article.

Introduction

Are you forced to use a tool every day that, to quote one of our developers, “sucks your will to live”? If so, then you are not alone. I would suggest that we are a gathering so large now that it would make the cast of the Lord of the Rings trilogy look meagre. There could be several reasons, typically:

  1. You have no choice as it’s the only one available for the job
  2. For compatibility/legacy reasons you simply cannot move to another tool
  3. You have no choice because it’s the best of a very bad bunch
  4. You have no choice because your company, maybe your manager, bought a site license at great cost and won’t admit their terrible mistake (probably ignoring the cries of despair from you and your colleagues who are now stuck with it)

I’m in the predicament of having to use such a software tool, and it is gradually eroding my soul to the point that the option of going back to a bar job is looking more and more attractive. Pulling a pint was simple, because the task was matched by the tool for the job. You simply put the glass under the correct dispenser and pull the handle down until the correct quantity had been extracted. It took about 25 seconds, never failed and acted as expected. I remember being quite happy back then.

...So somehow the application sat on the taskbar....

...doesn't match the actual Visio document I have open...

Fast forward 10 years and I’m now part of the user experience team at Red Gate Software where well designed or “ingeniously simple” software is the mantra. The problem only starts when it comes to opening Microsoft Visio (a tool ironically often used to prototype good software…) day after day during the final stages of the design phase. Visio is a tool which I have come to despise. It’s a truly draining experience, and I feel that I’d be more fulfilled at work if I was required to wrestle with an angry brown bear that hasn’t eaten in a week.

What started as a collection of mild annoyances has festered and grown to an almost uncontrollable rage, evidenced by two broken mice, as these ‘quirks’ keep tripping me up. For some reason I never seem to remember that Visio won’t quite do what I fully expected it to. The reason for this is quite simple… I can’t believe it doesn’t work like any reasonable person would expect it should. What’s even more galling is that this isn’t some version one product that is a little rough around the edges due to its recent creation but will build over time into a slick and pleasurable experience. This is an old codger of an application that should be a guiding beacon that most others look up to with awe and admiration.  

I was like a small child at Christmas when I eagerly opened up the new 2007 version of Visio to discover what improvements had been lavished upon the UI. I’m not sure if I sobbed out loud but I was certainly crying inside. Absolutely nothing had changed. All of the things which were quirky in 2003 were still as quirky in 2007. In fact, after some playing around with it the only difference of note which might impact on my use of the tool was the ability to select more colours for my backgrounds. It’s a crushing feeling and one that made me acutely aware of the responsibility we have when developing software for customers: We must not to make their lives a pain, but work to make their lives easier. A new major release is just one such opportunity. Some people have high expectations or hopes for your next big version release – so ask yourself: what have you done to enhance the next version of your product beyond their expectations?

Why I dislike Visio so much

Why should we put up with poorly thought out and designed software that doesn’t get even the basics right and that we have to use daily? My issues aren’t nit-picking issues of the type “It would be nice if it did…”. No, Sir. The issues I’m talking about are the kind that makes your eyes bulge uncontrollably as you shake your head in despair and ask “why on earth doesn’t it do this?!?”

Although I’m only using Visio as an example in this instance it could be one of many others out there who are equally guilty. In classic debate style I would first like to say how easy Visio was to initially pick up and start using almost immediately. The learning curve in many respects was negligible. It also has a large number of existing controls that you can simply drag and drop onto the page therefore taking little time to put a mock-up together if you have a design already planned. Visio also allows you to put together some basic interactive workflows together which work great in presentations to impress an audience who don’t know any better. However, all of these very positive points are devalued, meaningless or totally buried under the weight of issues brought upon having got some of the basics so terribly wrong. I need to express my issues so let me begin…

Problem 1: Basic information handling

I often have well in excess of 80 tabs for my design work on any given project. Visio has provided me with a single way in which this information is displayed, organised and manipulated – an Excel like tab system with one vital missing piece of functionality which may not seem like much but if you use the software for any length of time it becomes like an unbearable itch which you can do nothing about.

You cannot insert a new tab immediately after the current tab.

‘So what?’ you may ask. Well, imagine you have 80 tabs and realise you need an additional tab at position 21. You are forced to add the new tab to the very end of the document (position 81) and then go through the process of reorganising its position manually. Even more infuriating is the fact that this functionality exists by default in Microsoft Excel but does not exist at all in Visio. The amount of time I’ve spent  laboriously placing the tab into the correct position by hand over the last year is enormous. A small thing I’m sure you would agree but go and repeat the same needless task 30 times a day for over 400 days and then come and tell me it’s not an issue. I dare you.

Figure 1:  I can see 5 of my 80 tabs. Very useful.

When you have such a large number of designs, a basic tab system simply does not cut the mustard. I need something more akin to a tree view to easily visualise my list of tabs and the ability to group designs into their appropriate workflows and subtasks for user testing purposes. Being able to only see or organise 6 visible tabs at a time when you have over 80 just isn’t good enough.

Problem 2: Selecting an object on the page

Selecting a control on the page often results (depending on the scenario) in one of two behaviours, neither of which I actually wanted. The first incorrect behaviour is to either select the wrong control which is overlapping or secondly, Visio defaults to editing the text property of the control for some unknown reason. This isn’t some minor feature that I’m being picky over but yet another fundamental issue with its basic operation. One million mouse clicks later and a finger that is showing the signs of repetitive strain injury I now have the object I wanted. Next step – placing it where I want on the page…

Problem 3: Placing an object on a page

When I’m attempting to place a control into position on the page, Visio has the infuriating habit of thinking it knows better than I do where I want to place an item: Visio will often insist on vigorously snapping an object to another object in roughly the same vicinity, when I had no intention of placing it there. This can result in a dangerous cat and mouse game of repeatedly unhooking the object and once again trying to place the object in the correct position. It’s like watching the world’s worst driver repeatedly trying to reverse park but never getting it right. It would also appear that other people find this equally infuriating (as you'll see here.). One of our own designers has also encountered an equally patience-destroying behaviour which you can view here.

Problem 4: Copy/Pasting objects:

I often need to copy shapes from one page to any number of other pages in a way that maintains their relative position. This isn’t a fancy requirement. I am designing a workflow after all so need the items to be in the same place. Visio does not have the ability to copy/paste in the same place unless the zoom level is identical between pages which it often isn’t. This often isn’t the case as I usually zoom in to try and make sure I select the correct controls in the first place (see problem 2). Visio instead determines the placement of controls depending on the current centring/zoom level of the page. To complicate matters, Visio also remembers the individual zoom levels for every single tab page you have to make sure these are the same between tabs before committing any objects from one tab to the other.

Problem 5: Sharing designs with colleagues

Often, a colleague has opened  a design file I’ve sent and burst into laughter as the Visio file is rendering the design completely differently on his computer than it did on mine. The end result is that fonts have often gone from the standard ‘Tahoma’ font to something random like the ‘Franklin Gothic Heavy’ and as a result has started placing text on multiple lines, thereby rendering the entire design as some nightmarish mash of nonsense.   

Problem 6: Changing the Default font

Here are the instructions to change the default font from being Arial (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/295117) for Visio 2002. Is it possible to read these instructions, particularly steps 4 and 5, without smiling and shaking your head? Requiring the user to start digging into the registry just to change the default font makes me wonder whether Visio’s problems are deep-seated. I couldn’t even get these instructions to work although I do have Visio 2003, so the instructions may have changed even though all the steps are still available. 

Problem 7: Useful features suddenly dropped

It used to be possible to prepare text files of diagrams for importing into Visio. This was a great way of automating things like site maps and flow diagrams. As of Visio 2003 it no longer works because Visio 2003 no longer supports text files as a format.

Problem 8: Inserting Multiple images

In Visio 2003 I can’t insert more than 1 image at a time! Seriously, a software package that’s meant to be used for design forces you to Insert just one image at a time. That’s beyond stupid. Not a great feature if you are designing a UI.

A small moment of joy

The choice for the best thing about working at a software company has to be the interest that other people take in your computer problems. Luckily during one of my darker days in front of Visio I was complaining (read: swearing) so loudly that the division manager (James Moore) suggested getting a COM add-in to ease the pain of some of the more problematic issues. I suggested he wasn’t smart enough to accomplish something like that (we had already automatically discounted the possibility of me being smart enough) and after a few days of hacking code around, disabling other add-ins which were causing conflicts and generally being close to giving up, a solution was eventually found. You can find our COM add-in here which now adds the ability to add tabs before/after the current tab, fixes the naff copy/paste default behaviour and allows browsing of tabs much easier thanks to a new list view with preview.

Figure 2: My new personally customized menu to work around the shortcomings

Figure 3: My new preview pane which allows much easier tab navigation and selection

My pain has been lessened but the issues run deeper than these short term fixes for bigger problems. You never know, we may just end up writing our own design tool soon. I can but dream.

Conclusion

The process of writing this has been cathartic. It has eased my angst.  Do I expect anyone to do anything about this? Sadly, no. I did write some constructive feedback on the Visio site a while ago but it felt like putting a message in a bottle and chucking it into the Pacific Ocean. Contrast that with some of the smaller companies I’ve contacted recently who have all personally responded quickly and positively to both emails and forum posts about easy and worthwhile improvements that could be made to their product.

In the spirit of a support group I now invite you to share your top gripes with any software you have to use every day or have used in the past that has the potential to drive you crazy (or crazier). I can’t promise it will make you feel any better but a problem shared is a problem halved and you never know – someone out in the ether might just be listening...

The add-in that solves some of Stephen's immediate problems (by adding the ability to add tabs before/after the current tab, fixes the naff copy/paste default behaviour and allows browsing of tabs much easier thanks to a new list view with preview), can be found here as a zipped file

Stephen Chambers

Author profile:

Stephen is a User-Experience specialist who works for Red Gate Software, and is a member of the .NET Tools division.

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Subject: Sucks for you
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Monday, December 08, 2008 at 9:53 AM
Message: Man I am so glad I work for a company that allows me to work with what I am happy with to get the job done. At the end of the day its finishing the project that matters most, not all the in between stuff that got me there.

Subject: Axure for prototyping
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Monday, December 08, 2008 at 7:37 PM
Message: I suggest you check out Axure for prototyping (http://www.axure.com). It's built for purpose and is so much better at it than Visio.

Subject: Prototyping tools
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Tuesday, December 09, 2008 at 9:27 AM
Message: I've tried Axure as well and while it doesn't have half the annoyances that Visio does it wasn't worth shelling out a whole new set of licenses as the value wasn't significantly better.

Axure is still very web based in its prototyping focus in my opinion and I spend the majority of my time working on software desktop applications that have to have an XP or Vista theme/feel. I still haven't found a tool that can switch between the two themes which is what we would ideally want.

The default tool set is poor with Axure although i do envy some of the features it has. :)

Hmm... I might start mocking up what my ideal design tool could look like (with functionality) and put it on the web for feedback...

Subject: I vote for
Posted by: Jonathan (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 5:33 AM
Message: http://www.balsamiq.com/products/mockups

It's like paper-prototyping so you miss out on the captain-fancy-pants theming stuff and get something that looks disposably low-fi so noone gets too attached. As a bonus it's collaborative and unlike paper it's easy to maintain digital copies.

Subject: Balsamiq
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 6:04 AM
Message:
I also really like Balsamiq and it certainly deserves a big thumbs up for many of its features. My colleague Tom uses it regularly and has been in contact with the developers a few times who have always responded quickly and helpfully. A major plus point and a credit to their customer service.

Again, maybe it comes down to looking for "one design tool to rule them all" which perhaps is too high a hope. Balsamiq is great for the initial design process - which is its intended target - but it isn't meant to go beyond that (or at least not at the moment). I really need mockups that can replicate basic interactivity, even at the sketch phase which can then be transformed into a higher fidelity version. Ideally - this would happen within the same tool. Easily linking multiple designs together etc... and the ability to do this in a remote usability session would be great.

Any other suggestions...?

Subject: It's snowing outside, yay!
Posted by: adolf garlic (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 6:24 AM
Message: I long ago realised that managers are incapable of calculating the true cost of a product.

Something might appear 'free' or very cheap, but then it does not take in to account the wasted hours of frustration the user endures trying to work around the piece of monkey excrement that has been given to them.

Microsoft fully understand the "monkey excrement does not show up in the 'bottom line"

Subject: Enterprise Architect by Sparx Systems
Posted by: Andrew the data guy (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 7:52 AM
Message: It's primarily a UML tool, but it does a damn fine job of sticking together an ER diagram.

I've been using it for several years, and it's my tool of choice.


Subject: comisery
Posted by: marty nickel (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 8:06 AM
Message: i've fought with Visio as well and second your frustration. i remember the pdc where m$ featured visio as a cool new product that made use of "com". then they bought it. they've added loads of new features since then, but not fixed the basic bugs and annoyances.

ERWin is the same way for me. how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours have i spent putting relationship lines back where they should go after moving an entity? it has behaved poorly since the first beta i used. (it's frightening to think that was probably 20 years ago). whenever i have the opportunity i recommend against it.

and... i'm not sure i understand adolf garlic's "monkey excrement" comment, but it's funny.

Subject: Common themes
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 8:46 AM
Message:
I think the comments of "frustration" and "wasted hours" really speak to the heart of the issue and apply to many other products as well.

That's how I feel using this tool. Complete and total frustration. Visio shouldn't be as mature a product (age wise) as this and still have these issues. It's as simple as that.

When I have to make large changes to a design my heart sinks. Not because of the changes themselves but because of number of hours I'm going to have to devote to making those changes in Visio.

Using backgrounds can help but are limited at times. The creation of common components which apply globally to all slides or locally would go some way to easing this. (I think Axure has this capability but as mentioned - it's too web based for our needs).

Subject: Visio experiences...
Posted by: Rich (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 8:53 AM
Message: Thanks for this article, it’s good to know I'm not alone out there in the Visio/MS wilderness! I've been using Visio over the years for a number of things both personal and professional. I've used it to design my ultimate garage woodshop, design backyard landscaping, create a new business process model, and (in order to pay the bills) designed numerous data models employing both reverse & forward engineering features.

I've also used ERwin (once the king of ER modeling case tools) and ModelRight 3 for data modeling, but somehow I always seem to get stuck using Visio for reasons you have eluded to in your article. Visio 2003 has an Enterprise Architect version which mysteriously disappeared in the 2007 version, which was a little baffling. But in general it sucks as a true ER case modeling tool, especially when it comes to creating a forward engineered script for deployment. It wants to drop & re-create every object regardless of whether or not this is actually necessary, and I found it totally unreliable in this regard. Its only good for making pretty pictures of your data architecture for presentation to management.

I guess I would sum up Visio overall by saying that it does a lot of things sort of well, but not much (anything) very well. Kinda like needing a specialized tool for a particular job, but only having a really snazzy hammer. I only wish MS would combine the diagramming features built into MS SQL Server Mgmt Studio with the graphics capabilities of Visio – is that too much to ask for?

Subject: Visio ERD
Posted by: KG (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 9:10 AM
Message: A couple more really, really annoying things about Visio. The ERD template will not allow you to split your design across pages and keep your relationship lines. They just go poof! Also, if you connect two tables and the parent table primary key is named differently than the child table foreign key column, Visio adds a new one to the child with the same name as the parent which you must manually remove. WTF?

Subject: Visio for UML
Posted by: BuggyFunBunny (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 9:47 AM
Message: For those using Visio for UML purposes, take a look at Allen Holub's visio templates, at his site: http://www.holub.com/ It's in the Goodies section. They're not redistributable, but free to use for yourself.

Subject: Visio for Screen Design
Posted by: Gene Kaplan (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 11:18 AM
Message: A buddy just sent me the link to your organized and well written "rant". It was nice to hear that I am not a complete idiot and that someone else is having the same fun experiences that I am. We were all hopeful when MS picked up Visio but improving it let alone fully integrating it into Office hasn't happened. Thanks for the writeup and fix!

Subject: Add-in
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 11:40 AM
Message:
Here are some instructions on how to install the add-in.

http://visguy.com/vgforum/index.php?topic=492.msg2142#msg2142

Subject: so why are you using Visio ?
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 11:57 AM
Message: I cannot understand why you use this product if it sucks this badly.

Anon

Subject: Got to use it, management likes the pictures!
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 4:02 PM
Message: I can understand having to use a certain tool because someone else bought a site license, I work for a state government where different agency sections are responsible for purchasing things that I have to use based on best description of needs in the scoping document and lowest qualified bidder. I have found out that hard way that you need to be painfully specific in your request when someone else does the buying. And of course when the BIG MS offers a deal for 6000 licenses for Office with VISIO and MSDN it is kind of hard to complain, after all it is my tax dollar too!
But isn’t Redgate a cutting edge software company that should be still small enough to change to what works best and influencing enough to get other software companies, maybe not the BIG MS, to work with them? I mean if you say product A is the best thing for making workflow diagrams most of us are going to look at it just out of respect for your knowledge and experience. Seems like some of this VISIO competitor should be seeking your out to make the tool we all dream of using!
Just my humble opinion.

Subject: Installing Add-Ins for Visio
Posted by: Allen (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 7:57 PM
Message: How do I install Stephen's COM Add-In? The Visio 2007 Help file refers to menu items that don't exist.

Subject: Installing Add-Ins for Visio
Posted by: Allen (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 11:03 PM
Message: How do I install Stephen's COM Add-In? The Visio 2007 Help file refers to menu items that don't exist.

Subject: Instructions and design tools
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 3:20 AM
Message: @ Allen - take a look at this post for instructions.
http://visguy.com/vgforum/index.php?topic=492.msg2142#msg2142

@Anon - we are small enough to be able to change to what works best and if a tool was out there that actually did what we needed - then we would definitely have it. It's just not worth spending additional money on some tools that are only half way there. That's for certain. We have a tool that does half the job. There are some other tools out there that are better in some respects, not as good in others and don't justify their price tags.

I have a feeling that i'm not the only one who feels like this doing UI design. Although history has always shown that it's only a matter of time before a tool will come along that fills the gap perfectly for a reasonable price. I'm constantly on the look out for new tools so remain hopeful and would be happy to talk to anyone developing these kinds of tools.

Subject: Canary is King
Posted by: Tony Rubolotta (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 8:44 AM
Message: Until recently, I managed a small development team and found all of the tools thus far listed as "unsuitable". A good UI or prototype doesn't come out of a good or bad tool but out of the mind of the designer. The principles of good UI design, or of the entire application, also comes, not from the tool, but from the brain.

I had decided early on that using any of the aforementioned tools required my designers to master the tool, not the problem to be solved. Furthermore, I also found designers reluctant to make changes since such changes were painful and time consuming to implement using any such tools. If the design were not sound, it didn't matter which tool was used in that all discouraged changes, even those that would be beneficial to the project.

The basic design tool I settled on for UI layout, application prototyping and project development was an 8-1/2 by 11 canary pad, a whiteboard and easel. The applications we developed using these "tools" are nearly 10 years old now and still being used because they met the business requirements and provided an extraordinarily easy to use interface. Two of those applications are extremely complex but were completed in less than 2 years by five developers who simultaneoulsy worked on seven mid-sized projects at the same time. That would not have been possible using Visio.

Canary paper is cheap, flexible and easy to master. Sometimes the "old ways" are just better.

Subject: Canary is King
Posted by: Tony Rubolotta (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 8:53 AM
Message: Until recently, I managed a small development team and found all of the tools thus far listed as "unsuitable". A good UI or prototype doesn't come out of a good or bad tool but out of the mind of the designer. The principles of good UI design, or of the entire application, also comes, not from the tool, but from the brain.

I had decided early on that using any of the aforementioned tools required my designers to master the tool, not the problem to be solved. Furthermore, I also found designers reluctant to make changes since such changes were painful and time consuming to implement using any such tools. If the design were not sound, it didn't matter which tool was used in that all discouraged changes, even those that would be beneficial to the project.

The basic design tool I settled on for UI layout, application prototyping and project development was an 8-1/2 by 11 canary pad, a whiteboard and easel. The applications we developed using these "tools" are nearly 10 years old now and still being used because they met the business requirements and provided an extraordinarily easy to use interface. Two of those applications are extremely complex but were completed in less than 2 years by five developers who simultaneoulsy worked on seven mid-sized projects at the same time. That would not have been possible using Visio.

Canary paper is cheap, flexible and easy to master. Sometimes the "old ways" are just better.

Subject: Sketching
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 9:21 AM
Message: Tony,

I fully understand what you are saying and in fact have written another article which basically talks about the benefits of this approach and are firm advocates of it:
http://www.simple-talk.com/dotnet/.net-tools/software-tool-design-design-by-sketching/

However, as a matter of course we then usability test our early and not so early designs with users (and iterate them quickly before the next test). Due to the tools I work on (e.g. ANTS Profiler), this is often done remotely in order to have easy access to suitable participants. I share my screen with the user as they complete some tasks using the designs I've created, which are often at various stages of completeness.

It is at this stage which i'm really referring to with my current gripe. Although I would also test sketches as well, which have come about by first being designed on white boards, with sketch pads, or just a doodle on a scrap of paper next to me. The workflow is often the hardest to get right and I wouldn't go near implementing a design until the fundamentals have been worked out.

Canary paper at this point in the project wouldn't be practical for remote testing.

Additionally, if one component in a collection of sketches requires changing then it does become more of an issue. Having a digital "sketch like" design for example where a component can be globally changed and I then print out the sketches it's actually more time efficient. However, this stage happens much further down the line once the much bigger decisions/initial design have all taken place.

Attachment to designs is common and something i've been guilty of. Although having a group of developers shouting "Yuck!" at every opportunity when they see what you have done goes some way to helping avoid any deep seeded attachement. :)

I hope I've made sense. Thank you for your comments,

Stephen

Subject: Sketching
Posted by: Tony Rubolotta (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 9:57 AM
Message: Stephen,

Several minutes after writing my comment, I located your article on sketching. My apologies for any redundancy of a point you had already made and made well.

Our "sketching phase" is very intense and brings the user into the process. The typical complaints we hear have little to do with process but much to do with principles of UI layout, particularly consistent behavior, appearance, navigation and expressive clarity. I am a fanatic when it comes to getting that right and the reward is a user able to do their job exceedlingly well, quickly and with practically no training required. They know their job and the interface makes it easy to do what they already know.

Even the workflows, as complex as they can get, are easily worked out on paper before a single keystroke is committed to coding. The changes are easy enough to make on paper if you adopt a modular approach. We do what I call a "gutless" application rather than formal prototyping using any tools. It gets us where we want to be very quickly and allows us the time required for the additional R&D we need to complete the application. The "gutless" application may include, for example, a SQL Server based ERD, printed, marked up and tested by "thought experiment" before committing to the design.

Our audiences are most likely quite different, but I just wanted to say I agree with much of what you have to say about Visio, and certainly with your comments regarding the value of sketching, though we may approach it somewhat differently as to method and purpose. So yes, you have made sense and thanks for the articles.



Subject: Glad I'm not the only one
Posted by: Pete M (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 2:30 AM
Message: There are two software applications which drive me crazy. I only use them occasionally because I hate them so, so much. One of course is Visio. My work colleagues know I have cranked up Visio when I start swearing at the screen and exclaiming "how bad is that". The user interface in Visio is the most poorly designed that I ever had had the displeasure of using. I did actually think that when Microsoft bought the product that some effort would have gone into making the UI paletable. i'm still waiting.

The other piece of software which displeases me on a massive scale is MS Project. Here the UI is OK but the scheduling is just as infinitely frustrating as the UI is in visio. My colleagues also know when I have cranked up Project - they can tell whether I am using Visio or Project by the ferociousness of the swearing - Project wins hands down, probably because it has a more significant impact on me when it schedules badly than when I can't get a perfectly vertical or horizontal join between two boxes on Visio.

Thankfully, with .Net I don't have to use VB6 much any more, otherwise there would be 3 applications vying for the title of software which crushes my soul.

Subject: Hah! You think Visio's bad?
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 4:10 AM
Message: I also use Visio daily in my job, and yes it sucks badly. But the application that really removes my will to live is Lotus Notes. It's so utterly soul-destroyingly terrible that I prefer to use the tiny keyboard and screen of a BlackBerry rather than face Notes's diabolical unusability.

IBM should hang their heads in shame.

Subject: Learn how a software work before using it
Posted by: Hill Peaceman (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 5:29 AM
Message: Visio 2003 is like Visio 2007 (you are wrong)
Visio is the best diagramming software with full of customization 5 manner usable also by newbie (ShapeSheet, VBA, VSL, Com add-in, Active X).
Have you try the new external data feature in 2007
Have you try the new data graphic feature ?
PB2
Don't you see you have a pointer tool to select and a text tool to type text.
PB3
Don't you see you have a connector tool to directly create link before publishing to
you tube.
PB5
Of course if font are not available
PB6
Do you know that template are available in visio giving you the opportunity to fix default (font, color, thickness, page size, fill, ....).

Subject: Visio Love=Hate
Posted by: Stuart W (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 8:58 AM
Message: Like you (and I suspect most designers and architects) I live in Visio, there is no other tool that does what it can do as simply. However, what you said with bells on mate! I finally had to turn OFF snap and glue entirely because it caused me to say words you can't say at work. Lots of them. Now, when I get a new machine image, I spend about 1/2 an hour or so customizing Visio (and another customizing Word), just so I can be productive (e.g. not throw things). So many versions, so little advancement.

Subject: Visio Sucks
Posted by: Angel (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 9:00 AM
Message: Stephen,

I think Visio tries to be all things to everyone and ends up not doing any of them well. It’s pointless to debate the issue too much because someone will always have a different point of view. I am somewhat ambivalent about the product and that’s because I don’t use it all that much.
Good UI very hard to find. I think part of the problem is that the topic is very subjective and no matter how hard you work it is often difficult to come up with a really great UI (that everybody likes). I am afraid that Visio is not alone in that distinction. And is not only software! Have you ever tried to program your VCR, Camera and other gadgets?

Have you read Inmate running the asylum by Alan Cooper? If not, pick it up and read it you’ll get a kick out of it.

Subject: 2 Words...
Posted by: Chris G. (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 9:43 AM
Message: SharePoint Designer.

The installation disk should also come with a single-shot pistol with which you can shoot yourself.

arrrgh.

Subject: But what really kills my will to live:
Posted by: AJ (not signed in)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 10:32 AM
Message: I too find Visio a major pain for UI prototyping and now use Blend.

A colt 45 would have come to my rescue when using SAP R3 Financials. Nested windows, primitive input, numerous acronyms or monstrous favourite trees to name just a few. Simply horrible.

Feel better now!

Subject: Well written article
Posted by: Mark Nelson (VISIO) (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 7:33 PM
Message: As someone who has also resorted to writing an add-in to work around limitations in the Visio product, I can appreciate the general frustration with the tool. It's good to see this feedback posted in a public forum where others can share their experiences as well.

There are, in reality, a full range of reactions those of us responsible for the design of the Visio product could express here: disappointment that the tool was giving people a negative reaction, surprise that simple workarounds were not being employed, satisfaction that some of us were right when we predicted a particular pain point, frustration that some of us were wrong when we said there would be no pain point there.

Overall the feedback in the article and comments is excellent. I won't presume to tell you that all your pain will disappear in the next release; maybe it won't or maybe you don't like hearing about unreleased products. However, perhaps you can begin deciding for yourself whether Visio "vNext" is more of the same or something different.

http://blogs.msdn.com/visio/archive/2008/02/06/visio-vnext.aspx

Mark Nelson
Visio Product Team

Subject: Some great comments
Posted by: Phil Factor (view profile)
Posted on: Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 4:43 AM
Message: Some really great, and constructive, comments here. It is good to see Mark Nelson, of the Visio product team, making contact. vNext sounds interesting but the blogpost there on MSDN has comments disabled. This meant I couldn't comment on the bit in the Blog '...Visio "vNext" adopts the Office Fluent user interface that you see today in Office 2007 core applications.'. My comment would be 'Aarrggh! Make sure it can be turned off; unlike Office 2007, which I've had to de-install in consequence.'
It Would be wonderful to start a dialogue with the Visio team.

Subject: Soeaking of software that crushes your soul...
Posted by: Anonymous (not signed in)
Posted on: Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 10:58 AM
Message: Soeaking of software that crushes your soul...

What about blog posts that use gray text rather than black? Gray text is an annoying design choice.

I completely agree with you about Visio. Try Sparx Enterprise Architect.

Subject: Thanks for responding
Posted by: Stephen Chambers (view profile)
Posted on: Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 5:15 PM
Message: Hi Mark,

thank you for taking the time to respond. I can only hope that the next version can put right some of the issues (and others).

I'm really happy to contribute/discuss/email if you want to discuss my own and/or the experiences of our UX team here in regards to Visio and its use for designing/prototyping and how it fares to this end.

We use it constantly for a very real world purpose and would have feedback which I feel could really enhance the product substantially that would be worth the effort.

Get in touch any time. Thanks again,

Stephen


Subject: Rational Rose
Posted by: Brian T (not signed in)
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2008 at 7:52 AM
Message: I have also suffered with my current employer the pain and frustration of having to use Visio. I suspect the decision was made because it is free with the Enterprise version of the MSDN.

Ten years ago the company I then worked for forked out an arm and a leg for Rational Rose 98 and it was far, far superior to Visio.

Is it even still around?

Subject: Anonymous commenting disabled
Posted by: Chris Massey (view profile)
Posted on: Friday, January 02, 2009 at 6:53 AM
Message: Anonymous commented has been disabled on this article due to spamming. If you want to leave a comment, you'll have to sign in or sign up. Sorry for any inconvenience. 

Subject: Instaviz
Posted by: pixelglow (view profile)
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 5:24 PM
Message: @ Tony Rubolotta
@ Stephen Chambers

A lot of graphing tools like Visio force you to interact through a drawing tool interface like Illustrator, Coreldraw etc. It's all about click on palette, place on surface, click on palette and so on, when it could stand to be much simpler. What if you had a tool that just converted your rough sketches into graphs, via shape recognition and automated graph layout?

I've developed this very thing for the iPhone and iPod Touch that will knock your socks off:

http://instaviz.com

Subject: We hear you
Posted by: Charanjit (view profile)
Posted on: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM
Message: @Stephen

We hear you mate. We've all felt the pain you've so deftly articulated in your article. Here at Creately we're trying to think about the user experience first above all things and have worked hard to address these issues with Visio and other visual tools. Creately is an online diagramming tool that works in a similar way to Visio but without these annoyances and the added benefit of making it very easy to collaborate on your designs with the rest of the team.

Perhaps you and your users would like to experience a moment of joy and try Creately out - http://creately.com

 

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