PLM Prompt: PLM User Interface – Don’t make me think!

Thinking in loud. I’m looking over many user interfaces of PLM systems and reading Don’t make me think. Why every PLM/PDM system is so complex?


My observations (not scientific, of course):

1. 50% of User Interface features are not in use.

2. Every system I use, demanded at least 30% bigger monitor.

3. You need to read manual to understand how it works.

So, my short conclusion we need to scale UI back.


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  • I heard Tom Kelly, general manager of Ideo, once said the best interface he’s seen on a consumer product is the one for a disposable napkin wrapped in a plastic pouch: It reads, “Tear open and use.”

  • “Tear open and use.” – Like it!… Oleg.

  • Roland Scaleri

    If the application has any sophistication at all, the interface can’t be “tear open and use”. If you think a CAD product can be simplified to look like a web browser, you have no concept of these tools do. It is entirely possible that in your goal to simplify the UI you actually make the software harder to use.

    Good UI is one thing, but you can only simplify it so much. And you cannot dumb down the functionality simply to serve the UI.

    Looking to the future is one thing, but some sense of reality is required. It is easy to turn the world on its ear in concept, but to execute well is an entirely different animal that requires analytical thought, not just point and shoot dreaming.

  • Roland, Thank you very much for your comments! Every tool and system have a level of achievable simplicity. Of course, everything needs to be in proportion. In broad range of PLM segments, there are many tools and for every tool and group of tools this level will be different. CAD has their own specific characteristics, and we can bring many examples of how these tools were improved over the time. Pro-E vs. SolidWorks. Parametric design tools vs. Direct modeling. On the side of data management (PLM/PDM) and collaboration there is a lot of space for improvements. And, I think, it is always good to push some limits. This is where innovation comes. I’d be glad to discuss more specific examples if you are interested. Feel free to push these examples here… Thank you for your contribution and welcome to plmtwine! Best, Oleg.

  • Roland Scaleri

    Yeah, sure. SolidWorks is a great example. The interface is so fragmented that a new user is easily confused. New interface options have been added because they’re cool, not because they are more efficient. Also, you can’t explain the interface simply to someone. It’s not obvious. SolidWorks is part of DS. So are you going to gut the SW interface and functionality?

    On the other hand, the SolidWorks product PDMWorks is pretty simple, with a minimal interface. Specifically, what would you do to improve it? Can you say something specific without resorting to acronyms?

  • The UI for most PLM systems (most enterprise systems) includes information that any given company will never use, let alone one particular user. Also, a user may use the same “screen” to execute different portions of tasks. Here is where I agree with Oleg that SOA will be a big help. I am a strong believer in composite applications. A composite application can have its own (potentially very simple) user interface that fits a particular use. Then, it uses web services (or other interface protocols) to execute the underlying business objects. For example, if I need to update one field on each of 4 screens, a very small composite UI could put all of those fields on one form and call the business logic for each update (including validation, etc. so we don’t bypass system integrity) to make all 4 changes. And if in a different scenario I need to make 5 updates on two screens of those screens, I could have a single screen that does both. In short, a business process gets turned into a little application (complete with UI) that drives the application for me. So perhaps the best new UI for a PLM system is just making sure that I can access the functionality I need, when I need it, in a way that fits my task at hand. By the way, the UI could be replying to an e-mail, filling out information in an Adobe document, or some other non-traditional form. This is not “customization” in the form that alters the PLM application, but does require code (for most composite apps these days).

    The best example that I can provide right now is in the social media world. I participate in multiple social networks, and some of my updates I want to enter on multiple ones. To me, it is one thing and not four separate activities. So I use an web app called (you guessed it, at where I enter it once and updates in multiple places. Even if I am just updating Twitter, I use a different client that fits my needs better (twhirl). I rarely touch the underlying application directly.

    Is PLM ready for composite applications? SOA is the direction that makes this easier, and most of the PLM vendors I know have plans to support this kind of environment. I think it is hard to imagine writing a composite application for 3D modeling to replace the CAD client, but it certainly can (and is) used to call design automation interfaces within CAD systems.

    So vendors should work on their UI – but also be working on making their applications open so manufacturers can access them through their own UI of choice.

  • Jim, thanks for your thoughts! Composite Apps is interesting approach, and it was promoted by many vendors. However, I have never seen this Lego-land-do-what-you-want-user-interface-plumbing-components… did you? With regards to your second example. Actually, I don’t see it as User Experience. I also use and some additional aggregation services. However, these tools facilitate communication between services (i.e. Facebook, Twitter etc.), but NOT user interface components re-use. When you go to twhirl or seesmic you basically replacing twitter UI by something else. If I will try to apply this story to enterprise, it will sound like if SharePoint will be editing Bill of Materials (not sure PLM providers will be happy about such perspective, in comparison to Twitter case:))… I think we have a fundamental problem with User Experience in Enterprise and in PLM, specifically. Best, Oleg.

  • Roland is 110% on target. I agree that many of the applications that have gone through a simplification overhaul have become harder to use. What happens is a core set of features become easier and everything else becomes harder. The other thing is many thing get hidden and if you don’t know the tricks the simplicity is never revealed. SW and Proe are great examples of this. SW is far from easy but when you gain experience and learn all the little secrets you can be very fast. At a recent user group I was amazed that many people in the audience had no idea of many of the little secret UI things that were available. With repect to Proe I would say they have a half completed UI overhaul. When you get into interesting situations many of the age old menus show themselves and on standard stuff the amount of mouse movement you must do is just amazing.

    In the design of Vuuch UI and features development is something we are very focused on. Currently we are working under the model that less is more and just because we can develop it or add it does not mean we should… Our feeling is we will increase the value to the user if we reduce the feature set not increase it. Hope we are right!

  • Oleg,
    Yes, I have seen composite applications in PLM. For example, I was talking to a large manufacturer the other day, and they are pulling together PLM and ERP data in this way for their users to view/update. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about rebuilding an entire composite PLM system with a bit of Agile, a bit of Enovia, some Windchill and a dash of Teamcenter! I am suggesting small, simple, point applications for specific purposes that augment an existing PLM system.

    You may have misread my point about I am not talking about reusing UI. I am talking about using an entirely different UI to call underlying services for an application I want to update.

    Should I be able to use SharePoint to edit my BOM? Absolutely, if that is the easiest place for me to do it. BUT…I should retrieve the information from the PLM system using a tested, sanctioned interface (API, web service, etc.) to make sure I am not misinterpreting the data schema, and I should update it using a sanctioned interface to it calls all of the required validation logic, and then have the application itself update its data (to ensure data integrity, handle locking, provide security, generate the appropriate audit trail, etc.) Will vendors be happy about this? The trick is that the people using SharePoint (or whatever other client) is a user, and should be a licensed user of the underlying software they are calling service for (PLM in this case). I do not advocate people using alternate UIs to bypass paying for their software (although I know this is sometimes done).

  • Roland,

    I think I cannot explain better about CAD apps and specifically about SolidWorks, compared how Chris did it (Chris, thanks about that!)… CAD apps have many successes and failures. Furthermore, I see CAD sector very “religious”. People have long term preference related to education and long term usage of different CAD systems. I was impressed to see how CAD interfaces could improve by direct modeling features introduced by some of the vendors. At the same time, I know many people saying the AutoCAD command line interface was the best one, they ever experienced.

    I’d like to add something related to PDMWorks (and I hope my colleagues that also reading this blog will be able to add some additional comments). PDMWorks inherited file explorer UI concepts. This is, in my view, core for simplicity. My observation is that PDM (and other data management applications) are driven by complexity of data they manage. This is probably wrong approach, since they present overall data complexity to user, and it creates this complex user experience we have in a system. In my view, Microsoft was on the target when merged Office user experience with SAP. I know many people were happy with such approach.

    I hope it clarifies some things related to your questions. Best, Oleg

  • Chris, thanks for your comments re CAD and I’m looking forward to seeing more examples from Vuuch… Oleg.

  • Jim, I think, what you explained is a very hard problem and very typical for enterprises in general. This is combination of UI, APIs, SOA, mashups… and zillions of other technologies, buzzwords and ways to make things work together in enterprise.

  • fashionshare is a hosted PLM solution for the apparel industry with a simple to navigate user interface. it is easy to use and that is what users are looking for. Fashionshare is currently being marketed to the fashion industry from Fashionware Technologies, New York.

  • Paul, Thank you for this information. I didn’t know your product. I will take a look on this. Oleg