AutoCAD 2013 – Autodesk pulls off a miracle with Help

In AutoCAD 2011, Autodesk introduced on-line Help. It was badly done and poorly received. It was slow and generally awful to use, and so obviously inferior to the generally well-crafted old CHM-based system in so many ways, that there were squeals of joy when somebody discovered that one of the AutoCAD-based vertical products hadn’t been updated to the new regime and still provided a CHM file. That file became hot property, being posted by users on Autodesk’s own discussion groups and other places. Eventually, the outcry was loud enough that Autodesk was forced to make the CHM version of Help available for download. Those of us who actually use the documentation from time to time (or support people who do) breathed a sigh of relief and got on with our work, grateful that Autodesk had seen the error of its ways. But had it, really?

No. In AutoCAD 2012, Help was not only online, but integrated with AutoCAD Exchange in Autodesk’s dodgy version of a pseudo-browser. How good is Autodesk at writing browsers? About as good as you’d expect, sadly. No AutoCAD 2012 CHM was provided with the product at launch time, or even later as a download.

So how well did this new and improved attempt at on-line Help go down with the punters? In my poll on the worst AutoCAD features of all time, Help (on line / 2012) came in third, which gives you some idea. Third worst of all time! That’s a really, really bad place to be. There’s only one place to go from there, surely?

With AutoCAD 2013, Autodesk has wrought a miracle, taking this terrible failure of a system and completely revamping it. Somehow, incredibly, impossibly, Autodesk has managed to make it even worse. Not slightly worse, either. Much worse. AutoCAD Help has been plucked from the depths of mediocrity and plunged deeper still, to a dark place where the pressure of awfulness is so great that spontaneous implosion is a real risk.

Enough rhetoric, what’s actually wrong with it?

  1. It’s online by default. That means it’s slow and can’t possibly be 100% reliable. This is an example of Autodesk pushing its ‘vision’ at the expense of the practical needs of its customers. Nothing new there, then.
  2. Like many of Autodesk software’s attempts to access the Internet, it has been written poorly, such that it attempts to access IPs directly instead of using calls that will work correctly through a proxy server with firewall. As a result, it fails completely in some secure corporate environments. Mine, for example.
  3. Never mind, let’s just go and tell it to use the offline version instead. Turn off the Options > System > Help and Welcome Screen > Access online content when available toggle, hit F1 and see what happens. This does:
    What? You mean it’s not already installed? I have to download and install it separately myself? To be fair, during installation, you are kind of warned about this with a little information glyph. Hover over it and you will see this:OK, for an individual user that’s a drag, but for a CAD Manager with a large number of computers to set up, that’s way beyond inconvenient. Not to mention a user that’s in a location where online access is expensive, intermittent and/or absent. It would not have been at all hard to include offline Help in a 2013 install, and the fact that a deliberate decision was made to not do so smacks of arrogance. Assuming this worked properly, this situation would reflect pretty badly on Autodesk. But it’s worse than that; read on.
  4. Once the offline Help has been downloaded and installed, let’s try hitting F1 again.  This is what I saw:A little investigative work proved that the Help files were not located in the C:\Program Files\Autodesk\AutoCAD 2013\Help location, but rather in C:\Program Files\Autodesk\AutoCAD 2013 Help\English\Help. That’s right, Autodesk requires you to perform two installations, one of which apparently places files in a different location from that in which the other will go looking. Luckily, instead of going round moving files or changing settings, I just restarted AutoCAD and the problem went away. It’s quite possible I would never have seen the problem if I had done the second installation while AutoCAD wasn’t running, but it’s quite likely that many users will download and install in exactly that situation. The result is confusion, the impression given is amateurish.
  5. When you finally do get to get something other than error messages, this is it:Where’s the User Guide? Command Reference? Customization Guide? Gone. There’s no structure to it. It’s basically just a huge mass of web pages you’re expected to search through. There is no index, no contents, no list of commands, nothing. You want to find Help on something, you go search for it. Not sure exactly what the name is of the feature or command you’re searching for? Bad luck.
  6. You know what Autodesk’s search mechanisms are like, right? Yes, this one sucks too. Beginner? Want to draw a line? In AutoCAD 2010, in the Index tab, start typing LINE and the item appears at the top of the list. Double-click it and you’re there. In AutoCAD 2013, enter LINE in the search box, pick the button and this is what you see:

    So where’s the LINE command? It’s not even on the first page of results. You need to scroll down to find it. No, I’m not kidding. To add insult to injury, unlike every other Windows scroll bar I’ve seen, the one in the search results panel doesn’t page down when you click under the button, it just scrolls a single line at a time. It was probably pretty hard to program it to do that.
  7. Once you’ve got to a page and you want to get around a bit, usability is poor. By default, the search item is highlighted so the title of the LINE page, for example, will display as white on a yellow background. Very readable. There is a general lack of controls, and navigation is awkward and slow. Without a hierarchical structure and no breadcrumb feature, it’s difficult to get an idea where you are and what subjects might also be useful to look at. The tabs that we had in 2010 are gone. There are links to related references and concepts, but they’re at the bottom of each page. If you can see that the page you’re in is not useful to you, you have a bunch of scrolling to before you get to those links. The back and forward buttons on my mouse don’t work here, although they work fine everywhere else.

I could go on and on with the faults, but this post is already a monster so I’ll stop there. It’s difficult to think of ways in which this could have been done worse, but I’m sure Autodesk is working on it for 2014. Seriously, this is just embarrassing.

Autodesk, it’s not as if your software is cheap or sells in tiny quantities. You’re not short of the resources you need to do a good job, yet your AutoCAD Help system is so ridiculously inferior to that of numerous freeware and shareware applications that it’s not funny. What on earth were you thinking when you spewed out this rubbish? Did you think we wouldn’t notice?

You obviously want to convince your customer base that you’re all on-line trendy and capable of providing great Internet-based solutions that will have people flocking to use your Cloud stuff. OK, start by getting your finger out and making this stuff work. After three releases, you can’t do an acceptable job at something so seemingly tailor-made for online use as a bunch of text, images and video (which pretty much describes the World Wide Web). What kind of job can you be trusted to do with something much more difficult, such as CAD on the Cloud?

26 comments to AutoCAD 2013 – Autodesk pulls off a miracle with Help

  • I totaly agree with you Steve. This is a shame! Autodesk is capable to do nice and useful, and long awaited things like the languages packs for AutoCAD 2013 and catastrophic things like the help system. The worst thing for me is we don’t even understand where they want to go with all this?

  • Patrice BRAUD

    Hello
    +1 It’s incredible !
    AutoCAD 2013, this number reminds me the worst AutoCAD delivered to end users : AutoCAD R13 (1995)
    I hope 2013 will be OK …
    Best regards
    PS: I belong to the “Pat” gang : very old french users of AutoCAD

  • John

    I agree with you 100%. I provided feedback on these issues when I was beta-testing AutoCAD, but sure nothing has been done. Especially the Command and System variable reference is so missing.

  • I like the way you glossed over the true awfulness of the 2013 help crap. Un-Help. Wonder if this level of stupid is the result of those odd rounds of layoffs in the past. Didn’t a single human hit F1 during pre/alpha/beta sessions?

    Hmmm, an enterprising individual could block out a few weeks to re-name, edit, repair, re-link and properly index the nearly fourteen thousand files (300MB) into a functional 140MB (compiled CHM) 2013 help system. Sell them to a few million upgraders for a couple of dollars each… Provide a smooth redefine of the “[&Help\tF1]‘_help” command, add in languages and support for the verticals and you’d suddenly have a real business. I’d bet that Autodesk would sic the MPAA jerks on that hidden anonymous company really fast. Hmmm…

    Yes, I already did a quickie CHM compile of the as delivered 2013 junk. Plenty of failures, can’t finds, and general just can’ts – but in truth it didn’t function any worse than the browser-based version.

    • job=null

      Ferb: “Un-Help. Wonder if this level of stupid is the result of those odd rounds of layoffs in the past.”

      Phineas: Yes. Yes it is.

  • Albert Kalman

    I don’t expect to do a good help for a new version, look to “the worst features ever added to AutoCAD” pools, it’s say everything.
    The Autodesk unfortunately want to become a supplier for a “large consumers”. We have luck to save old help and we use it, for the new “feature” maybe we will not use to soon. I don’t understand for what we pay subscriptions?
    What would be very interesting to see if this version would be stable. In the history of AutoCAD all odd version AutoCAD was worst, therefore personally I still use 2008,2010,2012 and maybe I will try from time to time 2013.

  • Chris Wade

    This help system is so bad, that I think the poster a couple of posts ago is onto something, although I don’t know that compiling what is already there would work very well, as it is poorly written anyway.

    I think the better option would be to decompile an older .CHM file, then add the new features since that release into it and compile it.

    As for if anyone tried using help during the Beta sessions, I am sure they did, but looking at the features, it seems that AutoDesk wants to push everything to the cloud. I am not sure why, other than because their TOS states that if you upload something to the cloud they can do whatever they want with it (including selling it to your competitors) and you have no recourse against them or anyone that they sell it to.

  • S Lafleur

    I’ve never understood why Autodesk’s help was so…unhelpful. Now it’s gotten so much worse, and really, why? This is a supposedly very high-tech company, and I can search on some fairly low-tech software & websites and get, if not an auto-corrected response, at least…something. With AutoCAD, it’s never been all that great, but it’s inexcusably gotten so much worse. The last few versions it seems like you already need to know the answer in order to ask the question well enough to find what you need. I mean, seriously, if Google can search the whole web universe, a nearly infinite trove of information, and find the exact thing I’m looking for even if I typed it really wrong, I would expect Autodesk to create a good search engine for the finite amount of info associated with their own software.

  • ralphg

    My pet peeve with the new help system is that I cannot press Enter after entering a term in the search field. I have to click the search icon. After that, well, the results are impossible, as you note.

    TIP: when you find a command reference you think you might access again, add it to Favorites.

  • ralphg

    BTW, Autodesk’s explanation for increasingly leaving out items from the install is: “the download file is getting too large, so we need to leave stuff out.” AutoCAD is only a 2GB (or so) download. Adobe has much more manly downloads, like CS5, which is about 14GB.

    • While it’s a good idea to keep download sizes small, as an explanation for leaving Help out of the product it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

      The AutoCAD 2013 32-bit download is 0.98 GB. The offline Help download is 0.23 GB, so the combined size would still be less than a tenth of your CS5 download. The extra download time for Help would be less than 4 minutes on my very normal home ADSL2 connection, as long as I keep Akamai out of the equation. I only need to download AutoCAD once, but I will need to install it dozens of times. The amount of wasted time and inconvenience caused by me having to perform two installs every single time makes that 4 minutes look very cheap indeed.

      Autodesk could, if it were serious about reducing the download size, offer both with-and-without-Help versions for people to choose from. Alternatively, it could offer an AutoCAD download without Inventor Fusion, which expands to 0.6 GB, more than double the size of the expanded offline Help.

      No, it’s not about download size. It’s about ‘vision’.

  • Dave Ault

    I watch Dassault and now Autodesk with this cloud stuff and watch resultant user complaints. Both of them are presenting two visions as far as I can see. The one of pretenders to cutting edge tech and the second of failure to provide what was promised to users. I can only conclude that when a company decides to really pursue the cloud users are forgotten.

  • Private John

    I totaly agree too,for the mean i try to open this path file:///C:/Program%20Files/Autodesk/AutoCAD%202013%20Help/English/Help/index.html and i make shortcut to my desktop

  • Tim Corey

    I agree with y’all, I dislike the 2013 help. Being forced to Search for everything takes away the ability to browse. I sure hope this gets fixed.

    I think I am in the minority regarding online help. Online or offline doesn’t matter to me. I am always connected to the internet when using AutoCAD, so it’s a non-issue.

    I did download the offline help hoping it would have a table of contents, but, alas, I was disappointed. I continue to go online and use the 2011 help.

    • Chris Cowgill

      Tim, have you compared the speed of online help vs offline help, there is quite a large, noticeably difference in speed

  • Clint Newton

    This is not an Autodesk only problem; it is a consumer VS Goliath problem. The giant corporations have no public face or personal responsibility. I miss the good old days when you could march into the local utility office, grab the ditz behind the desk by the neck and wring out some satisfaction. (Not really, but the point is there was a person who had responsibility and AUTHORITY to make changes.)

    If a single user has an issue, it is no big deal to Giant Autodesk. There are a few million more out there that will do as they are told. If we band together in larger numbers, Autodesk might hear a bit of a buzz and perfunctorily wave its hand as if to shoo away a mosquito. How loud must we get before they do something effective? I have been complaining about the help system to Autodesk,for years. It has gotten progressively worse. I had hoped that the move to a cloud system would aggregate collaboration and make improvements instantaneous similar to Wikipedia. But is more like they took that seed and put it in a bucket of dirt, put it in a closet, closed the door, and said “there now, that should grow well enough”. I thought the Help in 2012 was the worse I had ever seen, I dread having to launch 2013.

    Honestly, I get more help from usergroups and blogs like this than Autodesk could ever provide. Even Google alone is better.

    • >> How loud must we get before they do something effective?

      If the sound is in the form of fewer upgrades, dropped subscriptions, etc., it will speak volumes.
      But only a very tiny percentage of users are willing to do that. Such a small number, that it doesn’t make a sound.

  • Adam

    Brilliant. The first install I did I noticed the “help missing” icon and downloaded the install file hoping for a CHM instead of some rubbish online thing. Instead I got a massive download and a poor help. Great. AutoDesk fails to listen to its customers again.

    Note that its taken Autodesk 30 years to implement some form of predictive typing on the command line, so don’t hold your breath for a decent help….

    @Clint 2013 starts up about a lot slower than 2011…

  • TYSONTHEPUP

    Search help for: LINE (IN CAPS)
    SELECT AND , MATCH CASE , Find whole words only
    RESULTS WILL BE MUCH MORE SATISFACTORY

  • Levent

    I think Autodesk is becoming dumber and dumber every year.
    I’ve never had an Autodesk product to install without a problem since 2007. Starting from Autocad 2008 they managed to ruin the concept of automated installer. Now I’m trying to install 2013 for 4 hours without success. I have tried all system settings, edited the setup.ini files directx dotnet bla bla bla. I am sick of Autodesk and the forums are filled with unresponsive entries.

    Back in time Autodesk was the top company now there are lots of them which are better just because they are better at their jobs. If I had to change to learn another program my last choice would be Autodesk’s.

  • fajar

    Damn not only CAD that they messing arround, it seem 3dsmax really bad looking too, not only help, its stability , the workflow….damn they totally destroy it all…..dont know what to call max right now…its too embarasing…i’ve been on max and scream on autodesk forum, blog release…but its look like autodesk is kind of “not hearing it”.im still using max 9 which is most stable from all release after it.

    Damn autodesk messing arround.Embarasment.

  • Kate

    AutoCAD 2013 Help is the worst Help ever. I wouldn’t call it Help, it’s a baunch of html articles to search through. It’s not convenient for studing nor for reference, offline Help is not Off program, you should run 2.5 GB program just to read a Help article (if happy enough to find it).

    How can a product which costs thousands of dollars not provide a command reference not user’s reference document? That’s ridiculous, it’s a humiliation of the customers who pay for the product.

    And what next, maybe Google-search based Help?

    :(

  • UDI

    @ Kate.
    Googling any question gives much better answers anyway. Of the whole top-right section of the screen, only the x serves any purpose: To get windows-relief from frozen Autocad. Forget the whole help section and search directly on www.
    The distance from top of the search list for most Autodesk-sites says a lot…

  • John

    Hi Guys;

    Yup, its crap!
    The help in 2002, which I was using before upgrading to 2012, was much better. At least you could find stuff.
    Ok, in 2013, to even get the stupid thing to search, I had to change the help location to search.html from index.html as if I use index.html, nothing works. I click search and nothing happens, if I go to search.html at least it searches. What sort if BIZZARE algorithm Autodesk is using to produce a search result list that complete pointless drivel is beyond me.

    The help is so bad one has to assume that they went out of their way to do this. No one could screw it up this badly by mistake, its not possible.

    I’ll use google.

    Sigh…

    John

  • zil1971

    I agree with this blog. Our company did not allowed us to go online, how can we get help on acad 2013 don’t have even a chance to download offline help. tsk!tsk!tsk. what a brilliant idea from autodesk.

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