Customer service – filling a hole

Two weekends ago, I bought a cheap plastic outdoor table and chair set from Clark Rubber. It came complete with an umbrella hole for which I have no need, but I didn’t particularly mind. I was just pleased to find something that was made locally rather than in China.

A week later, I decided to buy another set just like it. When I got the new one home, I noticed it came with a blank to fill in the umbrella hole. It is likely that the first blank went missing when they removed the table from its box, at my request, so it would fit in my car. I thought it would be nice to have the tables completely matching, so I rang the store, explained the situation and asked if they had a spare blank. The manager took my number and said he would have a look and get back to me. Ten minutes later, he rang to say they had been unable to find a spare blank in stock, but that he had taken one from his display table and I could have that. A quarter of an hour later, I had it in my hand.

Take a bow, Clark Rubber in Cannington. You displayed several important traits of excellent customer service.

  • Making yourself available to listen to the customer’s wishes.
  • Understanding those wishes.
  • Acting on those wishes.
  • Responding promptly.
  • Putting the customer’s needs above your own.
  • Showing flexibility in dealing with an issue that fell outside the usual set of circumstances.

It’s only a little piece of plastic, but it reveals a lot. Every time I look at my perfectly matching set of tables, I will remember Clark Rubber, and I will remember it in association with great customer service. I will undoubtedly be back for more products in the future. If only all companies were like that, life would be a lot more pleasant for everybody.

The Autodesk discussion groups are awful

Yes, the Autodesk discussion groups are still awful. In other breaking news, the Pacific Ocean continues to be wet.

I seldom visit them any more, but I just hopped on to the Autodesk discussion groups to see what progress had been made in fixing the many problems that have been pointed out here, on the groups themselves, in official problem reports, and elsewhere. Little or none, it seems.

Search? There are still apparently only 188 uses of the word “autocad” in the tens of thousands of posts in the AutoCAD groups, ever. Editor? It not only still vacuums, when I just tried it out it vacuumed even harder than before, with delays of over a minute when switching between tabs and nasty screen formatting issues when the switch eventually occurred. Attachments that can’t be viewed? Check. Visible email addresses? Yup, still there. Everything I looked at was just as bad as it was last time I looked. Maybe something has been improved somewhere, but I gave up looking.

I know there’s an Autodesk cultural tendency to pretend problems don’t exist for the sake of saving face, but that just doesn’t cut it here. (Actually, it doesn’t cut it anywhere, but that’s another story). What kind of face does this debacle present to the world? What does it make Autodesk look like?

  • A company that doesn’t understand the Internet.
  • A company that doesn’t know how to write software that works.
  • A company that fails to seek user feedback on changes until it is too late.
  • A company that can’t fix things that are broken.
  • A company that doesn’t care about its customers’ privacy.
  • A company that refuses to listen to customers who point out problems.

Now I happen to know that this is not a fair and accurate representation of everyone and everything at Autodesk. Nothing like it. Nevertheless, that is the face that is being presented by this utter disaster of an “upgrade” and the failure to fix or even acknowledge the problems introduced by it. The people at Autodesk who really do care about the customer (yes, there are many such people) must be sickened when this sort of thing happens, particularly when it happens in such a public way. It reflects badly on everybody in the company, even the majority who are well-meaning and innocent of customer-harming activities.

It is now over a month since the old (and perfectly functional) discussion groups were killed. It does not appear to be possible to make the new ones work adequately. Autodesk, please bite the bullet and end this failed experiment now.

Why I won’t buy another Canon all-in-one printer

Last year, I bought a Canon MP830 printer/scanner/copier/fax/tea maker/whatever for my home office. I chose this particular device because it had all the features I was after, including CD printing, duplex printing, printing to the edge of the sheet, decent photo printing quality, and great document handling including automatic dual-sided copying. It also had theoretical high speed operation and ink economy with 5 separate tanks. It also looked like a sturdy piece of kit that wasn’t going to wobble all over the place in use, and which might stand a chance of lasting a long time. It was at the upper end of the Canon range, but even then it wasn’t expensive.

I was a little worried that when one part of it eventually failed, I would be stuck with a partially functional device, such as a scanner/fax that wouldn’t print, or a printer that wouldn’t scan, and be left with the dilemma of replacing all of it or part of it. But I had good experiences with long-lived printers in the past (albeit Hewlett-Packard ones), so I figured that if I had to throw it away in five years’ time I could live with that.

In practical use, most of the device’s features turned out to be as advertised, and while it was working I was generally happy with it. But I won’t be buying another one, and it’s unlikely that I will ever buy another Canon printer of any description. Why not?

  • Performance. This simply isn’t up to scratch. While it may theoretically print a 500-page document at 30 pages per minute, printing a single page is a different matter. Although it can look spectacularly quick in action, it takes one full minute from turn-on to get itself ready to do anything at all, then about 10 seconds to print a simple monochrome page in draft. There are also long delays when the device is switching from one kind of use to another. The lengthy period of whirs and clunks indicates that it’s doing something very important internally, but I have no idea what. I don’t care. For my typical use, it’s just too slow.
  • Economy. The ink savings promised by the 5-tank system are illusory. This thing eats ink at a rapid rate, so I’m finding that the costs of running this printer are significantly greater than my previous Hewlett-Packard. Having to maintain at least one spare (preferably more, because they don’t last long) of each tank is inconvenient and means there is always an expensive set of tanks lying around waiting to be thrown or given away when the device finally dies. Which, given my experience to date, could be any day now.
  • Reliability. It doesn’t have this. It had to be returned for warranty repairs in its first year, as it complained about its ink tanks. This resulted in the print head being replaced. Out of warranty, it started doing the same thing again. This was sometimes fixable by various means, such as removing and replacing the tanks, switching the device on and off, removing and replacing the print head, cleaning the contacts, prematurely replacing unfinished ink tanks with new ones, and so on. This would sometimes fix the problem on the first or second attempt, but this level of cooperation didn’t last for ever and the condition gradually worsened until the device was officially dead. I took it in for repair but apparently a new print head (which costs 30% as much as the printer) was not required this time. It has been fixed, for now, by replacing one of the half-full tanks with a new one. Apparently, genuine Canon tanks, which are the only thing it has ever had in it, are prone to bad batches, and I’ve been unlucky. The little chip on each tank, which is intended to make life difficult for makers of third-party tanks, has been making my life difficult instead.
  • Idiotic design. This is the killer. You may recall my concern that I would be left with a partially functioning device when one part failed. I need not have worried about that, because it seems the Canon design philosophy is one of extreme built-in obsolescence. When one part fails, even if it’s just an ink tank, the whole machine is a boat anchor. When the magenta ink tank is faulty, that doesn’t mean your prints come out looking rather less pink than they should. It doesn’t mean that you are restricted to monochrome prints. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do any printing at all. It means that the device is completely, absolutely, 100% useless. You may think that it should be possible to print in monochrome, scan a page, or send a fax without a cooperative magenta ink tank, but the Canon designers apparently think otherwise. What on earth were they thinking? I mean, how could anybody possibly think this is an appropriate design decision? Strewth!

Canon, this device is not good enough. I know that one person’s reliability experiences are not statistically significant, but even without that, the other downsides are enough to make me not want to repeat this unpleasant buying experience.

I have had very long life, 100% reliability and relative economy out of Hewlett-Packard devices in the past, so it looks like I’ll be returning to the fold with my next purchase. I know that HP doesn’t quite have the exalted quality reputation it once enjoyed, but it surely can’t be as bad as this. Can it?

What is a reasonable amount of time to wait for license codes?

Software companies use a variety of differerent methods in their attempts to prevent piracy and restrict use of their software to legitimate paying customers. Yes, these attempts are generally futile. Yes, they can end up inconveniencing legitimate users and providing pirate users with advantages over paying customers. Yes, they add to development costs and detract from the main development aims. Despite all that, I still support the right of software companies to do this. Lots of companies spend money doing futile, counter-productive things; it’s their money, their software, their customer base, their choice.

That doesn’t mean we customers have to like it, and many of us don’t. Some of us happily accept it as part of the price of using our tools, some of us tolerate it with varying degrees of grace, and some of us fume about it but do it anyway because we have no choice. Beyond that point, there are those who won’t put up with it at all, and who find various ways around it.

Where a given user fits within that spectrum of views depends partly on that person’s personality, but also on the amount of inconvenience that the software throws up. I’ve started a new poll because I’m interested to discover what level of inconvenience people are prepared to put up with. What is a reasonable level of tolerance?

The poll question refers to a scenario where you have the need to use a piece of software, and before you can do so, you need to obtain codes. The question is not specific to AutoCAD or Autodesk, it applies to any software that needs magic numbers before it will work. Software often allows grace periods before a code is needed, but there are also circumstances where such grace does not apply, so for the sake of this poll please assume that you need the codes before you can get on with your job. How long would you be content to wait for the codes and still remain a satisfied customer?

My site survey experience

I just tried out the new discussion groups to see if anything has been fixed. After entering my password (yet again), instead of placing me back in the discussion groups with my 100-topics-per-page settings, I was transported to the main Autodesk page and given the chance to provide feedback. I was informed that a new browser window would be opened, and then… nothing. I waited a while, but still nothing. Or so it seemed. Actually, the new browser window appeared behind my existing browser window, so I found it eventually. I clicked on it, it opened another, bigger window and the survey started. Here are the questions and my responses:

Which of the following best describes your primary purpose for today’s visit?
. Other
To see if the discussion groups are still broken

How often have you visited in the past 6 months?
. 6 times or more

A question about my industry group that didn’t want to copy and paste…
. Other
Question is not relevant

Do you currently own an Autodesk product?
. Yes

Are you planning to make a purchase decision related to an Autodesk product?
(I don’t know what choice to make here, none of them really fit. I’m on Subscription but that doesn’t mean I’m not involved in purchasing decisions; I am. I don’t know when the next purchasing decision will be, though. I picked:)
. No.

Which of the following titles best describes your role in your company?
. IT Manager

From which region are you accessing this site?
(Can’t you tell?)
. Australia / New Zealand / South Pacific

How would you rate your overall experience with today?
. Very bad
(Actually, I don’t really know because because I haven’t yet got to the discussion groups I asked for, so I’m taking a wild guess based on recent experiences. I later checked the discussion groups and found that this was an accurate guess.)

Based on your best online experience, how would you rate as a site that…

(Now, notice that is’s asking about my best online experience. I assume that would be best ever? Going back years, right? Before the recent update, then? OK, I’ll answer fairly based on that assumption.)

…is a reliable source of information that you trust?
9 Very Good

…leaves you feeling that your time was well spent?
8 Very Good

…helps you make well-informed decisions?
9 Very Good

…is easy for you to navigate?
5 Fair

…allows you to move rapidly to the information you need?
6 Good

…enables you to find what you’re looking for?
7 Good

…encourages you to return?
7 Good

…meets or exceeds your expectations?
6 Good

…you would refer to others?
7 Good

…has content that is relevant to the purpose of your visit?
6 Good

…gives you the amount of detail you need?
6 Good

…covers the range of information you need?
7 Good

…enables you to identify and contact the right people?
0 Very bad

…provides a positive interactive experience?
8 Very Good

…enables you to help yourself?
7 Very Good

That’s the end of that section, the progress bar is half-way though, so I go to the next section, which I assume is going to ask the same questions based on my worst experience. Oops, no it’s not! The survey is over! Thanks for playing.

Now you know. So, if in a few weeks somebody from Autodesk refers to “survey results” that supposedly show how well the recent update went down with users, point them at this post. I gave high marks for some of my responses, but I wasn’t being asked about my experiences after the recent update. I was being asked about my best experiences, which is altogether different.

This sort of thing is why I never take survey results from anyone at face value. I always insist on seeing the full details, otherwise I will give such results no credit at all. No details, no point.

50 years of LISP

It is difficult to find an exact date for LISP’s birthday. It wasn’t so much born in an instant as it was gradually dragged out of the primordial slime during the heady days of late 50s computer research. What is known is that John McCarthy, LISP’s “father”, published a report in October 1958 about his new programming language aimed at providing artificial intelligence capabilities on the IBM 704 mainframe computer. That report, one of a series, was the first one to use the name LISP.

OOPSLA, a major annual conference on object-oriented programming, has decided to celebrate LISP’s 50th birthday on 20 October 2008. Practically everyone at that event is likely to be smarter, geekier and possibly even more pedantic than me. So for now I’m going to go with that date and raise a glass to LISP and John McCarthy in one week’s time.

John Walker’s almost-accidental but still inspired decision to add LISP to AutoCAD was, in my opinion, the most significant feature addition in AutoCAD’s history. There were many other feature additions without which AutoCAD would be a joke (e.g. blocks, undo/redo, dimensioning, polylines) but they were always going to happen anyway.

Adding LISP wasn’t like that. It wasn’t inevitable. It was an excellent example of Walker thinking outside the box, and it was the one thing that raised AutoCAD significantly above its competitors (yes, it had serious competitors once) at a time when the PC CAD market was still up for grabs.

The genius of this move was that instead of attempting to fill AutoCAD’s many feature holes, Autodesk could provide the tools that would let the users do that for themselves. The language was an ideal fit for a number of reasons, and users in droves started hole-filling with a vengeance. Without that boost to AutoCAD’s open architecture, the PC CAD market would have been a very different place. Autodesk itself may not even have survived into the 1990s, and I could have been writing this blog about Versacad, Computervision, or some other competitor.

Today, despite an unfortunate history of long periods of neglect from Autodesk, LISP remains the language of choice for most of my AutoCAD-related programming needs. There are exceptions, but I’ll usually first see if a given job can be done in LISP. If it can’t be done easily and well in LISP, then I will consider using one of the other available languages. For the sort of work I usually do, that doesn’t happen very often.

Why? I’ll explain my reasoning in a later post.

How complete are most new AutoCAD features?

You may have noticed the poll on the right asking “How well cooked is the average major new AutoCAD feature these days?” Despite the rather frivolous nature of the question and choices, there is a serious side to the question so please let me know what you think.

Note that this doesn’t address the question of how well cooked new features should be, just how well cooked they are. There’s an argument that can be made in support of releasing features before they are honed to perfection, and I will be covering that issue in later posts.

Slight improvement in discussion group search

While almost all of the problems with the Autodesk discussion groups remain, there are some signs of movement in one area at least. The search facility, which until recently refused to find anything from before the update, now finds some earlier posts.

It would appear that some kind of search index is very slowly being built, but it’s a long way short of being finished. For example, if I do the standard default search for “autocad” in all the AutoCAD groups, there are 83 found in the last 90 days. This seems plausible, but I don’t trust it. Changing the time option to “All” now does actually return something rather than nothing at all, so I guess that’s an improvement. But 188 messages containing “autocad”? Since 1998? There should surely be thousands. Also, there are apparently no messages at all containing the word “it”. Or “is”. Ever. Some way to go there, then.

If the people fixing the search happen to be reading this, please note that a maximum possible number of 30 results per page is much too low and makes it very hard to work with the search results. 100 would be better.

There are still email addresses being exposed to the spam trawlers, but I guess by now that horse has well and truly bolted. Although I haven’t done a scientific study of post frequency, it looks to me as if the discussion groups are now significantly less active than they were before the update. Given the slightly functional search, the persistence of the awful editor, and the terrible runeverythingintooneline formatting of the existing message database (particularly important for the many posts containing code), I can’t say I’m surprised at the exodus.

AutoCAD performance and productivity

I have closed the performance and productivity polls as described in my posts here and here, and the results can be seen in the Polls Archive. As with most of the other polls I’ve run here, the distribution of votes has not changed greatly after the first few days.

It is clear from the very different voting patterns in the two polls that blog nauseam readers are smart enough understand the difference between the two questions. The performance poll has a very clear skew to the “slower” side. This supports the empirical evidence I’ve seen elsewhere that people perceive AutoCAD as getting slower. This is stuff they’ve noticed for themselves, not a few milliseconds here and there.

On the other hand, the productivity poll results show a much more even distribution. The five options are pretty equally represented, except that “a lot more productive” has suffered at the hands of the most popular choice, “a bit more productive”. If you calculate the mean result, it is almost bang in the middle. It’s actually slightly worse than that, but by such a very small margin that it is not statistically significant.

Overall, we can say that the average viewpoint expressed here is that people clearly see AutoCAD as getting slower, but that its productivity has stayed about the same. So, does this let Autodesk off the performance hook? If a slowing AutoCAD is balanced by productivity-enhancing features, does performance matter? In my opinion, the answers to those questions are no and yes respectively.

It’s not a safe assumption that productivity features are balancing speed issues for everybody across the board. A new feature may help some users’ productivity, maybe even a majority of users, but it won’t help everybody. Some new features even harm some people’s productivity, which is one more reason for being grateful that Autodesk generally lets us turn them off (although it has been forgetful about that in some cases in recent years). Performance is one of the many things that impact productivity, but unlike most new features, is something that impacts the productivity of everybody. Even a first-time user has to sit around waiting for AutoCAD to start up, while a fast power user will be rendered less productive, and certainly more frustrated, by relatively small hesitations.

Furthermore, if AutoCAD is about as productive as it was a few releases back, is that good enough? Or should Autodesk be providing noticeably more productivity in return for our Subscription or upgrade payments? If not, why do we continue to hand over our hard-earned dollars? Why do we go through the upgrade process at all, with all its attendant costs, struggles and inconveniences?

Autodesk, please put much more effort into halting and reversing AutoCAD’s performance slide. It doesn’t have to be a competition between performance and productivity. Improve the former and the latter will also improve.

The John Walker interview, and other observations

I have been thoroughly enjoying Kean Walmsley’s interview of Autodesk co-founder John Walker, which he has now finished. Kean’s link to part 4 is currently broken (edit: now fixed) and that broken link has been picked up by others (edit: also fixed in Between The Lines), so here are the correct links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

One of the best things about the interview is that it contains some frank criticism of Autodesk (and Microsoft, for that matter). On an Autodesk blog. Think about that. OK, it may be criticism of some stuff that is now ancient history, and it was made by someone who isn’t actually an Autodesk employee any more, but when was the last time you saw even that? It’s refreshing to see just a tiny crack appear in the never-say-anything-negative Autodesk facade.

I remember a time when Autodesk people were allowed to speak reasonably freely in public, often did so, and were even known to make admissions that not everything always smells of roses. John’s fellow Autodesk founder Duff Kurland once wrote this wonderful, wonderful response to a question of mine on the CompuServe ACAD forum (it was about Autodesk removing Visual Basic support without warning, if you’re curious):

We screwed up. We screwed up twice.

He then went on to explain the detail of how and why Autodesk had screwed up and exactly what they had learned from the experience. Can you imagine any Autodesk person saying that now? If they did, can you imagine that person remaining an Autodesk employee afterwards in anything other than a sweeping-up capacity? Nor me, and that’s a real shame. It would be easy enough to justify it by saying Autodesk is a public company and has a glossy corporate image to preserve, but nevertheless it’s still a real shame.

Back to John Walker. Although John has been away from the AutoCAD scene for an age now, I’ve still been enjoying his comments for many years in The Autodesk File, which I’ve always said should be compulsory reading for all new Autodesk employees. I haven’t always agreed with John’s views on everything, but they are intelligently presented, sometimes confronting, and often entertaining. Besides, it’s hard for me to argue with somebody who has succeeded in the way he has; he could always say, “Well, I did this. What have you done?”

Here are some of my favourite John Walker quotes (from The Autodesk File):

If we continue, as we have done consistently for the last eight years to measure every proposal against the standard, “How does this benefit the customer?”, I believe the success we’ve experienced to date will be just the base upon which far greater achievements can be built.

…we must never forget our customers. It is the customer, ultimately, that we are working for, and it is the customer who we must always strive to satisfy. All the rest will take care of itself, in the fullness of time.

Around here, I’ve been known to say things like, “I don’t care what you think. What do the customers think?”. That may sound arrogant, but to me it’s just plain old common sense. The evidence that it works is all around us.

Finally, and if you’re trying to lose weight, have a read of John’s The Hacker’s Diet. It’s also common sense and my slowly shrinking gut is evidence that it works.

Here’s a couple I didn’t mention earlier

The Autodesk discussion group editor inserts spaces into URLs longer than a certain size (about 70 characters, it seems). It will insert spaces in one place for the URL that it says is displayed on the screen, in another place for the URL that’s actually invoked when clicked, and sometimes in even more places on the URL that really is displayed on the screen. Sometimes the space appears as a space and sometimes it appears as %20.

The editor will cunningly allow you to apparently fix up these errors in the places they occur, and then the fun-loving little sprite will reintroduce the same or similar errors as soon as you save the changes. Multiple edit attempts will get you nowhere (except a padded cell, perhaps). Somebody must have had a wonderful time writing that one.

Another bug relates to the display of quoted messages. Admittedly, this was always going to be a difficult task to get right in the new environment, because of the many quoting styles that exist in the messagebase. No surprise, then, to discover that quoted text frequently displays in such a way that makes the message author look like a clueless dolt.

In related news, I’ve added a poll that asks what you think of the recent web update. I’m not making my usual attempt to remain neutral and avoid influencing the poll results this time, as it’s a bit late for that. Everybody knows my views by now, but I suspect it wouldn’t make much difference in any case. People are angry enough about this mess without any influence from me. However, it’s always good to see a wide range of views expressed; somebody thinks the update is “Fantastic”.

Discussion group search – partial workaround

The Autodesk discussion group search facility is still impersonating an industrial suction pump in a puddle. It sucks very hard and produces little useful output. In addition to the problems already mentioned ad nauseam (apparently there have never been any posts made containing the word “AutoCAD”, but 34 have been made in the past 90 days), here’s another one I spotted today: picking on Search Tips will give you a 404 error.

However bad the discussion groups are, at least the Subscription site is working (for me anyway, I know there are still people with login ID problems) and my helpful Indian chappie came back to me with a workaround. It’s not a very good workaround, and it only applies to Subscription customers, but I thought I would pass it on anyway:

Log in to the Subscription Center, pick Search in the top right corner, then fill in your search details or pick Advanced Search for more control.

This search method does find messages that date back before the recent web update. However, there are a few problems with it. There’s no way to restrict it to just discussion groups. Even if I restrict it to just “Communities”, it returns results that include various blogs, and to threads that have been moved or deleted. If more than one page of results is found, there’s no way of going directly to a given page, it’s Next > Next > Next > Next > repeatedly. If I try to restrict the search to AutoCAD 2009, for example, it returns nothing. Finally, it’s obviously only any good for Subscription users.

Another workaround is to use Google Advanced Search and set the Search within a site or domain field to However, I know of no way of restricting the search to AutoCAD 2009, for example.

Enough band aids, the Autodesk discussion group search mechanism really needs fixing, along with all the other problems. I’ve already seen suggestions that Autodesk sabotaged its discussion groups on purpose. Personally, I’m generous enough to think that it’s just gross incompetence, but Autodesk’s continued silence and apparent inactivity can only encourage the conspiracy theories. I don’t know how much Autodesk pays for PR each year, but I bet the negative impression from this disaster is worth a lot more than it would have cost to have just done the job properly in the first place.

How not to do a web update

If you’re a major company and your various web-based services have evolved over time, you may have a proliferation of user IDs and some other issues to tidy up. You may be tempted to have a major overhaul.

If you think your reputation among your customers isn’t low enough and you desperately want this update to be an unmitigated disaster, what should you do? If you’re dropping subtle hints about moving towards a Software as a Service model, how can you remind people about the excellent reasons that exist for avoiding dependence on on-line services in general, and on yours in particular? Here are some suggestions:

  • Do everything at once. Don’t be tempted to divide this task into manageable portions, or you may have some prospect of success.
  • Close down everything for several days. If your customers might have to rely on some part of your web services to keep their products working, make sure you close down that part in particular. Let ’em stew.
  • Give the update job to a clumsy intern in your office that has never been allowed near a computer before.
  • Failing that, outsource the job to the lowest bidder. Ideally, have it done in a country that has a first language other than your own, to maximise the potential for misunderstandings.
  • When the user ID merge is done, make sure it is still broken for some people. Have multiple users with the same ID and multiple IDs with the same user. Some people’s existing user IDs will fail, so encourage them to make new ones and then refuse to allow it on the grounds that they already have an ID.
  • Make sure random people’s user IDs work in some places but not others. If they are paying for a maintenance contract, do your best to prevent them from using it.
  • Update your discussion groups to a new format. Of course, you should only do this if your existing groups are fast, efficient and reliable, and nobody is complaining about them. If it ain’t broke, fix it. Fix it real good.
  • If people have actually asked for any new features, such as signatures in their web-based posts, make sure you don’t provide them.
  • Don’t ask for feedback on any suggested changes. Before jumping in with the whole big update, don’t put up a sample discussion group to ensure that it works and that people like it. The slogan “Just Do It” works here, but already belongs to somebody else. Try “Don’t Look Before You Leap” instead.
  • Make sure you expose your customers’ private data to the world so they will never want to trust you again. If you can, make their email addresses visible to the spambots. Leave this visible for at least a week to give the trawlers a chance to do their harvesting, no matter how many impassioned pleas people make. You get bonus points if the exposed email address is also the user’s login ID. Spammers, scammers and phishers will love you, but your customers will not.
  • Make the new discussion group system slow, unreliable, and less efficient to use than before.
  • Ensure the discussion group editor messes up the formatting of people’s posts. Have it insert random junk into the posts and then refuse to let them edit it out. For bonus points, let them edit it out, but then ignore the edits or randomly re-insert new codes.
  • Make sure the search engine doesn’t find anything from before the update. If anybody attempts to change the search settings to find all posts, reward them by making sure it finds nothing at all, not even the recent posts it found a few seconds earlier.
  • If people are likely to post, say, program code, make sure you wrap it all up into one line to render it illegible.
  • If your customers are likely to use certain characters like square brackets in their posts, choose these as special characters in your editor. Mess up people’s posted program code into stuff that looks like a mass of broken links.
  • After a week or so, change your mind about the square brackets thing so that people who used that facility for their links now have posts that make them look like idiots. But don’t completely change your mind about it. Break the display of such links, but still encourage the users to insert them. For bonus points, insert each link at the start of the message rather than where the user expects it to go.
  • Log people off every so often so they have to keep logging on. Provide a “Remember this” feature that doesn’t.
  • If you are silly enough to allow people to keep their old items-per-page settings and you accidentally provide a control panel that works, make up for this by making those old settings unavailable in the control panel. In this way, you will prevent them from using a perfectly functional control panel for fear of losing their settings.
  • People who place attachments in their messages deserve to be frustrated, so you should break that feature for a while. Then allow some files to be attached, but mess up their display and randomly refuse to allow people to get at them.
  • If you think people might want to paste things into their messages, make it as awkward as possible. Copy and paste has universally worked a certain way for decades, so to keep on doing that is just what they will be expecting you to do. Do something new and interesting instead. Force them to go through a slow and arcane multi-stage process to paste the word “and”.
  • Because you don’t have full control over what appears on the screen, it’s much harder to mess up newsreader access, but make sure something makes life intolerable for those people too. Formatting attachments as garbage text is always a useful trick.
  • If you have an excellent educational conference coming up and people have complained about the associated web services in the past, take this opportunity to make them worse.

That’s all I have, sorry. My imagination must be failing, because I can’t think of any other ways a company could mess up such an update. Does anybody else have any other suggestions?

Autodesk on-line survey

As posted on Between the Lines, there is an Autodesk survey you may wish to complete in an attempt to have some kind of influence over AutoCAD’s future direction. Among other things, you will be asked specific questions about these issues:

  • Interoperability
  • Batch Processing in AutoCAD
  • Custom Linetype Creator
  • Custom Hatch Creator
  • Transparent Fills

You will also be asked to rank 10 possible future features:

  • Batch process drawings in AutoCAD
  • Draw order by layer
  • Enhanced visual styles
  • Visual compare two drawings
  • 3D Dynamic Blocks
  • Transparent hatch fills
  • Convert PDF to DWG
  • 3D enhancements
  • Hatch Pattern Generator
  • Linetype Creator

Without knowing more details, it’s hard to make a rational choice. For example, does “Enhanced visual styles” mean that AutoCAD 2007’s nearly-done 3D display overhaul will be finished off, allowing the correct display and plotting of simple conventional mechanical engineering views with hidden lines? Because that would make it important and worth me pushing it up the list. Or does it mean something more glossy but much less useful, which from my point of view would push it near the bottom? Who knows?

Never mind, I encourage you to have a go anyway. All you can do is your best based on the available information and hope it isn’t misinterpreted based on faulty assumptions. There’s a box near the end that allows you free rein to say what you like about AutoCAD’s future direction. I hope many of you use it, and I hope Autodesk doesn’t just “listen”, but acts based on what its customers say they want.

Autodesk discussion group links – feedback and bookmarks

The Autodesk discussion groups are currently working. They are also still irresponsibly displaying people’s email addresses as visible user names. If you’ve posted to the discussion groups in the past, I suggest you check to see if your email address is out there for the spambots to pick up.

There is now a feedback form for the discussion group and Community sites, so if you’re having problems you could try that. Hopefully, Autodesk won’t need a thousand feedback reports to work out that it’s running as slow as a wet week, the search is broken and that people’s privacy has been violated.

If you have links to product categories that no longer work properly, you can modify the format as shown in this example, which is for the AutoCAD category.



Autodesk discussion group alternatives

As I’m typing this, the Autodesk discussion groups are down for maintenance again. Let’s hope that when they come back up, some of the problems are fixed.

In the meantime, if you’re an AutoCAD user and have something to ask or say, where can you go? Here are a few suggestions.

  • I like the AUGI forums. It’s an even more modern, more graphical and less space-efficient web interface than the new Autodesk one, but there’s a good community there and, hey, the search feature works. Mike Perry and colleagues run a tight ship, so please read the rules and be good.
  • If you have something to tell Autodesk and want practically no restrictions in the way you say it, submit a new message on dear Autodesk, or vote for the existing messages you like. It’s looking a bit bare and empty at the moment, so go fill it up.
  • As a Cadalyst person, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the Cadalyst forums.
  • The Swamp is biased heavily toward CAD programming, so if you have a LISP question then head there, but it also hosts general CAD discussion. In this community, you are expected to be courteous and professional.
  • Old-timers like myself will remember that the CompuServe ACAD forum’s Take 5 section was carried over into the AutoCAD discussion groups. It was kept going for a few years before Autodesk felt it was getting out of hand and killed it. That community refused to be killed, and actually still flourishes for newsgroup (NNTP) users at the t5 dot dynip dot com server.
  • R. K. McSwain suggests the CADTutor forums.

If you wish to point out any other sites I’ve missed, please let me know and if they’re relevant I’ll edit this post to include them.

While I was typing this, the Autodesk discussion groups came back up, but who knows how long that’s going to last?

Also while typing this I also received a phone call from a helpful Indian gentleman at Subscription Support (which was working fine as of yesterday). He asked for details about the broken search (it doesn’t find anything posted prior to the update), confirmed that it’s broken, and promised to inform the relevant department. That’s a much better response than the email I mentioned in my last post.

More Autodesk discussion group angst

When you start using the new AutoCAD discussion groups, in addition to the broken search facility, you will have other issues to deal with. There’s a new editor with lots of features and lots of problems. Quoting formatted messages results in a mess. Switching from one tab to another messes up your text. Submitting your message results in an error page like this:

Discussion Groups
Discussion Groups
Oops! Server Error 500. The resource you’ve requested is not available.

© Copyright 2007 Autodesk, Inc. All rights reserved. Legal Notices & Trademarks — Privacy Policy

Despite this, the message does actually get submitted. People are unaware of this (possibly because the list of topics, and the popular discussions pane’s “last post” displays are not being updated as new posts are made) and re-posting their messages, resulting in duplicates.

There is some confusion about what constitutes a category in the discussion group structure. If you go from the top level to the AutoCAD level and then into AutoCAD 2009, picking the “Up one category” link takes you right to the top.

The speed of the web interface varies from quite acceptable to something rather less than that.

People are reporting problems with losing their old watched threads, and not being allowed to watch new threads without email notifications.

There’s nowhere obvious for people to report problems, so people are just starting complaint threads in random locations. What if you report problems directly to Autodesk? According to a poster in one thread, this is what he got in reply to his report that search is broken (which it still is):

Thank you for contacting Autodesk Support. Here is the recommended resolution to your Support Request:

Discussion Group is just a BBS for all Autodesk Customer. This BBS is not product support duty. So We could not give you any more resolutions. But I think you could use different key works or other mothord to search in Discussion group.

Good grief.

So, Autodesk, was user feedback sought prior to making these changes? Did the pre-release testing phase allow plenty of time for the design to be user tested, modified based on user feedback and re-tested before release?

Didn’t think so. Ah well, it’s a good thing that this valuable lesson was learned with something relatively trivial like your discussion groups and not something important, isn’t it? Like AutoCAD, for example?