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User Interface Follies

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Well, I've just spent several days "boning up" on SAP 2000. Of course,
it's a very powerful tool. But HOO-BOY, is it difficult to use!

I cut my teeth on computer structural analysis "way back when" we still
called this boxes "microcomputers," when they chugged data eight bits at
a time-and we used this program called "SAP IV".

A few years later, we were using DOS, sixteen bits, and this
"incredible" software, SAP 86 (named for the Intel 80x86 architecture of
the PC of that era).

After I got out of school, though it was mostly STAAD-still on sixteen
bit DOS, although soon run on 32-bit 386s.

All during that time, though, models were constructed in text files,
with coordinates and connectivity specified by hand, line by
line-although we "smart guys" soon discovered you could make a
spreadsheet program do a lot of the formatting.

For a few years in the late 1990s, I used a new, 32-bit version of STAAD
that had been "ported" to the MS-Windows environment-and I do mean
"ported": It was very raw and terribly limited in its graphics
capability. For awhile there was a still-born monstrosity called
"Auto-STAAD" that functioned as a sort of add-in to AutoCAD to allow one
to prepare STAAD model geometry using AutoCAD's tools. But mostly it was
kinda half-baked, actually doing your models visually-even though this
"technology" had existed for at least a decade on high-end engineering
graphics platforms like RAND-MICAS.

I spent about four years mostly SUPERVISING engineers, instead of being
one, and I lost track.

Then when I went out on my own, I decided I would try something new. I
decided on Visual Analysis as my "new" structural engineering software,
starting with the 4.0 version. Although VA was still a bit "lite" in
terms of capabilities at that time, I quickly grew used to its pretty
decent graphical interface, and my days of "hand-coding" structural
models were over. VA continued to make advancements-as well as
refinements-in its capabilities and interface. Mostly, IES, the makers,
listened to their users and did their best to meet their wish-list items
a few at a time, sometimes with "bug-fix" releases that actually
contained new capabilities.

So, flash forward to this week, and my experience with the latest,
greatest version of SAP 2000 (Version 10.0.x). Again, very powerful. The
geometry input is less than intuitive, at least to me-and I'm not a kid
anymore, so not so apt to use "new things." But after a bit of
floundering I got somewhat comfortable with it. I do very much like the
advanced features like nonlinear analysis. I cannot yet comment on the
concrete design features to any appreciable extent, but it does seem
fully-featured.

But then came the ACID TEST: Generating output in terms of reports.

Now, I'm sure there are people out there who would say "Oh, SAP 2000 is
a NATURAL at creating reports." You'll have to talk a LOT to convince
me, however.

To be fair, the 4.x version of Visual Analysis was somewhat lacking in
the reporting area, particularly where the design module was concerned.
But again, they truly listened to their users, and the latest version of
the program has a very good report writer. Best of all, the software
comes set up with a ton of pre-formatted report styles that allow you to
come up with decent output reports right out of the box. Even better,
the IES folks made a great effort to make their report module flexible
enough that, if they don't have exactly the report you want, you can
quickly customize one of the "canned" reports to get what you want.

>From what I have experienced so far with SAP 2000, when you go to make
your first report-you're on your own! At least, I could not find
anything resembling a pre-built report at all, much less one that I
would have to modify.

Worse, the SAP reporting feature is distinctly "non-interactive." In VA,
you can work directly on a report document, click on headings, tables,
and whatnot, and actually tell it precisely what you want to see. In
SAP, on the other hand, you have to work for awhile in this dialogue
box, setting up a bunch of stuff, and then you can only look at the
report in its "finished" state. If there's something you want to change,
you have to close the report, and go back to the dialogue. Seems like a
HUGE waste of time.

So in summary, the modeling interface and the report writer for SAP seem
even LESS sophisticated than the same functions that existed in Visual
Analysis a generation ago. It really feels like you're taking a huge
step backward, in fact. I find myself wishing to just fire up VA and get
the work done-unfortunately I have given up my freedom to do so in
taking the other guy's nickel. As it is, I'm likely now to have to take
several hours to work up a report formatted the way I want, where it
would have taken maybe a half hour to do in VA.

I guess I can only gripe that we should have had "true" Object Oriented
tools available by now, so that we could put our own software together.
Too bad we're stuck with all the weaknesses as well as the strengths
when we commit to a certain software package.

William L. Polhemus, Jr. P.E.
Senior Associate
mailto:bpolhemus(--nospam--at)wje.com 
WJE
Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. 
Engineers I Architects I Material Scientists
10235 West Little York, Suite 245
Houston, Texas 77040
P: 832-467-2177 F: 832-467-2178
http://www <blocked::http://www/> .wje.com 

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