On Monday I featured a new type of interface being developed which adds a much more hands on approach to design, but what about the software that we use to design our subdivisions, can we make that more hands on too?

My guess is that as hardware and graphics improves, our software should also, and having worked extensively in Australia with the 12D software, I can vouch for the interface and resulting speed of design that is evident in that software.

Interface and Usability


The mainstay for most civil engineering projects in North America is Civil3D by AutoDesk, the makers of AutoCAD. The market is so heavily dominated by this product, with a smaller showing from Microstation by Bentley, that it feels like innovation in the software usability has gone out the window.

Trying to be everything for everyone, the interface in Civil3D is crowded and clunky, with too many commands and choices at each point in the design. Fortunately, many of the current technicians working in the software are extremely adept at weaving through the maze of choices and producing a stellar result, relatively quickly.

So what would I do to improve the interface?

Firstly, I’d say that there is lots to like about the AutoCAD interface, it’s just not well transfered to the Civil3D interface. With the number of panels that are required to be open for maximum usability, I’d suggest that any full time user of Civil3D has dual monitors, yes you can get your boss to read this if you want support for your request! Given the base of the software, I think this is a reality of how much information is required or can be viewed on the screen at any time during the design.

Civil3D needs some simplifying of the design process, to keep the design fluid long enough for the client and designers to come to an agreement as to what the design should look like, without investing too much time, money or energy.
One of the great things in AutoCAD 2006 was the tooltip interface that reduced the need for text input boxes. Having a similar interface for various elements of the design in Civil3D would be helpful.


AutoCAD needs to invest a lot of time in analyzing the mouse movements and clicks of the average versus the power user. An interface which minimizes options and lessens the need for additional mouse movement and clicks is high on my wishlist. If you watn t track how many key strokes, clicks and meters traveled with your mouse,download this simple little program, Workrave, that will tell you to take breaks at defined intervals to reduce the risk of computer related workplace injuries, check out your statistics after a hard day at the computer, you’ll be surprised art how far your hand has traveled.

For designers who spend more and more time in front of a keyboard and monitor, simplifying the tasks required to design a straight forward subdivision in Civil3D should be high on AutoCAD’s list of priorities.

Do I think users would have a case for compensation if diagnosed with RSI? I’m no lawyer, but manufacturers of any product can be held responsible for the health and safety of the users of their product, so why not software? Read more after the jump….

Preliminary Design Enhancements

All the options and bells and whistles don’t do you much good at the start of a job. When a client wants to see a roughed out plan that can turn a hand sketch into a reality, you need what I’ll call Smart Tools. Now some of these are a product of my imagination, others are out there in the marketplace, but not very well known, Lets take a look at what’s on Mike’s drafting board.

Autofit technology

12D got it partly right with the introduction of their superalignment string type. This can auto-calculate the required curve between two other curves, solve vertical geometry tie-ins and many other things. But even better would be the ability to set up a road speed or jurisdiction profile that allowed you to draw strings over a surface, not worrying about the tie in details except with existing roads and critical points, (and you should be able to lock these in as existing up front in the design process!) Following this sketching, the software should be able to ensure a design that meets road geometry standards as well as lot depth requirements from existing boundaries. I’ve called this autofit technology, and really, it is what the future of design should look like.

Smarter cut/fill Balancing

Cut and fill can make or break a project’s budget, particularly in difficult terrain or rock. Design software should be smart enough to import test pit profiles, compaction data and depths of materials nad turn this into a site material profile that is then used to determine the best use of materials over the length of roads and engineered fill.

Blending GIS Data

So much information is stored in GIS databases these days, land types, soil types, creek lines, exisitng boundaries, zonings, habitat areas etc. Why doesn’t AutoCAD blend this data, if available, into the designers information package. Google Earth does it with open APIs and easily formated data, allowing anyone to mashup their own version of the world, why can’t AutoCAD?



AutoCAD and all software developers need to learn from the Web2.0 companies and mashups, to see that the way people interact with data is changing, technology is speeding forward, 37Signals has some interesting thoughts on designing better interfaces, if anyone from AutoDesk is reading, see what the guys at 37Signals have to say.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Powered by ScribeFire.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

3 replies on “Redesigning Civil Design Software”

  1. I agree that as hardware and graphics improve, software should also. That’s why I recommend the Directory at McGraw Hill Construction. I work for McGraw Hill and they have a very useful directory full of top quality solutions. You can get detailed information, such as autocad drawings. autocad drawings

Comments are closed.