Five Questions Friday with Mark Gibson of SolidWorks

Mark Bass Innovators Club Name: Mark Gibson

Title: Principal interactive design engineer

Company: DS SolidWorks Corp.

Job Description: I'm a member of DS SolidWorks’ user experience group, which works with the product definition group to address SolidWorks users’ needs with elegant solutions. My primary focus is the user interface.


1. You were a key player in the development of the Ultimate CAD Chair. What exactly was your role?
I set up the wireless switching system that enables the CAD user to control the waterfalls, mood lighting, and chair movements from the military-grade switches on the chair. I wired the chair, installed the transmitter, and connected the receivers. I fabricated the light bars along the floor, drilling holes through the floor and hiding the wires along the steel beams underneath.


2. That’s not software. How did you learn to do that?
Well, like a lot of engineers I grew up building LEGO cars. I tinkered, took things apart, and, when I felt like it, put them back together. My eureka moment came one summer when I was 9. I asked my mother if I could bring home my next-door neighbor’s broken-down motorcycle. “Sure,” she said, “but I’m not investing a cent in it. If you expect to ride it, you’ve got to find a way to make it run yourself.”

I took it apart, put it back together and much to her surprise, was ripping up the yard until the snow came. I’m still a bit of a motor head. I did the wiring for the SolidWorks Cobra replica we built and donated to charity as well as the wiring on Jeremy Luchini’s chopper. There’s wiring for the ignition, headlights, and knock sensor on that bike, but you won’t see any of it.



3. About your real job, how do you go about creating a great CAD user interface?
First, you do everything you can to get in the user’s head. You spend as much time with as many users as possible and keep asking why. Why do you do this? Why do you need that? What are you trying to do? Can I watch you do it? You have to profoundly understand who it is you’re designing for and why something makes sense for them. Sometimes you need to see beyond their initial request to see if there’s something that solves the problem even better. In my field it’s a cliché, but when the world is asking for a faster horse you want to be the one who delivers the car.

The work we do on the Ultimate CAD chair and the Cobra and on our own side projects lets us join our customers in the crucible of CAD, using SolidWorks to tackle design challenges, meet deadlines, stay within budgets and discover better ways to work.

As a practical matter, when designing software it’s important to get the new tools into customers’ hands early during development. First, we let users test it in the lab. Then we show it off at SolidWorks World. Eventually, we polish it up in beta.

One final principle–make the software work like something that’s familiar to the user whether that’s other Windows software programs, or machines and tools in the physical world. Bending sheet metal in SolidWorks, for example, should be a lot like bending it in the real world. Wherever possible, for example, our commands are named after something tangible.

The goal is to remove all obstacles between the designer’s vision and the 3D model. The holy grail is to someday be able to hold your hands in front of the screen and, with the lightest touch, form the design as though you were back to LEGOs, only easier.


4. What’s your proudest accomplishment in the SolidWorks interface?
I’m proudest of an accomplishment that no one really notices, and that’s okay. Years ago, SolidWorks software had a problem many 3D software programs still have–when you rotate, pan, and zoom, the model flies off the screen. If that’s happening, it’s because there’s no defined, fixed point in space around which the model is rotating. I wrote an algorithm that automatically selects the right rotation point–the center of the screen and the center of the theoretical depth dimension as represented on the 2D screen. Bottom line, your 3D model does not fly off the screen.

Other 3D software addresses this problem by requiring the user to point and click to pick a reference point, which is clunky and bewildering for the newbie. Our solution is a small thing, but the beauty of it is that there are no commands, buttons or menus to learn. It just works. And if there’s one thing you can say to make an interface expert’s day, it’s “wow, it just works!” This is a great illustration of how much effort goes into making our software intuitive.


5. What do you do for fun, besides all the fun you have designing the SolidWorks interface?
I guess I really loved that first motorcycle I told you about because I’m still riding. I just loaded up my Honda VFR 800 and took it to North Carolina where I rode the super-twisty “Tail of the Dragon.” Montreal was another recent trip. Next is Prince Edward Island, then out West. I also play bass guitar. I’ve been in rock bands and funk bands and am now putting together an afrobeat band. Afrobeat is great music, and more people would love it if they experienced it.


Matthew West

SolidWorks alumnus. I like plate reverb, Rat pedals, Thai curry, New Weird fiction, my kids, Vespas, Jazzmasters, my wife & Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not necessarily in that order.