Over the past four years that I have been using Manifold on a daily basis for almost all of my professional work, I have been able to develop a good understanding of its strengths, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses.
Even so, it is when working with other Manifold users, and specifically teaching Manifold to new users, that one can often find basic usability issues at hand that go unnoticed by more seasoned Manifold users like myself. In this post, I do not want to address larger and more complicated issues, but instead focus on providing a small list of low hanging fruit that could easily be fixed by the Manifold development team:
1) Setting Area of Interest in Layouts
During our training course, almost all new users needed help to understand how to set the area of interestof a layout. The way to change the AOI of a map component in a layout might be powerful, but is complex and well hidden from the user in multiple steps. Most users will upon the creation of a layout from a map, expect the zoom extent of the layout to be the same as what they see in the map component. Confusion sets in when the whole component, or worse a blank page, greets them when they open their newly created layout. “Hey where’s my nice map gone?”
The process then is less than straighforward and involves in total 8 steps and at least as many mouseclicks : right-click on the layout (1) and choose properties (2), set the Scope to Locked Rectangle (3), go back to the map component (4), goto View -> Panes -> Layers (5) (as that pane is hidden by default!), using the Layers Pane, enable the Layout Component extent rectangle (6), resize to the AOI the extent rectangle (7), finally go back to the Layout (8).
Ideally, users would expect after selecting a layout map component that it would behave like a regular map component where users can pan and zoom to set a AOI for the layout.
2) Formatting toolbar
Most new users will stumble over one of the more fundamental idiosyncrasies the Manifold user interface has to offer. The concept of the formatting toolbar relies on the fact that, as opposed to other GIS packages, one drawing can contain different geometry types (points, lines, areas). This is reflected in the formatting toolbar, which always offers the user formatting options for all three geometry types. Because the formatting options look very similar to one another, new users are often deeply confused and unshure which icon they need to click to influence for example the line foreground color.
One straightforward solution would be to blank out formatting options for geometry types not currently present in a specific drawing, thus simplifying the toolbar considerably (for a lines only drawing, this would reduce the number of icons from 17 icons down to 4!).
Another possible solution would be to indicate through a small text box what geometry type a set of formatting icons refers to, instead of relying on users to find the right option by hovering over an icon or trial and error.
3) Label Display Options
When working with labels, users are often at a loss on where to change advanced options such as callouts, label overlap conflicts and line label placement. Users in general will look first in the component specific menu, i.e. the Labels Menu, where they wont find a entry for such advanced display options. Instead, Label display options are “hidden from the user” in the generic View Menu. The same applies to for the display options of surfaces and images.
IMHO it would make much more sense to group all options relating to a specific component type in the specific Menu for that component, i.e. the “Labels” Menu or “Surfaces” Menu.
4) Queries in Layouts
A table dragged into a layout results in the creation of a layout component displaying table records. This makes sense to the user and he is pleased to be able to include tabular data into his layout to generate reports.
Unfortunately, the same doesn’t happen for queries dragged into a layout. From Manifold’s perspective, the software sticks to its principles and generates a layout component containing the SQL Query text. 99% of the time, this isn’t the most useful behaviour, and a user would rather expect the query results table to be generated and placed into the layout.
It would be much better if users were given a choice if they wanted the query text, or the query results to be included in the layout. (The workaround I currently employ in this situation is to run a query which generates a table which in turn is included in a layout, which is fine except you can’t update the table easily without deleting it and rerunning the query, thus loosing the layout position).
5) The Query Toolbar
Finally, this one was already touched upon by Muki on his blog, but it is worth repeating his comment here, as the change is the most straightforward to implement on this list:
The way the query toolbar works is that you select a field in the left drop-down list, an operator at the central drop-down and a value in the text box on the right and click on select to see the result. For example, if you enter 5 in the toolbar in the picture, it will lead to a selection of the 5 polygons on the map with the smallest area.
The confusing part of the interface is the ‘not’ between the left drop-down and the central one. For a new user, the interface reads ‘find objects on the map where the field Area (I) are not the bottom X’. The ‘not’ in this case is a toggle button that can be activated to negate the operation that was selected in the central drop-down. Clearly, it would be better if, when not activated, it had the word ‘is’ (Area is the bottom 5) and ‘not’ appeared only when it was active. This is one of the cases where usability enhancement could be carried out in less than a minute of a programmer’s time – and surely makes life less confusing to many novice users…
As you might have guessed, these are only some of the usability issues one can find in Manifold, and I would appreciate any comments here if you can think of others. I have already send in suggestions to Manifold for most of these issues, and I would urge you to do the same if you can agree with my analysis.
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