So, our group does a lot of diagrams with little icons and lines between them, and when I make these diagrams, I usually do them in either FrameMaker or PowerPoint, which is kind of a pain.

I heard about Visio, which is supposed to be the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of diagramming software. Think of Visio as MacDraw on STEROIDS, or AutoCAD in two dimensions and embedding VISUAL BASIC instead of a REAL PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE.

Visio uses "stencils" of various standard shapes with standard behaviors. You can create documents by dragging the shapes you need (flowchart boxes, architectural symbols, UML arrows, whatever), from the appropriate stencil. You can create your own stencil full of shapes of your own design. Or, you can use one of the dozens of stencils that come with Visio. The more you pay Visio, the more stencils you get. Welcome to "market segmentation".

I have yet to plumb the depths of the Visio's immense power, flexibility, and configurability, but I have already established one thing beyond all reasonable doubt:

The Visio user interface SUCKS.

You'd think that since this is a GRAPHICS program, the company would employ some people who have a CLUE about VISUAL COMMUNICATION. But NOOOOOO. They must be REFUGEES from the MICROSOFT OFFICE SCHOOL OF INTERFACE DESIGN, and therefore, believe that if you give the user toolbars and icons ALL OVER THE FRIGGING SCREEN, then you have a graphical user interface.

Those poor UNIX WEENIES are stuck in the SIXTIES with CRYPTIC COMMANDS like "rm", "ls", and "grep", while we Visio users are moving into the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, with EASY-TO-UNDERSTAND ICONS like little green boxes, little red boxes, little blue boxes, and little gray boxes -- the distinct meanings of which are scattered ALMOST AT RANDOM through the Using Visio Products manual, two hundred and fifty pages of brilliant BLACK AND WHITE.

Excerpts from my ADVENTURES thus far:


Everything on a stencil has its own little icon, as well as a name. I created my own little "customer account" circle and dragged it onto my own little stencil, and it got its own icon--a circle on a gray background. Then I edited the circle to take out the border, and the icon became flat gray--a GRAY BORDERLESS CIRCLE ON A GRAY BACKGROUND. Well, gosh, that's HELPFUL.

Visio does let you edit a shape's icon with a MacPaint-style bitmap editor. But if you spend half an hour editing an icon, and then you change the shape again, GUESS WHAT HAPPENS? Right, Visio changes the icon again. That's just DOUBLE HELPFUL, ain't it?


By default, my workspace came up with a ruler marked off in inches. I decided I'd rather have a ruler marked off in points, especially since I was editing half-inch-wide shapes in extreme close-up. That should be SIMPLE, right? HA!

The "Ruler & Grid" command under the "Tools" menu lets you change the coarseness of ruler subdivisions, but not the units of measure. The "Options" command lets you change the DEFAULT units of measure, but didn't do SQUAT to the DOCUMENT I HAD OPEN IN FRONT OF ME. Finally, I discovered the actual field that sets those rulers, under...

...the "Page Properties" tab of the "Page Setup" dialog box. In every GUI-based program I've seen since the APPLE LISA came out, over FIFTEEN YEARS ago, this dialog box only covered how things looked on PAPER. But clearly, I shouldn't let my years of experience with GUIs affect where I look for controls on Visio; I should PROSTRATE MYSELF before this KILLER APP and appreciate its MYSTERY.

And after doing all that, I got my ruler denominated in points, with the major tick marks five points apart. FIVE? Do these programmers think printer's points (72.27 pt = 1 in) are METRIC UNITS or something?


I want to have a little icon shaped like an envelope, to represent a street address. So I did what I would do in PowerPoint or MacDraw: take a box, take two lines, put the lines in the right place within the box, and select the "Group" command. Then came TROUBLE.

See, every shape in Visio can have a text field attached to it. When I clicked on my new, cleverly-grouped object, and then pushed the appropriate button to enter text, I didn't get a text field centered in the box; instead, I got a text field centered on the RIGHT DIAGONAL LINE. I recalled that in a certain dialog box, where you could protect shapes from being moved or resized, you could also protect them from being selected. So I went to that dialog box, checked that option, clicked "OK", and got this warning message:

"Shapes protected from selection can still be selected unless you check Shapes in the Protect Document dialog box."

Umm ... So much for THAT idea. OK. MOVING RIGHT ALONG.... Maybe it's time for me to READ THE EFFING MANUAL.

According to the manual: "When you select multiple shapes by shift-clicking, the primary shape (A) is the first shape you select ... When you select shapes by dragging a selection net around them [you know, the marching-ants rectangle], the primary shape (A) is the one you dropped most recently on the page."

Well, THAT explains it. Or does it? Reading further: "When you type in a group, the text appears on the frontmost shape in the stacking order."

GOD FORBID that this program should behave CONSISTENTLY.


So I figured, OK, I want my text to appear in the center of the box, so I have to put the box on top and the lines underneath. That means I have to change the fill pattern of the box from "white" to "transparent". So I ungroup the shapes, click on the box, select "Fill" from the "Format" menu, and get a warning message:

"The document you are opening contains macros or customizations. Some macros may contain viruses that could harm your computer...."

Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen. My RECTANGLE might have a MACRO VIRUS.

Seth Gordon -- -- August 1999 -- comments?