The world of software doesn’t stand still and FileMaker Pro is no exception. All through the FileMaker releases we’ve kept BaseElements up to date with each new release, and almost always fairly soon after release.
In working on a new UI for BaseElements 5 we’ve had to re-consider every element in the product. In doing that, we’ve looked back at what we’ve introduced so far, and what worked, what didn’t and where we can improve things.
A little history – BaseElements 1
BaseElements 1 was actually built in FileMaker Pro 6. Yes the same FileMaker Pro 6 of the one table per file. Although the final release version was a FileMaker 7 file, it still had a bit of a hangover from it’s starting point, as there were multiple files for different parts of the UI.
I did really like the icons I found at the time, it was a set called “Harmony” from IconFactory, but not everyone agreed.
The first release was in January of 2007 after a couple of months of private and public beta testing, and at the time, FileMaker was at version 8. My favourite FileMaker fp5 developer tool, MetaDataMagic hadn’t yet been released for FileMaker 7 files.
BaseElements got it’s first big show at DevCon that year, in Orlando Florida, after being updated earlier ( BE 1.5.0 on 10th July 2007 ) for the just released FileMaker Pro 9.
Side note about taking a product to DevCon for the first time.
I’d been to DevCon once before, but not as an exhibitor. I’d never done an exhibitor or trade show booth before in my life. I was thinking I’d need to have some sort of gimmick to attract crowds, like maybe play on the Aussie background and make people Vegemite toast.
After checking into my room, I got into the elevator with none other than Danny Mack – developer at NMCI who made MetaDataMagic. He mentioned that they were working on a new release for fp7 files. I had a moment of thinking that all my work would be undone if they came out with something good. I worried : will people buy my new untested product, when there’s a update to a well established one just around the corner? I had a feeling of dread, thinking he might be going to announce something this week.
When the conference opened, I was standing behind my desk, a small sign behind me and a monitor in front with BE running. Someone walked up, looked at my sign and walked off. That didn’t go well, so I think : “Ok, fine, I’ll have to get out and spruik it a bit”. So I step out from behind the desk.
Another visitor walks up, looks at the sign. I ask : “Can I show you BaseElements?”. “No thanks” and he walks off. I have the feeling of dread for the second time, and thought it was going to be a really long four days. What had I signed myself up for? I’m not a natural salesman, more of an introvert, so this whole exercise was pushing back against my nature.
A few minutes go by, another person walks up. “Can I show you BaseElements?”. “Yeah sure”. So I do the demo, and mention the discount, and before I can say anything else, he pulls out a credit card and I have a sale. I was elated.
From that moment on I was hectic most of the time. People would buy a copy, and then bring others back to show it to friends or colleagues. I was doing credit cards manually on the website and it took ages, and I’d often have people looking over BaseElements themselves while I had a queue of people waiting to buy a copy.
It was a mad four days, and I barely ate a meal I was so busy, occasionally someone would bring me a beer. But I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything.
We had some more tweaks later in the year, including our comparison reports and lots of additional features, but no new FileMaker releases until…
BaseElements 2 – consolidations
BaseElements 2 came out just before DevCon 2008. FileMaker had introduced Autosizing in FileMaker 9, and we redid the interface, as well as consolidating it into a single UI file.
The fun part of building BaseElements 2 was using BaseElements to consolidate BaseElements, by writing a consolidation report … in BaseElements. It was an interesting experience.
The big design change was in the left side navigation for Form view. Which is great, except it didn’t collapse or expand automatically, and it didn’t appear on any of the list or table layouts.
I’d bet that every FileMaker developer would love a native UI component that allowed you to build a side navigation, but one that appeared in every type of layout view. Strangely this idea must be valuable, as it kept coming back in the designs ideas for BaseElements 5 ( more of that later ).
Generally though, the design of BE 2 remained the same, although the interface itself got a bit cleaner ( fewer ID fields on the layouts ), it also added a bunch of extra features and UI elements ( Link layouts ) so the net effect was probably neutral.
January 2009 saw the release of FMP 10, and we had a minor update to BE 2 out the door almost the same day. We continued for the rest of that year to extend and add features.
FileMaker Pro 11 came out in early 2010. There was an update to the way FileMaker’s internal XSLT engine worked, which meant that BE 2 wouldn’t import properly in FMP 11. So we put a lot of work into our import engine, and also sped it up, just in time for DevCon 2010…
BaseElements 3 – ditch the side toolbar
So in spite of the fact that the left side toolbar came into the product only in v2, by v3 it was already gone. Version 3 was the last version to have a big design change to the UI. We consolidated all the toolbars to a single one at the top of the layout ( minus my favourite icons ) and continued to simplify the layouts.
And although some things were taken away ( link layouts ), some other things were added that took up more UI. We had a semi hidden UI for accessing Notes, and a completely hidden UI for accessing Copy to Clipboard. We added a Smart Find feature, which people loved, and a coloured note tag option which no-one cared about.
It wasn’t long into 2012 that FileMaker released version 12. This was a new file format, and lots of new features, but there wasn’t much change in the DDR so we had a free update to BE 3 on the same day. But there was no big new change to the UI to accompany it.
FMP 12 enabled themes which began to give us much more control over the UI and make UI design much easier in the long run. In the short term, for existing projects though, it meant you had to re-do everything on the layout. So we decided to persist a bit more with what we had for the next release.
BaseElements 4 – more functionality, same UI
So even though we considered re-doing the interface for BaseElements 4, in the end it didn’t get done. We’d worked on a bunch of new features but the interface remained almost exactly the same.
We also experimented with some ideas : a highlight function which I doubt many ever used. There was a SQL conversion item in the Tables which I know one developer absolutely loved ( it was the starting process for an idea to have the data store for BE in a MySQL table using ESS instead of in FMP – that’s still in the ideas list ).
Our invisible Copy to Clipboard interface was extended to Tables and Scripts, we added the ability to mark errors as fixed with an additional checkbox on every form view. And as an homage to the grand functionality enabled by themes, we added a rollover effect to links, which only served to make it harder to know what a link was and what wasn’t without first rolling over them. There was a highlight option no one asked for, but I thought might be useful, and never used.
We continued to tweak things and updated again for FileMaker Pro 13 compatibility when that was released in February 2014, and again for FileMaker Pro 14 in June this year. BE 4 was the only version to span three whole FileMaker versions.
BaseElements has grown organically, some of the time through feature requests from users, in other places from ideas of mine, and sometimes just going where the code takes you. But in all these releases we never went back and did a wholesale review of what was there and why, and what worked and what didn’t.
But the last two years we’ve been re-thinking what BE should be, and how it should work, and from that, what it should look like.
We’re going to have a beta release out in time for DevCon this year, and here’s a preview :
In part 2 of our BaseElements 5 preview I’m going to talk about the vision we have for the BaseElements product, and the thought process that’s gone into this redesign.