For many estimators, the shift from paper plans to digital or “on-screen” takeoffs brought about a fundamental change to how they spend their days. By extension, the familiar scales, calculators, measuring wheels, digitizers, and ubiquitous colored pencils all get used much less now. Digital takeoff systems are run on computers just like those used in accounting, project management, scheduling, or marketing.
Digital takeoff systems have one obstacle that creates a unique user experience, the plan area is nearly always larger than the computer’s monitor. Typical architectural standard sheet sizes like ARCH D (24″ x 36″) or ARCH E1 (30″ x 42″) would require a 46.47″ and 51.63″ monitor respectively to display at 100% size.
Even if your company would pay for such a large monitor, it wouldn’t be convenient to work at the extreme corners of the display . Imagine holding an open newspaper at arms’ length and trying to read the top left paragraph of print and it will be obvious why bigger isn’t always better. The current solution is to adjust the zoom in and out as needed which feels like you’re trying to read the plans with a periscope.
As you might have guessed, there are some design issues…
Most programs offer the user two ways to adjust the zoom; toolbar buttons, and scroll wheel. I’m sure someone out there uses the toolbar buttons, but I’ve never met them. The reality is that most accurate measurements will require zooming in. A continuous measurement like a long wall, or a large area will quickly reach the border of the displayed area. Waiting at the edge of the border will occasionally cause the program to side-scroll but it’s almost always too fast or too slow to be useful.
It’s unspeakably frustrating to be focused on items in the middle of the displayed area and controlling the zoom with a toolbar button that’s somewhere on the perimeter of the program window. You’re forced to stop everything you’re doing to futz with the zoom buttons so you can see where to continue your work. Mousing across the entire screen to access the buttons is slower than using the scroll wheel. It’s been a while since I used Planswift, but it used to allow zoom commands from the zoom toggle on my Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard. I’m currently using On Center’s On Screen Takeoff which doesn’t recognize the zoom toggle.
You’ve got a hitch in your get-along
Zooming in and out to see what’s going on is only half the struggle. Actually moving the displayed area on-screen can be a surprisingly counter-intuitive process. Planswift assigned the right mouse button as a “grab” that let the user move the sheet around within the display window. OST does have a “grab” tool which they call “pan” but it’s only activated through a toolbar at the perimeter of the display area. You can shift the displayed area in with the scroll wheel to move the display up or down and Shift+scroll to move the display left or right.
This method prevents moving longitudinally and laterally at the same time. You can however zoom out, place the cursor where you’d like to center the display, then zoom in. Zoom in OST is control+scroll. I should mention that the keyboard arrows do technically work, and that you could also use the OST overview window to “grab” and move the sheet. The problem is that you’re making gross corrections within a display window that’s maybe 1/10th the size of your working window. The lack of coordination makes this VERY frustrating. If anybody at On Center is reading this, it would be HUGE if you could assign keyboard shortcuts to change cursor functions. The spacebar toggles between takeoff and select, but it’s clumsy and it would be awesome to engage “pan/grab” without the all-too-distant toolbar.
The upgrade affects your performance as soon as you lift the handles
Why the mouse’s design becomes critical
Digital takeoff programs require a lot of “horsing” to simultaneously see what you’re doing, and get to where you need to be. Neither of those functions are actually getting the work done, yet a good half of my mouse movements are spent this way. Entering data in a spreadsheet, you can happily tab, arrow, or enter your way around for most of the day without needing the mouse for anything. A digital takeoff program will have you switching between the keyboard and the mouse constantly. Most digitizing operations require data input, and the majority of that will be numeric. This sets up a repetitive stress situation where a right-handed estimator has their hand pivoting between the mouse and the “ten key” numeric pad.
A “typical” mouse presents a unique problem here because it’s movable nature means that when you’re returning to the mouse from the ten key, it won’t be in a consistent location. Further, most “ergonomic” mouse designs won’t “come to hand” easily for the estimators intermittent usage.
At this point I think it’s helpful to list the necessary attributes that I would be looking for in a mouse. For the record, I am simply providing my observations and opinions on equipment I purchased with my own money. I have received no compensation and I have no vested interest in any of the companies or products mentioned in this article.
#1 Static position. Since the digitizing requires near constant movement between the keyboard ten key pad and the mouse, it’s an obvious advantage for the mouse to “stay put” so your hand can quickly and reliably get into and out of mouse operation.
#2 Low profile. This one takes a little explaining. A mouse profile that is substantially higher than the keyboard requires the mouse hand to make a “jump” to get the mouse into action without disturbing the pointer location. The movement from a keyboard to mouse for a right-handed person is particularly likely to unintentionally strike the tallest part of the mouse.
#3 Scroll wheel. It’s difficult to understate just how much of the user experience depends on scroll functioning. Being able to “whip” through a particularly long menu/ text file, or to move the viewing area quickly is a pivotal mouse feature. Some designs allow the user to switch from “free-wheeling” to the typical notched detent scrolling.
#4 Traverse speed and precision. There are a lot of mice out there with adjustable Dots Per Inch (DPI), some even have buttons for on-the-fly DPI changes. The best and most useful designs allow rapid movements without becoming too coarse for accurate mouse control. Designs that allow “whipping” or “spinning” of the movement control let the estimator get to perimeter menu or buttons without sacrificing accuracy.
#5 Function buttons. Some mice have additional buttons which can add some useful functions. The most common are the “Forward and Back” buttons which typically control web browsers and multi-page document displays. “Copy” and “Paste” are profoundly useful functions with wide-ranging utility within digital takeoff systems. One often overlooked function is a “double click left” button. It seems like a minor convenience to press a button once instead of twice, but digital estimating involves lots of movement. It’s particularly difficult to double-click without moving the cursor in some situations. Many estimating programs involve extensive database negotiation so this feature can greatly reduce your repetitive movements.
#6 Durability. I’ve worn out many mice in my career, some lasted years, others only a few months. It’s particularly difficult to find durable mice that aren’t of the “typical” design. Many mice that are marketed as ergonomic prioritize comfort over durability. I know from experience how debilitating it is to have your mouse fail on bid-day. I’ve always got a backup mouse at the ready, just in case.
Pursuit of perfection
I started off with a Logitech Wireless Trackball M570. While it’s called a track ball mouse, it’s really set up to control the ball with the just the right thumb and index finger. Being a track ball, it easily meets the static position requirement. The ball itself is fairly low profile so it worked out pretty well transitioning between the keyboard and the mouse. The scroll wheel didn’t allow for free-wheeling so the detents kept me from whipping through lengthy lists. The “middle” mouse button is the wheel. It works but I didn’t use it much because it’s difficult to control the automatic scrolling. The thing I absolutely loved about it was how quickly I could whip the ball to cross the screen or scroll through a long document. Being able to stop the ball and incrementally control it took some getting used to. The key is to wedge your fingers along the socket and add friction when you need greater precision. Logitech did a brilliant job of making the cursor move vertically when you slide your thumb along the socket. This mouse has two function buttons; forward, and back. These buttons are most useful for web browsing, and the occasional text program that interprets these as page up/down commands. Durability with the M570 is a mixed bag. I got about a year out of my first one which was a hard-wired version, and maybe 6 months on the second. The open ball design tends to capture crud in the little bearings. It’s not too difficult to get in a clean them but eventually I wore the bearings down until the ball would only move in twitchy starts and stops. I tried all the online tips about petroleum jelly and hair oil, but nothing worked. I gave up on the Logitech because I had developed shooting pains through my elbow, wrist, and fingers.
Next up was a Kensington Expert Trackball mouse. This is a substantial device with a cue-ball sized ball placed in the middle. There are four user-programmable buttons placed symmetrically in quadrants around the central ball. Surrounding the socket is a rotating ring that’s used to control scroll functions. I thought the larger ball would give my thumb a rest because I could control the whole ball with my fingertips. The huge buttons seemed like they’d help as well. Right out of the box I found that I needed to re-arrange the programmed settings. The scroll wheel worked exactly the opposite direction of what I expected. Since the mouse has an angled base, the two buttons on the lower side are actually more useful as your “left” and “right” mouse clicks. Using the top left or right button requires raising your arm to clear the ball which isn’t convenient or comfortable if you’re doing it often. The mouse comes with a removable wrist support pad which didn’t work for me. I found the ball moved smoothly and it “whipped” across the screen more easily than the smaller Logitech. The scroll ring/wheel was a disappointment. New out of the box, the scroll wheel had a very soft feeling detent. The size and arrangement of the ring required a finger and a thumb to move it around most of the time. Within two months scroll ring had become gritty, and caused jerky page movements. I found some advice online that suggested removing the magnet that causes the “detent”. Please note that this requires disassembling the device which almost certainly voids any manufacturer warranty. Even without the magnet, the scroll wheel was gritty to the extent that it was a constant struggle to stop and start a scroll. I tried several different lubricants to smooth the wheel, but nothing worked. The size of that ball coupled with the angled face of the mouse made it easy to unintentionally move the cursor when returning from the keyboard. No matter where I placed it in relation to my keyboard, it just wasn’t possible to make an easy transition between the two. I continued to have pain in my right arm and fingers, this just wasn’t the mouse for me.
This time I decided to look well and truly outside of the normal mouse offerings. I found an incredibly promising option in the 3D Connexion Space Navigator. It looks like a stubby joystick on a heavy aluminum base. This mouse was developed for Architects and Engineers working in 3D CAD programs. According to the company, it’s meant to be used in the left hand with a traditional mouse in the right. There are four axes of movement along with a left and right button on the base. At the time I found a forum post where someone said they’d downloaded a driver that allowed it to be used like the famous/infamous IBM pointing stick. I gave it a shot and ordered it. First off, the quality of the product is simply outstanding. Absolutely everything about it was awesome.
Out of the box it worked perfectly with Google Earth, and it’s absolutely amazing how quickly you learn to “fly” through the 3-D landscape. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the driver from the forum post and I am not a software programmer. When I contacted the company, they were adamant that they didn’t intend for their mouse to be used outside of 3D applications. So I had little choice but to return it. It’s a terrible shame because it would be a game changer for digital estimating. Imagine lifting or pushing down on the stick to control zoom while scrolling right or left! The best part about this device is how it uses analog force measurements to taper the speed of the cursor movement. You don’t have to choose between fast or accurate, and you don’t have to apply much effort to make things happen.
Desperate for solution I was online and found a completely different direction. The Sungwoo pen mouse is like a pen with an optical mouse at the tip. In use you simply move the tip along your desk and the buttons are mounted along the top and left sides (for a right-handed person). This mouse was surprising because it was VERY easy to digitize with. The left and right buttons took a little getting used to but soon became natural. The scroll wheel is just behind the “left” mouse button and it’s controlled with the index finger. You can lift the “pen” tip off your desk so that the cursor stays put while you operate the buttons or scroll wheel. It’s lightweight and intuitive to use but I couldn’t transition to my keyboard without a struggle. Setting the mouse down often caused the cursor to jump, and it’s simply too big to hold while trying to type. It came with a little stand that can be used to “park” the pen in an upright position. While it’s possible to slide the pen and stand around, the high-profile of the mouse means it gets knocked over when you’re back and forth to the keyboard. It did reduce my arm, wrist, and finger pain. It’s a shame that it didn’t work out.
After years of trying to find the perfect mouse I found something that looked promising, but it was terribly expensive (more on that later). That got me thinking that I hadn’t really tried using a traditional mouse in a while. After surveying the offerings at a local office supply store, I settled on the Logitech Performance MX mouse. This mouse has a top-mounted switch which allows the scroll wheel to change from detent, to free-wheeling. There are back and forward buttons as well as a Zoom button. In OST, the Zoom button shifts the cursor to zoom mode just like holding the control button down. Rolling the scroll wheel adjusts the zoom until you press the zoom button again. There’s a “hidden” button inside the thumb well which engages a “task switcher” which pulls up minimized widows of all running programs. One feature I had strong hopes for was the side-scrolling wheel. By tipping the scroll wheel left and right, the display scrolls left or right accordingly. Unfortunately, OST doesn’t recognize this control, and the limited range of side-to-side motion meant the side scrolling wasn’t too useful in other programs either. The screen motion is so slow and imprecise that it’s less effort to simply grab a display window slider. It must be said that this is a very good traditional mouse. In fact it’s my backup mouse. Unfortunately all the reasons that traditional mice fall short for digital estimating apply to this mouse as well. I found myself struggling to maintain my typical production simply because the traditional mouse takes so much extra movement to achieve the same outcome. I tried all of the DPI settings and optimization controls. I tried to stick it out in hopes that the repetitive stress pain would ease. Unfortunately, it just didn’t help.
The best by far
Earlier I alluded to a promising solution that was very expensive. The Contour Design Roller Mouse Red is a profound departure from everything I’d tried before. The RollerMouse is used below your keyboard and it features a rubber-covered roller that also slides left and right. It’s used just like a trackball. You just roll and/or slide the roller wherever you want to go. Pushing down on the roller gives you a left click, however the RollerMouse also has dedicated left, right, and double buttons. This means that you can operate the mouse with either or both hands. There is a central and separate wheel for scroll which is blessedly wide which again, allows operation with either hand. In addition to the other buttons, the RollerMouse has dedicated copy, and paste buttons. The DPI, click volume, and click force settings are all user adjustable. The scroll wheel can be pressed for “middle” button or the user can swap the “double” function button for “middle”.
I initially tried to use the RollerMouse with my (no antiquated) Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard which has a wavelike ergonomic shape. This wasn’t ideal because the curved profile at the bottom edge of the keyboard pushed the RollerMouse away from the keys. I found I had to constantly slide my arms forward to type and it wasn’t very comfortable. It was pretty clear that I needed a straight keyboard. I switched over to a Logitech K360 which is a compact design. This allowed me to keep the 10 key numeric pad while using the built-in wrist support of the RollerMouse. I could seamlessly transition from keyboard to mouse without moving my right arm left or right which solved my pain problems. Not only is it more comfortable, it’s profoundly faster. I can complete my takeoffs with much less movement and far greater precision. The star of the show is the roller but I have to say that I’m stunned at how helpful the dedicated copy, paste, and, double, buttons are.
I use On Center’s OST for my digital takeoffs and I’ve found that if you’re accustomed to pulling the copy and paste command out of the right-click menu, the program can be onerous. You can’t simply select items to be copied without keeping the cursor on top of one of the selected items. This sounds petty until you realize just how precise this requirement is when you’re zoomed out. The most common time to copy and paste takeoffs is when you’re looking at “big picture” repetitions.
I should mention that it’s entirely possible to copy and paste using the timeworn control+C and control+V commands, however it’s much faster to simply tap the mouse button than to do a two key command.
The RollerMouse scroll wheel is an excellent example of what I think a scroll wheel should be. There are no detents but the program “steps” an adjustable number of lines in text programs. The wheel has enough resistance to allow precision, but it’s free enough to whip across a page. It has a “middle” button but I don’t use it much because auto scrolling just hasn’t been useful to me.
The roller itself is capable of great precision but it takes a little getting used to. One trick is to wedge your finger between the roller and the keyboard to offer a little resistance to nullify any wobble. I’ve found that I use two hands very often and it’s particularly nice to be able to mouse left-handed when you’ve got a bunch of numeric entry. I use the roller as left click about as often as the dedicated left button. Using the roller to left click works perfectly in most circumstances but it’s possible to roll up or down just a little before the click. If I’m working on a particularly precise measurement, it’s wonderful to be able to click without disturbing the cursor alignment. I can often use my right hand for the cursor control and my left for the button. This gives me great precision and speed.
The RollerMouse Red is made of Aluminum and it’s very solidly made. The top edge of the mouse has continuous slots to accept “risers” which are rubber coated pieces that go under your keyboard. They can be configured to adjust the tilt and height of the keyboard relative to the roller mouse. The risers also keep the keyboard from sliding away from the mouse. The fit between the RollerMouse and the Logitech K360 is just about perfect. It’s a petty point, but the keyboard and mouse look like they were built for one another. Initially I was concerned that I’d bump the mouse while typing. The wrist pad shape on the RollerMouse gives me enough support that nothing is touching the roller when my hands are on the keyboard. It’s a balancing act that RollerMouse has managed to execute perfectly.
At this point I’ve had the RollerMouse for a year and haven’t had any major issues with it. I have noticed that my PC fails to acknowledge it after hibernating, but that seems to be a problem with the PC rather than the RollerMouse. I downloaded a driver from Comfort Design which helped with the hibernating problem but now I can’t adjust the click force or volume. Thankfully they’re both set where I like them, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m working on a five-year old PC and it’s possible these issues will be resolved when it’s replaced.
One thing I was curious about was what happens when the roller is slid all the way to one extreme. My cursor will cross the entire width of the screen when the roller is slid about one and a half inches. Anything beyond that stalls the cursor at the edge of the screen until you slide back to center. One half rotation of the roller brings the cursor from top to bottom so it’s not like you’re cranking on it to move around. Again, this is all based on my individual settings with my specific machine. As they say; your mileage may vary.
I paid just under $265.00 for my RollerMouse which is the most expensive mouse I’ve ever bought. However my hunt for a workable solution involved five different mice, spanned nearly three years, and involved a few trips to the doctor’s office for the arm pain. I can honestly say that I wish I’d spent the money earlier. Good tools make all the difference.
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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved