Whence my interest in Visio?

Looking back over the past year, I’ve created many posts on Visio. I’ve never made it clear why I am so passionate about a product I don’t work on. In this post I’m going to elaborate on my interest.

My background

First, I’ve had an interest in computer graphics for a long time. For example, I owned a KoalaPad over twenty years ago. In the 1980’s I was an avid user of NEOChrome, Degas, Deluxe Paint, Photon Paint. [1] Low resolutions, small color palettes, slow hardware , inconsistent UI – it was a primitive time. [2] But despite those limitations it was a new avenue to be creative – and be creative what I mean is satisfying that fundamental human impulse to make something out of nothing. [3]

Deluxe Paint 5.0 (screenshot from Wikipedia)


Deluxe Paint 5.0 (screenshot from Wikipedia)


PhotonPaint (screenshot from Wikipedia)


Joining Microsoft

I almost pursued a career as a physician and despite (still) having a great curiosity about biology and medicine, I knew computers and technology and the world it opened up for people was where I truly wanted to be. In 1996, I interviewed at Microsoft hoping to work on something related to multimedia, but the team that I interviewed with was Microsoft Exchange and they were such fascinating set of people working on amazing things that I accepted the offer and began working on Microsoft Exchange on the version the world knows as Microsoft Exchange 5.0. I didn’t work on graphics, I worked on the component of Exchange that translated messages from internet formats used by SMTP, IMAP, POP, NNTP into the internal format used by Exchange Server.

Trivia for email buffs – I designed the infamous and sarcastic “TNEF is cool” T-shirt you might have seen some Exchange team members wear.  Everyone rightly hated TNEF.

Back to the Pixels

The allure of those little squares of color was unbearable, I left exchange in 1998 to join the PhotoDraw team. They had just released Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000 and wanted to get a major update as soon as possible. This PhotoDraw 2000 V2 released in 1999 I believe almost exactly a year after “V1”.

Despite my long interest as a user who worked with graphics, this was the first time I started learning about the technology. It was fascinating and let me assure you, despite its flaws PhotoDraw 2000 V2 was and continues to be one of the most technically and conceptually advanced graphics apps that has ever existed [4] [5].

I keep a Virtual Machine around with PhotoDraw installed, just in case.

PhotoDraw 2000 V2 running on Vista SP1 as a Hyper-V Virtual Machine 


In PhotoDraw 2000 V2 I worked on Setup, Scanners & Cameras, and a brand-new feature: the Batch Save Wizard. This was my first work in User Experience of any kind.

PhotoDraw 2000 V2’s Batch Save Wizard

image image image

A Bunch of Things Happened

PhotoDraw was canceled due to an internal reorganization in Microsoft. The short story is I joined a team focused on real-time collaboration (IM, telephony, desktop sharing) because I saw this as the logical evolution in my thinking about supporting the creative impulse – it allowed me to focus on how people collaborate to create as a group. More reorganizations followed and I joined a division working on security – my thinking here was that malware (viruses,etc.) was making it increasingly difficult to even use computers to create. I was happy to help create a more fundamentally secure environment for customers so that they could once again go back to satisfying their creative impulse. After over 4 years in security, I joined the Dynamics team to work on Business Intelligence and I saw this as a way of taking my background in graphics and UX and visualization and contributing towards a growing business at Microsoft.

Back to Visio and PhotoDraw

I always wanted to be able to take PhotoDraw and implement my own extensions (wizards, tools, etc) to both add features I needed and also to prototype new ideas. However, doing this was not so easy – MFC, C++, COM, Office APIs, heap management – and the ratio of effort to reward was not worth it.

In 2003, I started using Visio – I could probably find the first Visio diagram I ever drew. At first, I created flowcharts or simple network topology diagrams and the more I used it the more productive I became. I started using it for increasingly more conceptual diagrams and my thinking about the application evolved.

I viewed it more as tool that both satisfied the creative impulse, let me organize my thoughts, and allow me to communicate and collaborate more effectively. What I found was that the visual clarity helped drive the conceptual clarity and this, in turn, made me and my team more effective in our jobs.

And then the coding environment got *much* better – Visual Studio, .NET, C#, VST0, Visio’s Automation API – suddenly I found myself able to extend and experiment with this tool and do the things that I always wanted to try with PhotoDraw. So then I am bending the tool to my customized needs and it isn’t even taking that much effort.

Below are some examples of how I have extended Visio 2007.

image image image

Ultimately what I get out of all this is I get to take an amazing application and set of technologies and make them all support my own creative impulse and help me think and communicate and collaborate better.

And that is really cool.


[1] It may be an artifact of my memory, but I don’t believe I’ve found a bitmap graphics app that is as productive today in 2008 as Deluxe Paint was in the 80’s.












































































[2] At first if you wanted a “gradient fill” you had to manually place each pixel. Yes, that was tedious.

[3] Nostalgia – acute homesickness

“nostalgia” <- “nostos” + “algia”

“nostos” – (greek) to return home

“algia” – (greek) pain

[4] I can at least a couple of posts about this.

[5] And then I’ll tell you about what happened to the application and what we were planning to give you in the third version.

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