Installation wizards have their place. For example, when you are installing and configuring an operating system a wizard is your best friend. The design of the wizard is paramount as it is often the very first thing your user sees. First impressions are crucial, and if your install procedure sucks, then it puts your whole application in a bad light. That said, sometimes wizards – no matter how pretty, and helpful are just unnecessary overhead.
For example, let’s compare the way a Windows user and an Ubuntu user perform a typical installation. The windows user will start by downloading the package form the internet or popping in the CD into the drive. From there he will have to typically go through following steps:
- Look at some generic “This installer will guide you through the process…” screen
- Agree to an EULA
- Pick program components to be installed
- Confirm he wants to install the application in C:\Program Files\The Application
- Decide if he wants shortcuts to be added to Start Menu and Quick Launch
- Review the summary of chosen settings
- Stare at the progress bar
- Confirm that he wants to run the application and/or read the README file
- Start using the application
Note that I omitted the common steps of entering the product key and online activation to keep things fair. Let’s assume the windows user was installing a multi-platform open source application – something like Firefox or something similarly popular and ubiquitous. To install the same application a typical Ubuntu user would just open Synaptic and find it on the package list (equivalent of finding and downloading the package from the web) and then:
- Click on the Install button
- Stare at the progress bar/scrolling text
- Run and start using the application
What is the difference here? I mean other than one system uses a repository and other downloadable packages – that bit is actually inessential here. The major difference is that in Ubuntu the application is silently installed in the background without asking the user any stupid questions. And believe it or not, this is much more user friendly way of handling installation than a pretty looking wizard.
The average user wants the default components to be installed in the default directory with the default set of options and shortcuts. Think back on recent windows applications which you have installed – how often do you change the default installer options to something else? I typically just leave the default settings unless the app ships with annoying add-ons like toolbars or other adware and let’s you opt out of them by un-checking a box or two in the installer. Other than that, I typically just click next.
Tons of applications these days provide a silent install option that can be invoked by passing a special command line parameter to the installer binary (typically something like /S, /Q or –silent). This performs the whole installation in the background choosing all the default settings in a way simillar to that used by apt and Synaptic on Ubuntu. But the default installer makes us jump through multiple hoops instead. Why is that? Why can’t the silent install be the default option and the detailed wizard be invoked by some command line switch?
Usually people who would want to take advantage of the customization options in the installer are power users who could easily figure out how to trigger this hidden mode. The rest of us would simply hit a button, wait few seconds and then simply enjoy the application.
It seems that folks in Linux and Apple camps always knew this. Ubuntu for example only uses wizards for configuring complex pieces of software – like the OS itself. In the windows world however, the installation wizard is the king for apps big and small. It is sometimes quite ridiculous – for example, it is not uncommon to see a 2-3 MB application composed of a single executable requiring 6 or 7 step installation process. I know because I created such installers myself. Most of us are so used to them we hardly even notice them, but if you sit a complete novice in front of the computer and tell him/her to install some software every extra step they have to take is another occasion for doubt and panic.
And no – I’m not making this up. I’ve been actually asked by coworkers to stand there and watch them install this or that application. They would click the installer, hit the first question and look back at me. I would nod and they would proceed to the next one. Most of them would then apologize for taking my time and explain they were simply afraid they would mess something up if they answered one of the questions wrong. They just didn’t realize all they had to do was to click next repeatedly.
Adobe already figured this out. When you go to install their PDF Reader app these days all you need to do is to clikc on the Install button on their page. Then an ActiveX or XUL window pops up and displays a progress bar. There are no questions asked, no configuration options to be chosen. The reader is just installed and then the progress bar disappears letting the user know his application is ready for use. It’s clear to me that these guys got it. They did the usability research and they noticed that most people just click next all the time. And if overwhelming majority picks the default settings, then why even ask? Just install the app with most common configuration and provide mechanism for power users to circumvent it.
[tags]installation, installing, apt, synaptic, windows, usability[/tags]